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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Kentucky’s extinct and extirpated birds may be long gone, but not forgotten

More than 350 species of birds have been documented in Kentucky.

This includes native and non-native species, the 150 species that breed in the state, and birds that are winter residents or transients that just pass through the state during migration.

Observations of birds by naturalists in Kentucky date back to the early 19th century, about the time that many of our state’s native fish species were first documented.

An 1826 painting of John James Audubon (Image form Wikipedia Commons)

John James Audubon’s arrival in Louisville in 1807 is arguably the beginning of Kentucky’s ornithological history.

Audubon lived in the Ohio Valley for about 15 years, and during his stay focused his interests in art and ornithology toward describing bird species and making detailed illustrations that depicted them in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon is also known for having identified 25 new species.

For seven years in the early 19th century, French naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840) was botany and natural science professor at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. His interests included describing fish and plants of the region, but he also collected information on bird species native to Kentucky, most notably the Bonaparte’s Gull, Black Tern and Cliff Swallow.

Several species of birds once found in Kentucky are long gone. These are birds that have been declared extinct, a species that no longer exists, birds that are gravely endangered and may be on the verge of extinction, or birds that have been extirpated, a species that no longer occurs in Kentucky, but exists elsewhere.

Their stories are particularly compelling. Here are four examples:

• Presumed extinct until recent decades, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), is something of a mystery bird.

On the American Bird Conservancy website, the impressive Ivory-billed Woodpecker, one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, is referred to as the “Lord God Bird,” because of the typical reaction from people who saw it swoop into view.

Adults stood 20 inches tall, with a 30-inch wingspan. Its plumage is black with a purple tint, with white primary feathers and a prominent crest, bright red on males and black on females.

Pairs mate for life and travel together. Their diet consists of nuts, seeds, fruits and insects.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, By John James Audubon (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s native range is the southeastern U.S., from the Ohio River valley in Kentucky, down the lower Mississippi River. This includes western Tennessee, eastern Arkansas, and Louisiana, and from east Texas, eastward through southern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, coastal South Carolina, and Florida.

In The Birds of Kentucky, published by University Press of Kentucky in March, 2021, author Burt L. Monroe Jr. wrote that “the first significant ornithological account was a description of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker obtained by Colonel William Fleming on March 7, 1780, at Logan’s Fort, near the present site of Stanford, Lincoln County.”

The bird’s preferred habitat was mature bottomland hardwood forests and wetlands along rivers.

With the destruction of most of this habitat by loggers by the mid-20th century, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker began to disappear.

This charismatic species was never a common species since it depended upon enormous, unbroken expanses of river bottom hardwoods providing the space and food it needed to thrive.

Some of the last confirmed sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker were in Louisiana in the 1930s and 1940s. But in the decades afterward there several unconfirmed reports of sightings along the lower Mississippi River.

Then on April 28, 2005 it was reported that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, considered to be extinct by many birders, had been rediscovered in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). The 72,979-acre refuge in east-central Arkansas was established in 1986 from wetland habitat not drastically altered by timbering and channelization in the White and Cache River basins.

The discovery was a collaborative effort between Cornell University researchers, conservation organizations, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

• The Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), a small green Neotropical parrot with a bright yellow head, reddish-orange face and pale beak, was one of only three parrot species native to the U.S.

Its native range was vast, from southern New York and Wisconsin to Kentucky, Tennessee and the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Great Plains, as far west as eastern Colorado.

A Carolina Parakeet mount on public display at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

“The Carolina Parakeet was a regular inhabitant of bottomland forests and swamps along the Ohio River as far north as Cincinnati, and along the lower reaches of the Tennessee, Cumberland and Kentucky rivers,” wrote Burt L. Monroe Jr., in The Birds of Kentucky.

An early observation made by Alexander Wilson in mid-March, 1810, at Big Bone Lick, in Boone County, Kentucky recounted: “I saw them in great numbers. They came screaming through the woods in the morning, about an hour after sunrise, to drink the saltwater, of which they were remarkably fond. When they alighted on the ground it appeared at a distance as if covered with a carpet of the richest green, orange and yellow.”

