Is the Monk Parakeet the Ecological Equivalent of North America's Extinct Carolina Parakeet?

By Garber, Steven D. | Focus, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Is the Monk Parakeet the Ecological Equivalent of North America's Extinct Carolina Parakeet?


Garber, Steven D., Focus


Since the release of Jurassic Park, maxims like "extinction is forever" have taken a beating. Even though I haven't seen the movie, it's had me thinking about extinction. It's never been proven that all the ecological effects of extinction have to be permanent. When we pollute a lake or river, we have a moral obligation to try to clean it up. Why should it be any different when we drive a species extinct? Shouldn't we have the responsibility to rectify the damage, however permanent, as best we can? Introducing the next best species in an attempt to replace the void left by an extinct species, is a concept that should be taken seriously.

Could a case be made for introducing an ecological equivalent where a previous species once lived? What might the consequences be? Would the negative possibilities outweigh the positives? Before introducing an ecological equivalent to replace an extinct species, the conservation community would need to consider the options and the possible results.

Few plants or animals have rights. In North America migratory birds are protected, and birds of prey cannot be hunted. Additional species are protected under the Endangered Species Act and a short list of species is protected under the Lacey Act. Extinct species have no rights. But what if an extinct species did have certain rights? If we fail to save the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), or the most endangered marine turtle, the Kemp's ridley sea turtle, (Lepidochelys kempii), is that the end? Does this mean that the developers, the cattlemen, and the fishermen win, having eliminated those pesky species the government kept bothering them about? Or should they have to pay reparations to the United States Department of the Interior, whose biologists could work to introduce ecological equivalents, such as another condor, a European ferret, or the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea)?

A replacement could even be sought for the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) that has been extinct for 80 years. What would your advice be if there were a behavioral, ecological, and physiological equivalent to the Carolina parakeet? If there were a relative, one that was close, albeit not exactly the same, that lives somewhere else, do you think it could fill the boots, and niche, of the original? Could the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) do the job?

The Carolina parakeet's niche

The Carolina parakeet, North America's only native parrot, was common east of the Great Plains from Florida to New York, and has been extinct since 191 4. What if it had had rights, and what if it still has rights?

We don't know much about the Carolina parakeet. We know what they looked like from 19th century paintings, photographs, and museum specimens, but we know very little about their basic natural history, and even less about their behavior and ecology. We don't know about their predators or competitors. We don't know the effects they had on other species. Even the reasons for the bird's disappearance are vague. The Carolina parakeet was thought to be an agricultural pest. The birds moved in flocks, nested in colonies, and were easy to shoot; hunters liked shooting them, and the birds received no protection, so it was only a matter of time before none was left.

In a case such as this, when a species became extinct so long ago, it is difficult to ascertain exactly what niche, or place in nature, that animal occupies. We know that Carolina parakeets lived in forests, and they ate cockleburs (Xanthium spp. and Circeum lecontei). The seeds of pine (Pinus), cypress (Taxodium), beech (Fagus), maple (Acer), and elm (Ulmus) were also eaten. Carolina parakeets were also reputed to either eat the fruit and seeds of cultivated plants, or to clip off the fruit and leave it on the ground. They built large stick nests in the forks of trees and in holes in trees. …

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