Lost Species of Southern Appalachia

Everyone has heard of the mass extinctions of species taking place across the world, especially in the rainforests. But few are aware of the history of extinctions here in Southern Appalachia. Among the animals we have lost are the passenger pigeon, the carolina parakeet, the eastern elk and the eastern bison.

Bison are associated in the American consciousness with the vast spaces and open skies of the Great Plains. Yet when the Europeans first arrived, woodland bison were still plentiful in what is now middle Tennessee, perhaps ranging into the forests of the upper Tennessee Valley. Though large and powerful, they were no match for firearms. Hunters waited in ambush at natural salt licks, where the bison had congregated for long ages. At Bledsoe’s Lick, thirty miles northeast of Nashville, a French-Canadian fur trader reported in 1790 that "One could walk for several hundred yards at … the lick on buffalo skulls and bones, and the whole flat around the lick was covered with their bleached bones." By 1800 woodland bison had become rare. Within a two decades they were extinct.

Eastern elk, too, once inhabited the forests of Southern Appalachia. Like the woodland bison, the elk sought the salt licks, and, like the bison, there they were relentlessly slaughtered. They were extinct by the start of the Civil War.

Two remarkable Southern Appalachian birds, the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet are also gone forever, both having been hunted to extinction early in the 1900s. The Carolina parakeet, the only member of the parrot family native to the eastern United States, was a large and flamboyantly colored bird, about thirteen inches long, mostly bright green, but with a yellow head and neck and orange cheeks and forehead. These birds flew and roosted in large flocks, but people shot them because they raided orchards, because ladies prized their feathers for hats, and because their bright colors made them useful for target practice.

Their unwariness undoubtedly hastened their extinction. When one was wounded, its distress call caused the rest of the flock to circle around until all were shot. By 1920 the Carolina parakeet was gone.

The passenger pigeon was once so numerous that its flocks darkened the sky for hours as they passed overhead. Ornithologists estimate their precolonial population at two to three billion, making them probably the most abundant bird species on earth. Their extensive winter roosting grounds along river bottoms in the Southern Appalachians are still recalled in the names of two rivers, the Pigeon and the Little Pigeon, and in the name of the city of Pigeon Forge.

They ranged widely. Simeon Pokagon, a Michigan Pottawottomi chief, wrote in 1850 of their mating ritual:

I was startled by hearing a gurgling, rumbling sound, as though an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forest toward me. ... I tried to understand their strange language and why they all chattered in concert. In the course of the day, the great on-moving mass passed me, but the trees were still filled with them sitting in pairs in convenient crotches of the limbs, now and then gently fluttering their half-spread wings and uttering to their mates those strange bell-like wooing notes which I had mistaken for the ringing of sleigh bells in the distance. Despite their profusion, the passenger pigeons succumbed quickly. As settlers cleared the forests, the beech nuts and acorns the pigeons ate became too scarce to support the huge flocks, and populations declined. Then, in the last half of the nineteenth century, market hunters across the eastern United States blasted hundreds of millions from their roosts or from the sky. The meat was shipped by rail to New York and Chicago, where it had become fashionable. The business was lucrative, and the big city cash did much to silence consciences. Then, as now, the excuse that soothed was money.

Not everyone accepted that excuse. Well before the passenger pigeons vanished, there were scattered calls for conservation, but most people seemed to think that so numerous and familiar a bird could never be eliminated.

Their last precipitous decline surprised even the conservationists. As their numbers fell, the pigeons ceased to mate. Apparently their mating instinct was triggered in a way that we will now never understand by something in the presence of the great flock. Perhaps it was the sound of sleigh bells in the distance.


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