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Museum curator’s new research traces history of extinct Carolina parakeet

Sunday, May 13, 2012
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Jeremy Kirchman, curator of birds at the New York State Museum in Albany, stands behind a display with two Carolina Parakeets in the main lobby of the museum.
Jeremy Kirchman, curator of birds at the New York State Museum in Albany, stands behind a display with two Carolina Parakeets in the main lobby of the museum.

— Once upon a time, New York was home to a brightly colored bird called the Carolina parakeet — the only parrot species native to North America.

But by 1918 the Carolina parakeet was extinct, joining the ranks of long-gone bird species such as the passenger pigeon.

Those eager to see what the bird once looked like can visit the New York State Museum, where two stuffed Carolina parakeets are on display. They are part of a small exhibit in the museum’s lobby highlighting new research on the bird conducted by the museum’s curator of ornithology, Jeremy Kirchman.

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Kirchman’s findings appear in an article in the April issue of The Auk, a quarterly journal published by the American Ornithologists’ Union.

In the paper he traces the evolutionary family tree of the Carolina parakeet and reports that the bird shared a distant ancestor with parakeets and macaws that live in the tropics of South America and that the bird colonized North America 5.5 million years ago — about two million years before North America and South America were joined together by the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow strip of land that connects the two continents.

The New York State Museum has an extensive collection of extinct birds, including four Carolina parakeets, as well as an ancient DNA laboratory. Kirchman extracted small amounts of DNA from the museum’s stuffed birds and two Carolina parakeets from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

His research partner and study co-author, New Mexico State University assistant professor of biology Timothy Wright, collected DNA from about 50 species of living birds. Most of these species were from South and Central America and the Caribbean because Kirchman suspected birds from those areas were more likely to be related to the Carolina parakeet.

Extracting DNA from long-dead animals is no easy feat.

“It’s rare for someone to be able to get DNA out of something that’s extinct,” Kirchman said. “As soon as an animal dies, its DNA starts to degrade.”

The Carolina parakeet had an orange and yellow head and a green body and wings. It lived in swampy wetlands and river valleys and its range stretched from the Ohio Valley to the Gulf of Mexico and as far north as Albany and the Great Lakes. Kirchman said the bird was likely migratory and retreated to warmer climates in the winter.

The last captive Carolina parakeet died at the Cincinnati Zoo, while the last wild parakeet was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida.

Extinction

Kirchman said that researching extinct animals “forces us to talk about extinction.”

Wright agreed.

“The Carolina parakeet was one of relatively few mainland species to go extinct,” said Wright, an expert on parrot relationships who met Kirchman when the two worked at Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. “There have been a lot of bird extinctions but they typically happened on islands. … If we understand why historical extinction occurred, it can help us prepare for future extinctions.”

Rapid decline of native bird species such as the passenger pigeon led to the enactment of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which made it unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell migratory birds native to North America. But it was too late for the Carolina parakeet.

Kirchman said it’s unclear exactly what caused the bird’s extinction but habitat destruction and fashion are the likely culprits. People began to develop the river valleys where the birds tended to live, sometimes logging the trees along the banks. The birds’ last stronghold was Southern swamps, probably because such places were less habitable. The birds were also targeted by hunters for their colorful feathers, a popular feature on women’s hats. And they were regarded as crop pests because they ate fruit, which prompted farmers to try to kill them.

Adding to the birds’ troubles was the fact that it traveled in large flocks, which made it easier for hunters to kill large numbers of them at once, and that it was a mobbing species, which meant that if one bird was shot, the other birds would mob the shooter, Kirchman said.

Prior to coming to the New York State Museum, Kirchman’s main area of research concerned rails — a bird species often found on wetlands and on islands in the ocean that have short, rounded wings. Many of the island species of rails are unable to fly.

“Because island ecosystems are so fragile, they’ve been hit hard by extinction,” Kirchman explained. Many of these extinctions occurred after humans arrived, bringing rats, dogs and pigs with them. These animals had a damaging effect on birds, in some cases causing an irreversible decline.

Unique career

Kirchman’s interest in rails led to an interest in using DNA analysis techniques to study extinct birds, and when he was hired by the New York State Museum in 2006 he began trying to develop research projects that would focus on bird species that were native to New York. Eventually he decided to undertake a study of the Carolina parakeet and contacted Wright, an assistant professor in biology at New Mexico State University to see whether he would be interested in collaborating.

Unlike many ornithologists, Kirchman was not a birdwatcher growing up. He became interested in birds while attending Illinois Wesleyan University, where he had planned to double major in biology and art and perhaps become a scientific illustrator. But he soon discovered that he was a good biologist, but not a very good artist.

When he took a course on evolution during his sophomore year, “I was hooked. I thought the fact that species had evolved was the single most interesting thing in the world,” he recalled. His interest in birds developed while working on a field crew of bird surveyors in the Ozark Mountains, surveying breeding birds such as warblers and sparrows.

“I lived in a cabin in the woods,” he said. “I searched for nests and monitored egg production. … It was great fun to work outside.”

In 2004, Kirchman earned a master’s degree in zoology from Louisiana State University and in 2006 earned his doctorate at the University of Florida.

Though his research has taken him all over, “Now I mostly study birds in New York. When I moved up here I started thinking of ways to adapt my research to the interests of the citizens who pay me.”

A new project will take him to the Adirondacks and the Catskills, as well as Vermont and Maine, to study birds that live in high-elevation forests. High-elevation forests “are a little like islands,” said Kirchman, 40, of Albany. “There’s a unique community of bird species at the tops of mountains.” This summer, he’ll begin his research, which will attempt to determine how long the region’s high-elevation bird species have been there and whether they travel from one high-elevation place to another.

 
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