Tag Archives: Bald Eagle

America’s lost parakeet remains poignant symbol of need to protect our birds

A century ago this week, a caged bird died in Cincinnati, Ohio. However, this was not simply a case of an untimely death of a beloved family pet. Instead, that bird represented the last of its kind.

The bird belonged to the Psittacidae, a family of tropical birds that includes macaws, parrots, caiques, amazons and parrotlets. The bird, a male named Incas, was the last captive Carolina parakeet (the only species of parrot native to the eastern United States) in existence when he died at the Cincinnati Zoo on Feb. 21, 1918, in the same aviary where Martha, the last passenger pigeon, had died four years earlier.

 

The demise of Incas came about a year after the death of his mate, who had been named Lady Jane by their zookeepers. In a time before the forces of social media and round-the-clock mass media, the death of Incas likely went unnoticed by other than a few people.

Carolina parakeets, John James Audubon

 

If few noticed the passing of Incas at the time, surely today we can mourn the loss of one of the most abundant birds to ever roam the continent. Few people even realize that North America was once home to its own species of parakeet. A few individuals — all that remained of once massive flocks of colorful, noisy native parakeets — made it into the 20th century. Despite the death of Incas in 1918, the Carolina parakeet as a species was not officially declared extinct until 1939. It was a classic example of going out with a whimper, not a bang, when the entire population of the Carolina parakeet crashed suddenly and for reasons still not fully understood.

For instance, large flocks of these birds still flew free until the final years of the 1800s, but in the first decade of the 1900s, these flocks disappeared. The only other native parrot — the thick-billed parrot of the American southwest — no longer flies north of the Mexican border. An attempt to re-introduce this parrot to Arizona in the 1980s ended in disappointing failure. Of course, thick-billed parrots still fly free south of the border.

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It would be wonderful to have native parrots still flying free. The extinct Carolina parakeet ranged throughout the eastern United States, including the states of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. These parrots strayed on occasion as far north as Wisconsin and New York and ranged as far west as Colorado. Florida provided a stronghold for this colorful species, which also made its last stand in the Sunshine State. The last flock of thirteen wild birds was documented in Florida in 1904.

These birds have attracted attention since the arrival of the first Europeans. English explorer George Peckham mentioned the presence of Carolina parakeets in an account he wrote of his 1583 expedition in Florida. In the 1700s, English naturalist Mark Catesby described the species for science in a two-volume work titled “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.”

The parrots were evidently numerous, often encountered in large flocks. Few early naturalists attempted to properly study them, resulting in a sad dearth of knowledge. Much of what we do know is quite intriguing. The diet of these parakeets made them toxic, as early naturalist and artist John James Audubon observed when cats sickened and died after dining on fresh parakeets. One of the parakeet’s favorite foods — cockleburs —imparted the toxicity into the flesh of the birds.

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Alexander Wilson

An unusual empathy and loyalty may have contributed to the downfall of the species. Early naturalist Alexander Wilson wrote of an 1808 encounter with a large flock of these parakeets. After noting how the bird covered almost every twig in a tree, Wilson raised a gun and shot several of the birds. Some of the shot birds were only wounded. “The whole flock swept repeatedly around their prostrate companions, and again settled on a low tree, within twenty yards of the spot where I stood,” Wilson wrote. “At each successive discharge, although showers of them fell, yet the affection of the survivors seemed rather to increase.”

The same tendency to rally to the side of fallen companions made Carolina parakeets easy targets for people capturing them in the late 1800s for the exotic pet trade. This flocking together and unwillingness to abandon wounded members made the birds easy targets when farmers shot them. It certainly didn’t help matters that the parakeets were also hunted for their brightly colored feathers, which were used to adorn women’s hats. It remains unclear what exactly annihilated a once abundant bird, although it was likely a combination of all of the aforementioned factors.

Changes to the landscape encouraged the parakeets to shift their diet from weed seeds to cultivated fruit, which won them the ire of farmers. Logging of extensive forests may have impacted their numbers, too. Experts have even theorized that the parakeets fell victim to some sort of epidemic spread by domestic fowl.

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Painting by Alexander Wilson of a Carolina Parakeet.

If only the dawning of a more environmentally aware age had arrived slightly sooner, the Carolina parakeet might have been saved along with species like the bald eagle and whooping crane. This native parakeet, if it had endured, might today be considered an ordinary backyard bird jostling for space at your feeders with birds like blue jays and purple finches.

Incas and his fellow Carolina parakeets may be gone, but they’ve not been forgotten. Their story is a reminder of why it remains crucial to protect all birds. Let that devotion to preservation be the legacy of America’s lost parakeets.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although protections came too late to help the Carolina Parakeet, laws like the Endangered Species Act did save birds like the Bald Eagle from possible extinction.

