On the Trail of Lewis and Clark

The journey of the Corps of Discovery across the American West was an endeavor on many levels. One of the expedition's goals was to identify, describe, and collect new specimens of flora and fauna - pressed, alive, stuffed, skins, skeletons, and in any other useful form. Thomas Jefferson wanted as big a discovery return as possible for the expedition and had given Meriwether Lewis an extensive list of instructions of what should be done. With the help of his partner in discovery William Clark and the other members of the Corps, a tremendous amount was accomplished.  In all, 178 species of plants and 122 species and subspecies of animals unknown in the East were identified.

The Carolina parakeet by Alexander Wilson from his American Ornithology.

Not all the plants and animals the explorers encountered were unknown to them. This was especially true in the early months of the expedition. It wasn't until the Corps reached the edge of the Great Plains, as they toiled up the Missouri River, that they began their discoveries in earnest. Among those species already known to them was the Carolina parakeet or parrot, the only species of parakeet/parrot native to eastern North America. Famed ornitholigist Alexander Wilson described the birds in great detail in his American Ornithology.  During his travels through the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys in the early 1800s, he noted their appearance, habits, and great numbers.  He captured one while visiting Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, and carried it all the way to New Orleans, making a pet of it. He noted how noisy they were, their tendendcy to travel in dense flocks, making it look at a distance as if the ground was "covered with a carpet of the richest green, orange and yellow" (Wilson, American Ornithology, 3:92), and their troubling habit of hovering near their companions shot by hunters, only adding to the number killed.

On Lewis and Clark's journey these birds were known to them, but still elicted comments from William Clark in his journal. On June 26, 1804, near present Kansas City, he wrote "I observed a great number of Parrot queets this evening" (Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, 2:324). Since the birds weren't a "new" species the explorers collected no specimens of it. Others, like Wilson, did for their work, and specimens found their way into published works, including John J. Aububon's Birds of America, and collections such as Charles Willson Peale's museum.

Audubon's drawing of the Carolina parakeet in his Birds of America.

But like the passanger pigeon before it, vast numbers didn't save these colorful avians from extinction. As their native habitat disappeared and they were killed in ever increasing numbers, their numbers dwindled. The last recorded wild parakeet was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904. The last one in captivity, dubbed "Incas," died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918 (where the last passanger pigeon also died). Stuffed specimens of conuropsis carolinesis are housed in museums, including The Filson. According to our records, this specimen was killed in Ballard County, Ky., in 1878 and presented to The Filson in 1933 by Lucien Beckner. It has been on exhibit for many years, including at the present time, and was used in our Lewis and Clark exhibit in 2003-2004 to represent one of the species observed by the explorers. This beautiful bird, once so numerous, has sadly gone the way of many other species over time and it is only via the work of artists such as Alexander Wilson and John Audubon, and mounted specimens like The Filson's that they "survive" and are known today.

The Filson's stuffed specimen of the Carolina parakeet.

James J. Holmberg

One comment for “On the Trail of Lewis and Clark

  1. Ryan Ankeny

    Hey Jim,

    Wonderful post. It is a shame the only endemic parrot in our country was hunted to extinction. I had no idea the Filson had stuffed specimens of things like this. Do you have any other bird/wildlife skins on exhibit? Is it open for the general public to see?

    Reply

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