extinct

Wildlife Wednesday: The American Parrots

Wildlife Wednesday: The American Parrots

We don’t usually think of the United States as a place where you can find parrots. We think of them as tropical birds, flying around, squawking, and eating fruit in a lush humid rain forest far away. However, this country has parrots, here and there. At one time, we had at least 2 native parrots within what is now the borders of the U.S., one of them being common and widespread across 2/3 of the country. Currently, we are left with only a few introduced species scattered across various small areas. And so, today, we have a look at a few of these species of American parrots, past and present.

At one time, believe it or not, we had a common and colorful parrot, found across the central and Eastern United States, ranging from Southern New England, west to Colorado, and south to Texas along the Gulf Coast to the tip of Florida. The Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) could be found in temperate and sub-tropical areas of the country, and was the Northernmost parrot in the Americas. They ate mostly large seeds and small fruits. Its thought that their habit of eating poisonous cocklebur seeds may have made the birds themselves poisonous, protecting them from predators. These parakeets were gregarious, living in groups of 200-300 birds. They nested in old hollow trees, using species such as Sycamore and Bald Cypress, in old growth forests, along the edges of wetlands.

We could have seen this bird right here in Houston, if you had been here 150 years ago. Sometime in the mid 1800s though, the birds began to decline, and by 1918, the last known bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo… America’s gorgeous, gregarious, and relatively common parrots were extinct. The cause of extinction is thought to be a combination of factors that came along with European settlement and increasing population across the country. Logging of old growth forests and over-hunting for the millinery trade (feather’s for women’s hats)  were the driving forces that lead to losing this beautiful bird.

Another bird that we have lost in the United States is the endangered Thick-billed Parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha), which thankfully still persists in the Sierra Madres of North-western Mexico. This large green and red parrot was once found in mixed oak and conifer forests in Arizona and New Mexico, and wandered occasionally to Utah and west Texas. Deforestation, general habitat disturbance, and over-hunting lead to dramatic declines, and the last reports of the birds in the U.S. (in SE Arizona) were in the mid 1930s. In the 1980s, the government attempted to reintroduce them to SE Arizona, but dramatic changes in habitats and intense human settlement doomed the project to failure. Most of the introduced birds fell victim to predators or left for Mexico, and the project of bringing them back to the U.S. was abandoned.

Today, parrots present in the United States are mostly introduced species, released and escaped pets. Here in Houston, as well as in NY, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and other urban areas across the Eastern half of the country, Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) aka “Quaker Parrots” have taken a foothold. This is our most common introduced parrot, and it fills some of the niches of the extinct Carolina Parakeet, feeding on seeds and grain, and nesting in large colonies. Their huge group nests can be seen in power line towers around the city, including right here in Bellaire. They can be seen feeding at bird feeders and on lawns nearby, as well as on Green Ash seeds here at the Nature Center.

Besides Monk Parakeets, and the occasional escaped Budgie, released Red-masked parakeets live in San Francisco, and various species of Amazon parrots live in South Texas and Southern Florida. Red-crowned parrots and Green Parakeets nest in the most Southern parts of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, though its not clear if they are released pets, or whether Mexican populations have begun to creep slowly into the U.S.

Though you can no longer see Carolinas or Thick-bills in the U.S., you can see Monk Parakeets here in the park, in the trees in front of Whole Foods in West University, and in the power line right of way between Newcastle and Weslayan on Bellaire, on warmer days. If you get a chance, get out and experience these delightful little parrots for yourself.

Thanks for joining us, and see you in the park!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

If you’d like to know more about local birds, or birds int he park, feel free to email: eduran@naturediscoverycenter.org

images: Illustration by John James Audubon (1833); Carolina Parakeet – James St. John | Wiki; Thick-billed Parrot – Tim Lenz | Wiki; Monk Parakeets – Tamara K. | Wiki; Red-crowned Parrot – Roger Moore | Wiki

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Wildlife Wednesday: Lost Animals of the Coastal Prairie

Wildlife Wednesday: Lost Animals of the Coastal Prairie

There was a time, before European settlement of this part of Texas, when the area in and around the nature center would have been tall grass prairie as far as you looked. Most tall trees would have occurred on a few raised areas or along the banks of bayous. Today, 99% of this ecosystem is gone, and along with it, many of the animals that once inhabited this region. Though you may know that large herds of American Bison once roamed this area, and that morning bird song would have been deafeningly loud, you may not know about some of the predators that once prowled the tall grasses of our Coastal Prairies. Today, we’ll have a look at 4 lost species.

While most people think of Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) as creatures of Central and South American rainforests, these medium sized predators actually inhabit a variety of habitats, including deserts and grasslands, and once roamed our prairies. Today we have an extremely small population of possibly around 50 in the Southern tip of Texas, but they once ranged up the Texas coast all the way to Easternmost Louisiana. These spotted cats were driven to extinction in the state through overhunting and destruction of habitat, but have been reestablished in in the Lower Rio Grande Valley through conservation efforts by landowners, environmental groups, and government agencies, like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Jaguars (Panthera onca) are another rainforest cat that is actually more variable than many people realize, and may live in a variety of ecosystems, beyond just rainforest. Like ocelots, jaguars once ranged our prairies and bottomland hardwood forests along the gulf coastal part of the state to the Eastern edge of Louisiana. Jaguars were killed off in Texas in the early 1900s, and have not returned to the state since, but they are slowly reestablishing themselves in Southern Arizona. These large powerful predators need a lot of land to roam in, and like ocelots, need to be able to roam back and forth across the border with Mexico, in order to maintain viable hunting grounds and territories.

Louisiana Black Bears (Ursus americanus luteolus) used to range all through East Texas and down the Gulf Coast to Northern Mexico. By the early 1900s, this subspecies of the Black Bear had been made extinct in the state of Texas through overhunting and destruction of habitat. Over the last few decades, conservation and reintroduction efforts in Louisiana have increased the numbers of these endangered bears, and they are slowly reappearing in East Texas forests. We have also recently seen Mexican Black Bears reintroducing themselves into West Texas, in and around the Big Bend area.

Though we are accustomed to seeing coyotes in this part of Texas, historically, they ranged much further to the West of us, and our native wild dog in this region of Texas was the Red Wolf (Canis rufus). These critically endangered predators were not only hunted to extinction in the state of Texas, but are almost functionally extinct in the wild, only living in parts of the Southeastern U.S. with help from conservation organizations and government agencies. It is not clear that this species will be able to escape total extinction in the wild, as they still face extreme pressure from poaching and habitat degradation in the few areas in which they still occur outside of zoos and assurance colonies.

While its a bit sad to think about, its important to know what we’ve lost, and what we could have again, if we wanted to reestablish our native ecosystems to a more historically natural state. Well, I hope you enjoyed our brief look at a few species we once had roaming the land that the Nature Center now occupies.

Thanks for joining us, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs via: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Jesse McCarty | Flickr CC

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