A Carolina Parakeet Effigy Bowl


They numbered in the millions throughout Eastern North America.  They were large and boisterous and beautifully colored birds with their bright green feathered bodies and yellow heads topped with scarlet.  And now they are completely extinct.


The Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) was our country’s only native parrot and was a non-migrating bird that lived from New York south to Florida and west to Texas and north to Illinois. They were reasonably large birds being twelve to fourteen inches long head to tail and had very strong and sharp beaks.  Their natural habits were to roost and raise their young in hollow trees deep in swampy forests over the entire eastern half of our country.  Their favorite food was toxic cockleburs but they ate seeds of all kinds and they had a decided affinity for sodium chloride and regularly visited natural salt licks.  And they were definitely were here, along with humans, during the prehistoric and historic intervals.  But because they lived and traveled in large destructive flocks that could easily destroy an agriculturists crops, these vivid birds were mercilessly killed by early European and American farmers and hunters and completely exterminated in the wild during the nineteenth century.  The last known existing pair died in an Ohio zoo in the 1920’s.


The American Indians definitely made many types of animal and bird replicas, especially as pottery vessels.  Bird effigy bowls and jars were prevalent in the lower Mississippi River Valley during the time period of AD 1400-1750.  In the Piedmont of the Carolinas and Virginia, though, most earthenware pots were of simple utilitarian design.  Few bird and animal images in fired clay have been discovered in the region but some have been found, most of which seem to be from the late prehistoric into the historic time periods.   Some years ago, this writer acquired a small bird effigy bowl that the finder called a quail figurine.  The bird head on the rim of this vessel did not look exactly like a partridge but his idea was accepted at the time.  With employment and home duties taking too much time, several months passed before I took the bowl outside, in the bright sunlight, for a thorough examination and made a surprising discovery.  There were remains of green pigment imbedded in the body of this ceramic vessel.  And the green coloration was not the hue that would have been left by the bowl being in contact with native copper.  So just what was it?  This verdant tone was perplexing until I began to scrutinize the entire bird effigy and upon noticing the head with its large hooked beak, I remembered seeing pictures of the long ago slaughtered regional parrot and it all became clear.  I was holding a Carolina Parakeet effigy bowl.

This outstanding vessel was found, many years ago, on the Upper Sauratown Site which borders the Dan River in Stokes County, North Carolina.  This village location was occupied for a relatively short period of time during the colonial period before the inhabitants abandoned the area and moved south along the Pee Dee River in South Carolina.  Based on the many trade artifacts that have been found on the site, the natives conducted a flourishing barter system with European and American colonists.  They would have traded deer skins and corn for iron axes, knives and cooking pots as well as guns and jewelry type items.  During the time the Saura Indians lived in the village, most likely some indigo dye or pigment was traded to them.  The New World indigo plant (Indigofero suffruticosa), which is a member of the pea family, was used to make blue colorations as early as the 1560’s in the Caribbean Islands and was sold and traded into the North American mainland after that time.  Upon immersion in stale urine or continued exposure to the natural elements, this indigo changed color from violet blue to green-gold which is the patchy color on this rare bowl.  The Carolina Parakeet would certainly have been living and thriving in the forests adjacent to the Dan River during the seventeenth century AD.  And during that time and in that place, some aboriginal potter apparently decided to make this effigy of the parrot and color it with altered blue-to-green indigo dye.  The bowl is a miniature being only 3 9/16 inches long beak to tail and 1 1/16 inches high to the top of the head and is made of very fine grit or sand tempered ceramics of the type that was extensively used by the natives in the area.  The bird head, which is on one side of the bowl rim, has a parrot-like beak along with two eye depressions.  According to historical accounts, the Carolina Parakeets had large white eyes so it is a good guess that the eye depressions, at one time, held mussel or marine shell replica eyes or maybe white glass trade beads, of which many thousands have been found on the site.  The bird’s tail is on the bowl rim directly opposite the head.  It is fan shaped and has eight incised lines to possibly represent the tail feathers.  The date of manufacture of this bowl would probably have been in the AD 1600 to 1700 range while the village was inhabited by the historic Saura Indians.


Prehistoric American Indians could have possibly made many Carolina Parakeet effigies in earthenware but since they would have had no source of green paint with which to color their creations until after the AD 1560’s importation of indigo, these effigies very well were, and could still be, misclassified as raptors because of the hooked beak.  But now, maybe this inaccurate categorizing can be corrected with the understanding that the ancient natives could not precisely color their replicas of the North American parrot until the European explorers arrived with the blue/green indigo dyes.  After that time a talented ceramist, in the region that would come to be known as the Tarheel State, made and painted this rare and beautiful Carolina Parakeet effigy bowl.



Dickens, Roy S., Jr., H. Trawick Ward & P. P. Stephen Davis, Jr.        1987


Greenway, James E.                                                                            1958


Hume, Julian P.                                                                                   2012


Martin, Alton                                                                                      2006

    Personal Communications

Maus, Jim                                                                                            2006

    “A Piedmont Carolina Parakeet Effigy Bowl”,  THE PIEDMONT, Vol. 30, No. 4

Sandberg, Gosta                                                                                  1989


Wright, Albert                                                                                     1912