 

 

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Osprey’s fishy diet sets it apart from most other raptors

Jim and Tammie Kroll emailed me about a very interesting bird observation on the Virginia Creeper Trail last month.

They saw a bald eagle along the Virginia Creeper Trail on May 14. “It was between Alvarado and Damascus,” Jim wrote in the email. We got to see it at two different locations and watched it around 15 minutes at each location.”

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Photo by Jim and Tammie Kroll • This adult bald eagle was seen along the Virginia Creeper Trail.

He added that they talked to a woman who informed them that she also sees an eagle in the same area on the Creeper Trail.

The Krolls also shared a photo of the eagle. I’m always glad that to hear that observing the nation’s official bird is no longer a rare occurrence in the region. While I haven’t seen any bald eagles this year, I have observed a raptor that share many characteristics with them.

Ospreys, also known by the common name of “fish hawk,” occur worldwide. Ospreys migrate through the region in spring and fall, making sightings more likely along some lakes and larger rivers. I see them even more often when I travel to South Carolina, where these medium-sized raptors are common along the coast and in wetlands.

Some recently published books provide insight into the lives of bald eagles and ospreys. Teena Ruark Gorrow and Craig A. Koppie are the authors of the recent book, The DC Eagle Cam Project: Mr President and First Lady. This book profiles a celebrity pair of eagles that have nested for the past few years in U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

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Front cover of a book by Teena Ruark Gorrow and Craig A. Koppie featuring photos of a nesting season in the life of a family of ospreys.

Gorrow and Koppie have also written other books together, including one offering a pictorial journey through an osprey nesting season. Titled “Inside an Osprey’s Nest,” this book provides an account of two fostered osprey chicks that receive new parents in a heartwarming, real-life account of a family of ospreys associated with the Chesapeake Conservancy Osprey Nest Cam.

During a recent interview, Gorrow shared that bald eagles and ospreys share more than a few things in common.

“The bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is America’s national bird and symbol,” Gorrow said. “It is a large raptor, or bird of prey, found only in North America. Also a raptor, the osprey, Pandion Haliaetus, is a large hawk found on every continent across the globe except Antarctica.”

Like the American bald eagle, Gorrow noted that ospreys experienced devastating health effects and reproductive failures from widespread human use of dangerous pesticides like DDT.

“By the 1970s, population numbers had plummeted to catastrophic levels for both eagles and ospreys,” she said. “Federal actions were put into place which imposed migratory bird protection and banned DDT. These measures, along with the work of dedicated scientists, conservationists and citizens, have helped these magnificent raptors recover.”

Gorrow said that when selecting a nest site, bald eagles and ospreys identify an area near water with a plentiful food supply and nearby trees. “With diets consisting mostly of fish, both require foraging areas rich in fishery resources,” she said.
During nesting season, ospreys and eagles are seen as competitors, even though food is abundant in the Chesapeake Bay region. “Bald eagles are opportunists and will usually pirate fish prey from osprey when given the chance,” Gorrow said.

Nesting season for eagles begins earlier than ospreys, so they have the upper hand in defending territories. “Eagle pairs in the Chesapeake Bay area usually lay eggs in mid-February, while the ospreys return from their southern wintering destinations around mid-March,” Gorrow said. “Ospreys generally build nests in March or April and lay eggs soon after.”

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this work of art featuring an osprey with a fish held in its talons.

The two large raptors also demonstrate other distinct preferences.

“Bald eagles utilize living and dead (known as snags) trees as nest sites,” she said. “Eagles rarely tolerate humans near their nests.

“On the other hand, ospreys are relatively tolerant of humans and sometimes build nests on private pavilions or docks beside waterfront properties,” Gorrow continued. “They seem to favor artificial structures and often construct over-water nests on the steel supports of bridges, channel markers, navigational buoys, fishing piers, jetties, and manmade nesting platforms. Ospreys sometimes choose snags with an open treetop or claim tall, artificial structures resembling dead trees, such as towers, utility poles, television antennas, road signs and stadium lights. They also sometimes nest on chimneys and rooftops on uninhabited buildings.”

A more in-depth glance into the lives of ospreys is available in the book “Inside an Osprey’s Nest,” which retails for $24.99. When purchased through the Chesapeake Conservancy at http://www.chesapeakeconservancy.org, $10 from every purchase supports conservation programs along the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The book is also available at http://www.schifferbooks.com, Amazon.com and other booksellers.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • An osprey perches in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Unmistakable majesty of bald eagle imminently suitable for America’s official bird

 

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                  The Bald Eagle’s name originates with the adult bird’s all-white head that so contrasts with the dark body.