Deforestation, illegal hunting and the pet trade all played a role in the Carolina Parakeet’s demise.

They were hunted for their colorful feathers used in the millinery trade (hat making), and farmers shot them to reduce crop predation. The bird’s behavior, noisy flocks of 200 to 300 birds, and the fact that they often returned to the vicinity of dead and dying birds, contributed to their wholesale slaughter.

By the 1870s they had all but disappeared from Kentucky.

The last known specimen perished in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. The Carolina Parakeet was declared extinct in 1939.

• The story of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is a sad chapter in the conservation history of America’s migratory birds.

It seems unreal today that a population numbering in the billions, at one time thought to be the largest of any bird species in North America, could completely disappear, but that’s exactly what happened.

The Passenger Pigeon was found across most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains, from the Great Plains to the Atlantic coast in the east, as far north as southern Canada, to Mississippi in the south. Flocks wintered from Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina south to Texas, the Gulf Coast, and northern Florida.

Its primary habitat was deciduous forests.

A painting depicting a Passenger Pigeon shoot in Louisiana (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

In The Birds of Kentucky, it was noted that “one of the earliest known nesting sites of a large breeding colony was near Shelbyville, about 1808. The breeding site was three miles wide by 40 miles long, with as many as 90 nests per tree.”

This behavior of nesting in huge colonial groups made Passenger Pigeons susceptible to slaughter. Their migrations in vast flocks blackened the sky.

Subsistence hunting, or the taking native wildlife to eat, and market hunting, taking native wildlife for sale as food, were the primary reasons for the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.

One of the major causes of market hunting was the Industrial Revolution that shifted human populations from farms to the cities and created a demand for fresh meat.

Commercial harvest by relentless netting peaked in the 19th century. Box carloads of live birds were shipped by rail to markets in the Northeast. Squabs, young unfledged pigeons, were considered the best tasting.

But there were other contributing factors that led to the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. They had a low reproductive rate. A single egg was laid in a flimsy nest, with just a single brood produced per nesting season, so it took a long time to build up a population.

Market hunting ended with the passage of the Lacey Act, signed into law by Republican President William McKinley on May 25, 1900. The act outlawed market hunting and created civil and criminal penalties for trade in birds and other wildlife, that had been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold.

But by 1900 it was already too late to save the Passenger Pigeon.

In The Birds of Kentucky, it was noted that the last report from the state was of “a bird killed (and eaten) by Seth Beckner, three miles southwest of Winchester, in Clark County, on November 20, 1898.”

The last living Passenger Pigeon in captivity died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

• The Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) has long been extirpated from Kentucky and most of its former range east of the Great Plains.

Birds that once lived on the Atlantic seaboard, called Heath Hens, became extinct in 1932.

The Greater Prairie-Chicken (Photo by Doug Greenberg, Flickr Commons)

In The Birds of Kentucky, it was noted that “this species was apparently common in the Barrens in the 19th century.”

A grassland relatively free of trees, the Barrens originally encompassed parts of what are now seven west-central Kentucky counties.

For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years in pre-settlement, Native Americans used fire to improve hunting by keeping the land open to attract grazing bison, eastern elk, white-tailed deer and other wildlife, including the Greater Prairie-Chicken.

Today, this large bird in the grouse family has become threatened in its ever-shrinking range due to habitat loss.

Adults of both sexes are medium to large chicken-like birds, stocky with round wings and short, rounded tails.

Adult males have orange comb-like feathers over their eyes and dark, elongated dark head feathers. A circular, orange un-feathered neck patch is inflated when the bird displays. Their mating ritual is called booming.

Adults are about 17 inches tall, can weigh more than two pounds, and have a wingspan of more than 28 inches.

There are three subspecies.

Today, the range of the Greater Prairie-Chicken includes the Dakotas, south to Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma with isolated populations in east Texas, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Extinct and extirpated birds may be long gone, but not forgotten. They are remnants of Kentucky’s diverse ecological community and part of our natural heritage.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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