In the US, “Wild parrots are here to stay”
parrot study finds
The Parrot Who Brings Good Luck
Pictured above, the quirky, cute and clever monk parrot, native of Chicago.
Did I say native of Chicago? Chicago the Windy City where winter temperatures can plummet to -26°C, and annual average snowfall is 91cm? No way.
Ok, I hold up my hands. That was a lie, or anyway a half lie. The monk is commonly found in South America, and like most parrot species is native to the tropics. On the other hand, several decent-size colonies of monk parrots have called Chicago home for the last 50 plus years, so it’s fair to say they are well and truly naturalised.
But what are they doing right up there on the 42nd parallel, nearly 5,000 km north of their ancestral homelands around the Equator?
According to American legend, as cargo was being unloaded at JFK airport one day in 1968, or maybe 1969, two thousand of the colourful creatures, or was it two dozen (details of the legend are a little hazy) burst forth from their damaged crate and took to the air. And who could blame them? Far better flying the skies of a strange land than looking out on the world through the bars of a pet shop cage – their intended destination.
But that was New York. So Chicago? These lively mischievous birds are a handful, as folk who’ve acquired them as pets will testify. They are “notoriously loud and noisy birds, the rock star of the bird scene, little Houdinis who like to find their way out of a cage and chase your rottweiler around the house …. They are fearless, intelligent and vociferous.”
Some likely escaped from captivity into the city. Or were released by freaked-out owners who got a bit more than they bargained for!
Whatever, this exotic creature of the tropics, which just happens to be the most adaptable of all parrot species, is thriving in the Windy City, snow or no snow. Most of the year they forage in parks and open grassy areas, but bird-lovers’ garden feeders are their salvation in the winter months.
Wouldn’t you think yourself immensely lucky to find some of these little treasures in your neighbourhood? Chicago’s first ever African American mayor, Harold Washington certainly did. Living just across the street from one of the city’s best-known monk parrot colonies, he called them his “good luck talisman”. He was clearly good luck for them too, because once he was no longer around to protect them (he died in 1987), the USDA tried to remove the birds. But the locals, who loved them as much as Harold did, threatened the USDA with a lawsuit. People power at its best!
The monk parrot’s behaviour, it has to be said, is not exactly serious and quiet, as you’d expect from its name. It has another name that’s a much better fit with its lively personality – ‘the quaker parrot’. And this little guy quaking and shaking to ‘Happy’ will show you why –
What do you think of those moves!
Friends & family
As well as being the most adaptable parrot, the monk/quaker is unique in another respect. It’s the only one of all the parrot species that makes a nest. The nest is a fairly messy affair as you can see, and can get quite a lot bigger than you might expect: “In the wild, the colonies can become large, with pairs occupying separate “apartments” in nests that can reach the size of a small automobile.” And even in cities you will find the monks hunkering down with their siblings, cousins, mum, dad, aunts and uncles – they’re all there. Doesn’t that sound a good way to live?
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. The nests can get so cumbersome that it’s said they can bring down power lines, and damage other infrastructure. Hence the USDA’s attempt to remove them.
Monk/quaker parrots in the UK
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, unlike the USDA in Chicago, were deaf to protests about their own program to eradicate this country’s wild monk parrot population, tiny in comparison with those in the US city. “Monk parakeets can pose a threat to national infrastructure, such as pylons and substations, crops and native British wildlife. That is why work is being carried out to remove them in the most humane method appropriate,” they pronounced.
Over 4 years and at a cost of £259K, 62 birds were trapped, of which roughly 40 were safely re-homed. The remainder “could not be re-homed”, whatever that means, and were put down. 212 eggs were taken and disposed of, and 21 nests were destroyed.
62 birds. A “threat to national infrastructure”. Really?
The monk parrot at home
Sadly the monk is not much favoured in South America, its original home range either. If not deterred in some way, large flocks can munch their way right through a farmer’s precious crop. They are, after all, not to know the humans have different intentions for that food.
And now, ‘charismatic, beautiful, exotic’, the parrot we love
If the monk parrots here in the UK are few, what we do have in abundance are these green-feathered beauties –
There are even more mysteries surrounding the Afro/Asian ring-necks’ appearance here, than there are about the monk parrots’ arrival in the US. Take your pick from these wild theories:
- An unknown number escaped in 1951 from Shepperton Studios while they were filming The African Queen with stars Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
- Jimi Hendrix released a pair he named Adam and Eve in trendy Carnaby Street, London in the 60s
- Something fell off a plane and landed on an aviary. All the birds broke free through the hole it made
- A furious wife released her husband’s aviary birds in revenge for his errant ways
But whether all or none of the stories is true (for me, the Adam and Eve one most appeals) this colourful bird has spread all over Britain, and has become “the most northerly, wild breeding parrot species on Earth”. (Further north than Chicago, but of course, much more temperate.) Now numbering at best guesstimate 50,000, over the many decades since they first made their home with us, they’ve become “as British as curry”.
