02 May 2013

Status of Carolina Parakeet Specimens Collected in 1856 on the Missouri River

Ross Silcock was coauthor of this article, which was originally intended for publication in the Nebraska Bird Review.

The colorful and iconic Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) historically occurred in southeast Nebraska at habitats along the ever-changing Missouri River. There is, however, little information on its distribution or abundance (Sharpe et al. 2001), though it apparently was a non-migratory species that reached the northwestern edge of its range in the lower Missouri River valley in southeast Nebraska. Myron Swenk (1934) summarized the information available to him, with updated information published by McKinley (1965, 1978). Its status was also discussed based upon the records previously published (Ducey 1988, 2000), indicating that it was extirpated about 1875 from the Nebraska region.

A consideration of historic notations indicates that flocks of parakeets wandered throughout the wooded Missouri River valley, with the available records indicating they nested on McKissock Island (Swenk 1934). Parakeets apparently occurred on occasion at least as far west on the Platte River as the mouth of the Loup River (McKinley 1965). Thomas Say, the naturalist with a U.S. Government expedition of 1819-1820, and his assistant Titian Ramsey Peale spent the winter of 1819-1820 along the Missouri River at Engineer Cantonment, at the northern fringe of present-day northeast Douglas County. Carolina Parakeets were observed by Peale from early December through mid-February, despite temperatures reaching 22 below zero at times (Wilson and Bonaparte 1808).

History for this species indicates there were at one time 11 specimens collected 24-25 April 1856 at McKissock (Bald) Island by Ferdinand V. Hayden for the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution), during the Stephen Long Expedition. This location is currently a part of the state of Nebraska but lies on the east side of the Missouri River in Atchison County, Missouri. The original 11 specimens were numbered USNM 4608-4618 (pers. comm. Christopher Milensky).

McKinley (1965) was able to locate only three extant Nebraska specimens. USNM 4614 resides in the Smithsonian Institution and its status as the only specimen there from Nebraska was confirmed in a letter from Bonnie Farmer (Bray et al. 1986). According to McKinley (1965), the only other extant Nebraska specimens are a female (USNM 4613) now in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (re-numbered ANSP 35381) and a female (USNM 4609) sent to Henry Bryant at Harvard in 1856 (pers. comm. Christopher Milensky)

More recently, however, information provided by James Dean, ornithological collection manager at the Smithsonian Institution, in February 2010 indicated that three of the remaining specimens collected by Hayden were distributed as follows: NMNH (sic; apparently 4609) went to Harvard University (re-numbered MCZ 43215), NMNH 4610 was sent to “a French scientist” in the 1850s, and NMNH 4612 went to the University of Michigan (re-numbered UMMZ 20385). Thus there is some information on five of the 11 specimens originally collected on McKissock (Bald) Island; the others are unaccounted for (Christopher Milensky, pers. comm.). The available information may be summarized as follows:

4609 was sent to a Henry Bryant in 1856 and resides at Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where it is re-numbered MCZ 43215. This is the oldest specimen among the 119 Carolina Parekeet specimens which are a part of this collection.

Bryant was born in Boston, and graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1843. In 1847 he was forced to abandon medicine because of ill health and turned to natural history, especially ornithology. Bryant was a member of the Megatherium Club a group of young naturalists at the newly formed Smithsonian Institution in the early 1860s. He appears in a group photograph which included other famous men of bird collecting: Robert Kennicott, Henry Ulke, and William Stimpson.

4610 was sent to a French scientist in the 1850s. According to Christopher Milensky (pers. comm.), the "French scientist" was Jules Verreaux of the Paris Museum.

4612 was sent to the University of Michigan, where it is still present (UMMZ 20385).

4613 is at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia (ANSP 35381).

The specimen label data with this specimen lists Bald Island, Missouri and Yellowstone River as locale, and state as Montana; this appears to be an obvious error. This incongruity has been conveyed via email to the curators of the collection in order to correct any errors.

4614 continues in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History.

This former resident parakeet of the Missouri River valley in Nebraska was vividly known by the specimens collected by naturalist Hayden, at a time when they flourished in suitable habitat along the river. Thankfully, due to written chronicles and specimen records, lore of the Carolina Parakeet can still be enjoyed and considered decades after its actual existence.

Literature cited:

Bray, T.E., B.K. Padelford, and W.R. Silcock (1986). The birds of Nebraska: a critically evaluated list. Bellevue, NE. Published by the authors.

Ducey, J.E. (1988). Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Omaha, NE. Simmons-Boardman Books.

Ducey, J.E. (2000). Birds of the untamed west. Omaha, NE. Making History.

McKinley, D. (1965). The Carolina Parakeet in the upper Missouri and Mississippi River valleys. Auk 82: 215-226.

McKinley, D. (1978). The Carolina Parakeet in the West and additional references. Neb. Bird Review 46: 3-7.

Sharpe, R.S., Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen (2001). Birds of Nebraska. Lincoln, NE. Univ. Nebraska Press.

Swenk, M.H. (1934). The interior Carolina Paroquet as a Nebraska bird. Neb. Bird Review 2: 55-59.

Wilson, A., and C.L. Bonaparte (1808). American ornithology; or, the natural history of the birds of the United States. Volume I. Philadelphia, PA. Porter and Coates.