1. “Incas”, the last Carolina Parakeet
We think of parrots as living in the tropics, but at one time North America had its own native parrot species, the Carolina Parakeet, that lived as far north as Ohio.
Several factors including habitat loss, hunting from farmers who wanted to keep them away from crops, and their desirable feathers for ladies’ hats at the time led to the parakeet’s demise.
The last parakeet, Incas, died in 1918 in the Cincinnati Zoo, in the same cage that Martha the passenger pigeon had died in 4 years earlier. Incas’s mate, Lady Jane, died just before, and the speculation was that Incas died of a broken heart.
Although the Carolina parakeet was the only parrot species native to North America, escaped pet Monk Parakeets from South America have flourished in pockets of the U.S. where the Carolina parakeet used to live, including New York City.
2. “Martha”, the last Passenger Pigeon
Passenger pigeons were once so plentiful in the U.S. that they were described as blackening the sky when they flew in massive flocks overhead, blocking the sun and taking several hours for the flow to pass. It’s estimated there were as many as 5 billion passenger pigeons when Europeans first settled in North America. In Michigan in 1878, one of the last large flocks made their nests, and approximately 50,000 birds were killed every day for 5 months straight.
Hunted for food to the brink of extinction, the last documented wild pigeon was shot by a boy in Ohio with a BB gun in 1900. The last pigeon in captivity, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
3. “Booming Ben”, the last Heath Hen
Heath Hens are technically a subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken. Conservation efforts were made, but experienced several unfortunate setbacks - fires in the wildlife preserve, birds being hit by cars, and an unfortunately misinterpretation by NY State lawmakers regarding a bill introduced to protect it. The bill called for the protection of “Heath-Hen and other game”, but it was misread to call for the protection of “heathens”, i.e. Native Americans.
The last Heath Hen lived as likely the last of his kind for several years, and died in the wild on Martha’s Vineyard in 1932.
4. “Benjamin”, the last Tazmanian Tiger (Thylacine)
The Tasmania tiger looked like a dog, but was actually a marsupial that was hunted to extinction by farmers who believed it was killing their sheep. Though it once lived in Australia, by the time European settlers were living there it was only in the island of Tasmania
The last thylacine lived in the Hobart Zoo, and died in 1933 after being accidentally locked out of its sleeping quarters during a particularly cold night. Because it lived until the ’30s, there’s haunting film footage of Benjamin (who may have actually been female) pacing around his cage.
Rumors of thylacine sightings in Tasmania have continued up until today, but scientists have found no evidence of any still living.
5. “Lonesome George”, the last (and still living!) Pinta Island Tortoise
George is the last known of the Pinta Island tortoise, one of several subspecies of the Galapagos tortoise. He’s estimated to be around 100 years old, and Galapogos tortoises have been known to be as old as 170. Since there are no more females, his subspecies is “functionally extinct”.
Hope still remains that he might be able to breed, and that a hybrid of his subspecies could survive.
Update: On June 24, 2012, Lonesome George was found dead by his zookeepers. R.I.P., old buddy.