Historic Carolina Parakeet
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association
Springtime has come once again to Monroe County. The trees’ leaves are budding, the flowers are blooming, and the birds have returned. One beautiful bird, however, has not appeared in spring for almost one hundred years. This small, brightly-colored parrot-like bird, named the Carolina parakeet, once called Eastern North America, including Monroe County, its home.
North America’s only native parrot, the Carolina parakeet was roughly the size of a bluejay. The bird had a bright yellow head with red and orange coloring around the beak and eyes. The body was a deep green that faded to a blue-green color at the wing tips and tail.
Before its extinction, the Carolina parakeet was well documented. From 1804 through 1806, President Thomas Jefferson ordered Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to travel across the United States. One of Lewis and Clark’s missions was to document all natural flora and fauna in the then uncharted west. Lewis recorded having "observed a great number of parrot queets" during their travels.
A fraktur by artist Friedrich Krebs, with images of the now-extinct Carolina parakeet.
The Carolina parakeet was also documented through art. Images of the bird were common occurrences on Pennsylvania German fraktur. Fraktur is a decorative calligraphy styled after the old German Gothic or black-letter alphabet and now includes all illuminated drawings. Fraktur was popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the art form is commonly found in the form of birth and baptismal certificates, known as Geburtsschein and Taufscheine, respectively.
Done on paper, the hand drawn and hand colored fraktur is considered an important form of folk art in which each piece is unique. The art of fraktur began as a record keeping technique in Germany in the 16th century and was brought to America by German immigrants. Usually educated men, such as school masters or ministers, were proficient in the art of fraktur and were able to supply German-American immigrants with traditional documentation of birth, baptism and marriage certificates.
In addition to the written information of the fraktur documents, folk motifs were adorned the pages. Tulips, angels, hearts and birds, including the Carolina parakeet, were common decoration on fraktur. The parakeet represented the soul and was seen as a liaison between heaven and earth. Because of this religious belief, this bird motif was always placed at the top of the fraktur.
Fraktur was not always religious in nature and other examples of fraktur include poems, stories, and children’s alphabet books.
The Carolina parakeet was driven to extinction through direct extermination by humans. The birds once lived in huge flocks that destroyed crops, especially corn. Farmers regarded them as a nuisance animal and killed them in large numbers. Fashionable women also desired the beautiful and colorful feathers to adorn their hats.
Unfortunately, the birds were easily hunted. Because they liked corn and because they congregated in large flocks, many birds could be lured to an area with corn. Soon after the first were shot, more would return to the lure and be killed.
The last Carolina parakeet died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The bird was officially declared extinct in 1939 by the American Ornithologists’ Union.