pest, cocklebur is highly toxic. Pain and death are the final
irritations for many animals that dare to ingest it. Somehow
though, Carolina parakeets were immune to the toxic e=ects
and relished the seeds like candy, possibly concentrating the
chemicals in their own bodies. Some early naturalists reported
cats dying after eating Carolina parakeet entrails.
Parrots—a family that includes parakeets, macaws, and
cockatoos—are among the prodigies of birds. They have a
sense of themselves, of others, and the environment around
them that likely extends beyond instinct. Being a parrot means
being a thinker who relishes the company of friends and kin —
sociality is as much a part of who you are as your plumage.
Parrots care. As with us, the long-term parental nurturing and
constant preening and feeding exchanges foster a sense of
community. That’s who parrots are, and who Conuropsis carolinensis was—an evolutionarily complex, stunningly beautiful
creation whose time was cut short, in part, by individuals not
so deeply feeling or thinking.
CHOOSE WILDLIFE CONSERVATION as a profession and you’re
surrounded by loss—marooned on an island of dwindling
hopes surrounded by past practices, current lack of care, and
emerging policies that can drive the conservationist into psychosis. It can be an unhealthy undertaking that drains one’s
reserves of hope.
My o=ice walls are covered with portraits of birds gone
past existence. At a glance I can see ivory-billed woodpeckers,
Bachman’s warblers, passenger pigeons, heath hens, great
auks, and Labrador ducks. It’s an ornithological pantheon of
loss. Some Gone Birds, as I call them, especially the ones that
would’ve inhabited my southern home place, have cast spells
that I can’t shake. As a result, I’ve carved, collected, and commissioned facsimiles of these birds. I have wooden ivory-bills
in abundance and at least a half-dozen passenger pigeons scattered around. There are even a few Bachman’s warblers skulking about. It’s a fantastical aviary that serves to sate a desire to
un-doom the wondrous loveliness.
Mourning Gone Birds isn’t just a dive into a worry hole, it’s a
dirty crawl into a deep and sandy pit. For each species that is somehow recovered from oblivion—a bald eagle, for instance—more
seem to tumble back in. Whooping cranes, Kirtland’s warblers,
Gunnison sage-grouse, California condors, and many more teeter
on the crater’s edge of Almost Gone. Beyond the birds, I mourn
the loss of places too, because landscapes degrade and fall into the
pit along with the birds. Longleaf pine forests, tallgrass prairies,
and salt marshes shrink daily to mere fragments of once expansive swaths. I mourn the Gone Birds and the landscapes they
inhabited because the whole of all of us becomes compromised in
the loss of some of us.
There are fewer Carolina parakeets in my aviary than any other
Gone Bird, though. I have a print or two — and even one life-sized
figure fashioned from an artfully contrived kaleidoscopic conglomeration of pipe-cleaners, a commissioned request from a young
friend. That I have fewer parakeets than the other Gone Birds is
odd, because for all the birds I’ve seen alive or dead, mourned and
marveled over, all fall behind Conuropsis carolinensis in reverence.
Thoughts of the extinct bird hang as a gnawing remembering I
can’t shed, a haint of times past. The idea of a parakeet’s flour-ishes decorating a bald cypress like some sort of feathered ornament grabs me by the heart in a way the others don’t. There are
no known recordings of the bird’s voice and only a few black and
white photographs of birds kept as pets. Ghosted from existence,
it sits now only in memory and museum trays.
Sometimes I seek the validation of what was in natural history
museums. Behind what’s stu=ed and posed for the public facade
of museum displays and dioramas, there are the museums’ back
rooms and basement catacombs where rows and stacks of dead
things lie side by side. Here, the empty-eye socketed souls of creatures killed and collected for science are kept cool and clean to
reduce the chances for decay or insect infestation, and are essential tools for the scientist and for conservation.
A few years back, I visited the Georgia Museum of Natural
History when there were several Gone Birds on display. It just
so happened that at the same time, painter Philip Juras had a
number of his relict southern landscapes — portraits of southern
river valleys before they were dammed to slowing and scenes
of old-growth cypress swamps—hanging around the displays
of dead birds. I was drawn into a wormhole that featured the
extinct birds, which seemed ready to fly back into the landscapes
where they had once lived. There was a feather-worn ivory-billed
woodpecker frozen forever in pursuit of a nonexistent grub, and
a passenger pigeon perched in loneliness, brainlessly wondering how billions became none. And then there was the Carolina
parakeet, which pulled at me with a mesmerizing gravitas. Yes,
Humans have always looked
skyward for inspiration, imagining
themselves unbound by gravity or
the weight of oppression. Flight