Category Archives: Famous Animals of Northwest Ohio

Were Wild Parrot Once Native to Ohio?

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Once native to Ohio, with some sightings in Northwest Ohio

The answer might surprise you. Because the answer, according to some accounts, is -yes. The bird in question was the Carolina Parrot or parakeet(Conuropsis carolinensis), a -tropical looking bird, about the size of a robin with colorful green, yellow and orange plumage and a long sweeping tail that once flourished throughout eastern North America. Sadly, this grand bird is now extinct. The very last survivor in captivity was named Incas and died in an aviary at the Cincinnati Zoo, one hundred years ago in February of 1918, just months after his mate, Lady Jane, had passed away. It was said that Incas died of loneliness. Ironically, he died in the very same aviary cage that also housed the last Passenger pigeon, Martha, which died in 1914.  Prior to the demise of the Carolina Parrot, this brightly feathered creature populated the skies of the Southern U.S. and parts of the Midwest and Northeast in numbers that were startling and loathsome to the early settlers who viewed the bird largely as a gregarious pest. The parrots were known to decimate farmers’ crops and strip orchards of fruit. The range of this parrot was wide, with sightings from Florida and Georgia, north to New England and New York, and west to Colorado and Texas. The first sightings were in the early 1600’s in the southern states where they were most dominant. The last official sightings though took place in the 1920’s, although, unconfirmed sightings also were reported in the 1930’s.

What caused these beautiful birds to die off? Kevin Burgio, a professor of Ecology with the University of Connecticut has studied the Carolina Parakeet for years. He writes that it’s a mystery. “Scientists don’t know what really drove these parakeets to extinction. Some thought it was habitat loss. Some thought it was hunting and trapping. Some thought disease. A few even thought it was competition with non-native honey bees for tree cavities, where the parakeets would roost and nest.”

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Museum Specimen Carolina Parakeet

All we know is they are gone, although we do know where they lived or were spotted over the years. And sometimes when they showed up in flocks of more than several hundreds, their presence was unsettling. In 1780, in upstate New York, a story is told that when a large flock of these aggressive, colorful and noisy birds swooped into one rural Dutch village, the townspeople reacted with fear. They had never witnessed anything like it, and thought it was a sign that the end of the world was nigh. The fear of the birds stayed with the town for years.

In Ohio, they also made people uncomfortable. In a story from a 1924 Toledo News Bee, it was conveyed as to how a flock flew over the state capital n Columbus in 1862. At least 25 of the birds swooped out of the sky across the treetops, noisy and screaming, with the brilliant colors flashing in the morning sun, they provided a rare spectacle, but also startled a group of students who took fright at the menacing flock. That Columbus sighting in July of 1862 was, according the article, the last sighting of the birds in Ohio.

The most common region where the parrots were seen in Ohio was reportedly in the thick forests around Cincinnati. Early pioneers wrote that, at times, the trees were filled with the shrieking hordes. Sycamore trees were their favorite habitat as they were fond of sycamore seeds and cockle-burr seeds as a regular diet staple. Ornithologists have speculated that the birds might have been poisonous, referencing some reports that squirrels that ate their flesh would die. There is really little known about these iconic birds. Research was limited during the time they were abundant in the United States, and it was only after they became extinct that scientist have begun a more focused investigation as to the origins, habitat, breeding, and historical accounts of what was probably the most exotic bird in our history.

So were any of these Carolina parakeets a part of Toledo’s natural history? Perhaps. James Audubon wrote of a sighting in 1806, of a flock of the parrots at the mouth of the Maumee River and Lake Erie. The source of that sighting though has not been confirmed and some scientists are unconvinced that Audubon got it right. Another sighting was reported in 1903, a few miles south of Sandusky as a resident said a parrot would come to feed in his orchard. Again, this report remains as anecdotal evidence only. There were other reports that were more convincing of the birds being seen in areas north of Cincinnati. And its speculated by some researchers that the Carolina Parakeet was probably a rare sight near Cincinnati by the 1840’s. Without more empirical data, however, the haze of time obscures the past and leaves little more than speculation. We may never know for sure if this beautiful parrot found its way to Northwest Ohio. But considering the verdant and rich landscape of heavily timbered swamps and marshes that existed here in this fertile womb of life, it is probably not wild speculation to at least imagine that those green and yellow wings once danced against the sunlight in the skies and the screaming voices of the Carolina Parakeet once echoed in the deep woods of the Great Black Swamp.

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Filed under Famous Animals of Northwest Ohio, Lake Erie

The Mysterious Goldfish of the Portage River

goldfishstory from evening independent dec 20 1920Finding fish in a river is usually no big news. Bigger news perhaps if there were no fish in a river.. But sometimes, certain types and species of fish turn up where they shouldn’t be. Such was the case of the mystery goldfish that invaded the Portage River almost a century ago.  I recently found several newspaper articles about such a situation occurring at Port Clinton in 1920.   Now,  I am not referring to a mere isolated incident involving a few fish, but a massive crypto-zoological phenomenon of such magnitude that commercial fishermen descended on this Ottawa County lake port to harvest these invaders as curious culinary delicacies.

According to an Associated Press article, dated December 20th, 1920, the carp-like goldfish were being taken by the ton at the Portage River and many of them were several inches long and weighing up to a half pound. They were “highly colored in yellow and gold” with sprinkles of red, making them “very attractive”.  The local fishermen say they had been catching them in their nets for several years at various times, and would take them in as novelties.  It wasn’t until this particular years, 1920, their numbers were so huge and so abundant that they were being caught and put “live” into railroad tank cars where they were being shipped to retail and wholesale markets in New York City.