In addition to an abundance of red, white and blue decorations, the recent celebration of the Fourth of July likely featured various images and depictions of the bald eagle, which has served as the official bird of the United States of America since the latter decades of the 18th century.

During a trip last month to Pawleys Island, South Carolina, I saw a single bald eagle. I haven’t observed any bald eagles in the region so far this year, but I did monitor via nest cams the progress of a couple of eagle pairs as they raised their chicks. The resurgence of the once-endangered bald eagle in the lower 48 states has been a laudable accomplishment that all Americans should view with pride.

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Artist and naturalist John James Audubon knew, as did Benjamin Franklin, that the Bald Eagle frequently scavenged its meals. Audubon’s painting of an eagle with a large catfish doesn’t clearly indicate whether the bird caught the fish or scavenged an already dead one.

I thought that readers would be better prepared to celebrate Independence Day with some interesting information on our national bird, the American bald eagle, which officially became the national emblem in 1782 when the great seal of the United States was adopted. Although Benjamin Franklin famously expressed reservations about making the bald eagle our national bird, in hindsight it’s clear that Americans made the right choice.

Despite elevating this native bird to such lofty status, we have not always been kind to the bald eagle. We allowed habitat destruction and toxic pesticides to bring this eagle to the brink of extinction. With well-deserved protection, however, the bald eagle rebounded, and the Department of Interior finally took the eagle off the threatened species list on June 28, 2007.

The bald eagle has been more frequently observed by birders in Northeast Tennessee in recent years. Some of the region’s rivers and lakes are good places to look for bald eagles, particularly in the fall and winter. A few lakes even regularly host nesting bald eagles. I’ve observed bald eagles in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                            A Bald Eagle perched in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a member of a genus known as Haliaeetus, or sea eagles. There are seven other living species in the genus: the white-bellied sea eagle, Sanford’s sea eagle, African fish eagle, Madagascar fish eagle, Pallas’s fish eagle, white-tailed eagle and Steller’s sea eagle. The eagles are incredibly majestic birds and important symbols of the value of natural places and creatures.

Steller’s sea eagle is named for the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who is renowned for his work as a pioneer in the natural history of Alaska. The 49th state to join the union is also the stronghold for the bald eagle. On occasion, Steller’s sea eagle has strayed into U.S. territory at Alaskan locations including the Pribilof Islands and Kodiak Island. Steller’s sea eagle is bigger than the bald eagle. In fact, it is the largest member of the Haliaeetus genus of eagles, making this bird one of the largest raptors in the entire world.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    The Steller’s Jay is named in honor of German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller.

The naturalist for which the bird is named has also been honored by the naming of other creatures, including Steller’s sea lion and the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow, as well as several birds, including Steller’s jay and Steller’s eider. He was the first naturalist to describe several creatures native to Alaska, although two of these, the sea cow (a relative of the manatees) and the spectacled cormorant, are now extinct. The latter, which was the largest cormorant to ever live, is a particularly sad story. These cormorants were basically eaten into extinction, exploited as a food source by sailors and fur traders. The last spectacled cormorants perished around 1850 on a Russian island off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Fortunately, we have proven a little more far-sighted in our treatment of the bald eagle, which was removed from the U.S. government’s list of endangered species on July 12, 1995, and transferred to the list of threatened species. In 2007, bald eagle numbers had rebounded enough in the Lower 48 states to also allow for the bald eagle to be removed from the list of threatened species.

The bald eagle, however, is not considered closely related to eagles in the genus Aquila, or “true eagles,” in which the golden eagle is included. North America’s other eagle is a very rare visitor to the region. The golden eagle is primarily a bird of the western United States while the bald eagle ranges widely across the United States as well as into Canada and Mexico. Other true eagles include the Spanish imperial eagle, tawny eagle and wedge-tailed eagle.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Bald Eagle basks in sunshine from a perch in a tree along the Watauga River.

Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck and tail; and yellow feet and bill. Juvenile bald eagles are a mixture of brown and white and reach full maturity in four to five years. The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches in length, slightly larger than the male, with a wingspan that ranges from 72 to 90 inches. Bald eagles weigh from 10 to 14 pounds. The bald eagle’s diet consists mostly of fish, some of which are scavenged, but these large raptors are also capable of preying on everything from muskrats and ducks to rabbits and snakes. The bald eagle will also feed on carrion.

Two-hundred and thirty-four years after it was declared an official emblem of the United States, the bald eagle has become an instantly recognizable American symbol. Long may the eagles fly.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.