Not welcome at home
These little creatures are no more welcome in their homes of origin (west Africa stretching over India to the Himalayas) than their South American cousins the monk parrots are in theirs. “In its native areas, the parakeet has been a severe agricultural pest for decades. In India, [it is] one of the most destructive birds. They have been known to reduce yields of sorghum and maize in India by 80 per cent.”
Research already shows the ring-necked parrot adversely affecting our native birds, by frightening them from food, commandeering the best nesting spots, and even on occasion attacking them. In December 2017, the bird found itself at no. 67 on the list of Europe’s top 100 most invasive species.
- Stricter legislation on the possession, transportation and commercial trafficking of invasive parakeets, which has already happened in Spain
- A new system for relinquishing unwanted pet parakeets
- Removal of legal and financial constraints on rapid-response eradication of new populations, especially in areas where they are currently not present
- Raising public awareness of the parakeet population and potential problems
They have to raise our awareness, because apparently, we the uninformed masses, all love them. “Many people say they bring an enormous sense of wellbeing. They say they are charismatic, beautiful, exotic. They absolutely love having them around.” The authorities know better, naturally.
Champions for the parakeets
These birds we so love have one expert champion in York University’s professor of ecology, Chris D Thomas. He favours leaving the parakeets free to move about and breed. And in his book, Inheritors of the Earth, argues against “irrational persecution” of non-native species. Thomas says, “We do not try to control species because they moved in the past, so why should we now try to police the distributions of species that are thriving in the human epoch? It makes no sense.” Rabbits and hares were invasive species here once.
And Thomas is not entirely alone. Biologist Roelant Jonker is the self-appointed protector of the ring-necked parakeet in the Netherlands. “The next generation [of people] will see the parakeets as ordinary birds… and they will be as ordinary as all the different colours of people and birds in Europe,” he says.
Back to the parrots of the USA
When ecologist Stephen Pruett-Jones left Australia for Chicago University in 1988, it was the presence of “a unique piece of the city’s history”, the monk parakeets in Hyde Park, right there on the university campus where he was taking up his new post, that ignited his quest to discover whether other colonies of parrots might be thriving in equally unlikely settings across the USA.
Teaming up with Jennifer Uehling, Cornell University, and Jason Tallant, University of Michigan, he researched all available parrot data in the States from 2002 to 2016. He found:
- 56 different non-native parrot species spotted in the wild, in 43 states
- 25 of the species fully naturalised and breeding, in 23 different states
- Monk parakeets, the Red-crowned Amazon, and the Nanday Parakeet the most common species
- More Red-crowned Amazons living in California than in their original habitats in Mexico
“Because of human activity, transporting these birds for our own pleasure, we have inadvertently created populations elsewhere. Many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay.”
As of now, the colonies of ex-pat parrots are a welcome exotic addition to America’s native fauna. But as is our experience with wild parrot populations in the UK, it’s a fine line between being ‘welcome and exotic’ and becoming ‘an invasive pest‘.
It’s entirely fortuitous, by luck, by chance, that the dark cloud of animals originally snatched from the wild and taken to places where they don’t belong, may just have one silver lining. Stephen Pruett-Jones believes, for parrots endangered in their native habitat, the colonies dotted across the States may become important, even “critical”, species reservoirs for the survival of species being decimated in their home range.
In an ideal world of course, species reservoirs in alien lands would never have to be the fall-back.
The exotic pet trade causing extinctions
The trade in animals taken from the wild to sell as pets is causing extinctions. “92% of the 500,000 live animal shipments between 2000-2006 to the United States (1,480,000,000 animals) were for the pet trade.”
Captivating as they are, and delighted as we are to have them living wild and free among us, we should never buy these gorgeous birds as pets. The exotic pet trade is lining the pockets of criminals while driving animals in their natural habitats to extinction.
Ask Tasmania to save critically endangered swift parrot here
Indonesia: ban the trade in wild birds! Sign here
Stop endangered birds from being drugged, shoved into water bottles, and illegally traded. Sign here
And if you love, love, love birds of all kinds, here’s another way to help them –
11th June 2016 Forest fire pushes imperilled parrot closer to the brink
ParrotNet, a European network of scientists, practitioners and policy-makers dedicated to research on invasive parrots.