From where these exotic golden-carp-like fish had come was a somewhat of a mystery, although there were theories. The most popular one was that because fishermen had begun to notice the fish appearing in the nets for several years, it is believed that may have gotten into Lake Erie during the great floods of 1913 when many backyard ponds and aquariums were flooded over and thousands of the little gold fish were sent into the flood waters.  In particular, it was largely believed that these colorful fish might have been refugees from the Belle Isle Aquarium  near Detroit when the floodwaters of 1913 overtook the aquariums and outdoor ponds. They continued to flourish in the warm waters of Lake Erie and multiplied by the millions and may have inter-bred with carp. In the winter months, they would move from the shallow water of the marshes and into the deeper waters of the Portage River to avoid freezing temperatures.

This logical explanation appears to have been widely accepted by the public at large. True or not? Difficult to determine. There are other theories that these fish might have been Prussian Carp, believed to be a type of feral or wild goldfish which also established themselves in this region many decades ago.  But whatever they were or where-ever they came from,  this copious crop of large golden-colored fish remained in the waters of Western Lake Erie and the Portage River for many years after.  I recall in 1964, fishing in the Portage near Elmore one spring and catching a large gold-colored fish that was almost two feet in length. Was it an ancestor of the famed mystery goldfish of 1920? Could be. As I have recounted this story with Ottawa County locals, familiar with the river, I have been told by numerous folks that they too have had similar encounters over the years through the 1960’s and later years with these large goldfish.

Others may, to this day, still encounter some of these colorful invaders, for state fishery experts say the goldfish has become a common species found throughout much of the Western watershed of Lake Erie. Able to adapt to changing temperature and ecosystems, the goldfish are often found in shallow waters and can reach lengths of up to 16 inches. The fish are not however, welcome visitors to the lakes and rivers for they are true invasive species and may have been the first invasive introduced into North American waters. They can compete for habitat with native species and often carry disease. Wildlife experts say many of today’s population of goldfish in this area can be traced to  people carelessly dumping pet fish into natural waters or allowing them to escape from backyard ponds during floods. It is not just this area that encounters the “wild” goldfish.  Sighting and catches are being reported throughout the U.S. and in some cases, the invasive goldfish grow to sizes that are astonishing and larger than most gold-fish bowls.

Fisherman shows off recent goldfigh trophy from Lake Tahoe Nevada.

Fisherman shows off recent goldfigh trophy from Lake Tahoe Nevada.

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Filed under Famous Animals of Northwest Ohio, Lake Erie, Strange Happenings, Uncategorized

Owney the famous postal dog met his tragic demise in Toledo

Some historical events Toledo can lay claim to and be proud of,  others,… not so much.  The Owney the postal dog story is one of the latter. This week, the U.S. Postal Service will pay tribute to the famous little postal pooch by honoring him with his own postage stamp which will officially celebrate Owney as one of America’s great animal heroes, if not the first.  If you don’t know the story of Owney, it all started by in 1888 when this scruffy Irish-Scottish Terrier  mongrel took up residence in the Albany, New York post office.  It is recounted that Owney loved the scent of the mail bags and began riding the mail wagons and then one day hopped onto a rail car and started riding the trains. It was here where Owney’s legacy was carved.  Within a few years, Owney managed to travel on these cars quite extensively and quite independently, and as he appeared at various postal stations along his routes, postal employees would affix a postal tag to his harness and collar.   He soon became laden with hundreds of tags as he routinely criss-crossed the United States on the rail cars. He even ventured in 1895 on an international journey and showed up in Japan, parts of Asia, and Europe until he safely returned to the U.S. and his home in Albany.  In short Owney was a star , perhaps the first “dog-star” in the United States long before Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin.  He was beloved by postal employees and members of the general public alike who wanted to get a glimpse of this famous world traveling mutt.

But not everyone loved Owney. In April of 1897, the Chicago Postmaster was disgusted by Owney’s presence on the rail cars and postal stations, calling him a mongrel cur who was nothing more a nuisance to employees and that he should be banned from the rails. His remarks were widely reported at the time, and who knows if his sentiments were shared by others.  A few months later, on June 11th, 1897, Owney had made his way to Toledo and it would be his last. There are several varying accounts of what took place, but according to the Chicago Tribune, when Owney got to Toledo’s Union Station, a postal clerk called a newspaper reporter and photographer to get some pictures and a story. The clerk had chained Owney up to a post to keep him there while awaiting the arrival of the photographer. One account says that Owney detested being tied up or restrained and starting protesting loudly and when the clerk tried to get him to quiet down, Owney bit him on the hand. That action prompted the Toledo Postmaster, Rudolph Brand, to call for a policeman to come to the scene and that an officer named Fred Free, shot and killed Owney while he was still chained to the post.  The Chicago Tribune called it an “execution”.  While other newspaper accounts(perhaps engaging some damage control), said Owney had been running loose and “had gone mad” when he was shot.   We may never know exactly what happened in Toledo, or why Owney met his fate that day, but Owney’s legacy was hardly forgotten. When word surfaced around the nation that the famous mail-pooch’s stamp had been cancelled,  mail clerks throughout the country raised funds to have the cinnamon colored terrier  stuffed and preserved. His mounted body was eventually given to the Post Office Department’s headquarters in Washington.   It remained there, on display, until 1911, when it was transferred to the Smithsonian in Washington where Owney has been on display in a glass case, ever since.   Now 114 years after his death in Toledo, Owney is not only getting his own postage stamp, but his mounted remains have been restored and his exhibit, which includes hundreds of his postal tags will be displayed prominently at the museum.

If you know more about Owney’s travels and experiences in Toledo, including his death, please share. I will post any additional material here.

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Filed under Famous Animals of Northwest Ohio, Uncategorized