(birds)

Loud, New Neighbors

From coast to coast an influx of exotic parakeets is bringing eye-popping color and ear-popping chatter to even the coldest locales. At the same time, these imports are raising all sorts of questions about their environmental and economic costs.

By Peter Friederici

 

Alison Sheehey can pinpoint the precise date of her first sighting. "It was October 10, 1987, on the very first field trip I went on after joining the Kern chapter of the Audubon Society," she says. "I spotted these two parakeets in a tree, but the trip leader pooh-poohed them and said, 'Oh, those are just rose-ringed parakeets' "—an exotic species, in other words. Trash birds, as some birders would put it.

Sheehey has since become an experienced naturalist who has served as president of California's Kern Audubon Society. The birds summarily dismissed that day have raised their profile, too. They are among the most prominent of the new avian imports to North America.

It's common knowledge that such species as European starlings and house sparrows were brought to this continent long ago, and thrived. Not so well known is the modern corollary. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), an average of 700,000 wild birds a year, most of them wild-caught, were imported into the country in the 1980s as part of the pet trade. (With passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, that number has now dropped to fewer than 100,000 a year.)

It's no wonder that some of those birds took off, and that some of their populations have taken off, as well. Around the country, especially in warmer regions, new exotic birds periodically appear. Most vanish; a few thrive. Those that do, attract notice. Like the monk parakeet 30 years earlier, rose-ringed parakeets have done well enough that birders and nonbirders alike are beginning to pay attention. Even as rose-rings and other newly imported species are adding spice to birding outings and nature lovers' backyards from coast to coast, they're also raising questions about a host of potentially serious ecological and economic issues.

Native to the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa, rose-rings are lovely—and noisy. Plus, they're popular with aviarists. In 1977, when a powerful windstorm blew the roof off a Bakersfield, California, aviary, two pairs escaped. Their descendants have since thrived among the city's imported palms, fruit trees, and backyard bird feeders. Sheehey has watched the rose-ring population balloon to what she estimates is at least a thousand today. That delights some observers and frustrates others, especially those who grow fruit or nut trees. "Seventy-five percent to 80 percent of the people I talk to feed them and enjoy them, even though they're noisy as heck," Sheehey says. "The rest ask when I'm going to get rid of them. A flock of parakeets can decimate a tree of soft-shelled pecans in three days."

Kern County supports a $2.2 billion agriculture industry, and rose-ringed parakeets are known to badly damage grain and fruit crops in their native range. But a lack of funding has so far prevented any study of what their impact might be in California. Nor has there been research on their effect on native cavity nesters such as woodpeckers and kestrels. In southern England, where rose-rings number in the thousands, they have been seen evicting native birds from nest cavities. But Sheehey thinks the potential threats to both birds and agriculture have been overblown. Her belief has more to do with human than avian behavior. "The orchard growers around Bakersfield are rapidly selling their properties for development," she says, "and developers take trees down. Are the parakeets having a negative impact on native species? Maybe, but compared to human impacts, it's not a great impact."


It surprises and delights many
observers to find that parakeets aren't entirely confined to warm climates. One cold winter day I went for a walk in Chicago's Hyde Park, the densely populated lakefront neighborhood that houses the University of Chicago. Flurries were dusting the deep snow already on the ground, and the surrounding apartment houses were steaming. It was a forbidding, monochrome day, and not much of one for birding. I saw crows, starlings, pigeons, and house sparrows, 75 percent imported and 100 percent urbanized.

And then, at the edge of an open park, I spotted what I had come for: huge globes of sticks wedged into ash trees, each nest two to four feet in diameter and covered with pristine snow. I heard new sounds: elastic, squeaky, incessant cheeps! To then see a half-dozen emerald-green birds with lazuli primaries flying around the park was like witnessing apparitions escaped from some travel agency's promotional posters. The parakeets perched near their massive nests, flew to and fro in pairs, called even more vociferously when I walked under them, and in general behaved as though it were a lovely spring day.

Native to South America, monk parakeets were popular in the pet trade in the 1960s. Like other noisy parrot species, quite a few were released by fed-up owners. By the early 1970s they were well established not only in parts of the Sunbelt but in such northern urban centers as Brooklyn and Chicago.

South American farmers claim that monks damage such crops as corn, sunflowers, and fruit, although ornithologists note that there is little reliable documentation of losses. That didn't stop U.S. agricultural officials from worrying. "This is clearly a case where the bird lover or pet fancier must forgo the pleasure of keeping or observing in the countryside this interesting parakeet lest it become another expensive pest," one federal official wrote. In 1973 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a "retrieval" campaign aimed at eliminating feral monk parakeets through shooting and trapping.

Overall it didn't work; though local populations in a few places such as California were eradicated, the species persists, and its numbers continue to grow. Stephen Pruett-Jones, a University of Chicago biologist who, with his students, has studied the Hyde Park monk parakeets for more than 10 years, estimates that there could be 20,000 nationwide. The species has thrived largely because it is the only parrot that doesn't nest in cavities, enjoys a wide diet, and survives harsh northern winters in those bulky roosts, which are shared by up to 10 pairs of birds. Pruett-Jones and his students have found that one could scarcely design a better place for monk parakeets than Hyde Park. "We're creating and maintaining habitat—large mature trees interspersed with open lawns where they feed—that they have readily adapted to," he says. "They can eat pretty much any vegetative material, and in the winter they can switch to backyard bird feeders."

Monks haven't taken to visiting cornfields outside of Chicago, and about the only trouble they cause in Illinois comes when they nest on electrical transformers, which provide both convenient platforms and winter warmth. This provokes the local power company, Commonwealth Edison, into removing the nests.

That, in turn, provokes citizen complaints. Hyde Park residents are fiercely protective of their parakeets. That's partly because Harold Washington, Chicago's first African-American mayor, lived across the street from the best-known colony and called the monks a "good luck talisman." After Washington died in 1987, the USDA called for the parakeets' removal. Local residents formed a defense committee and threatened a lawsuit. The birds stayed. The parakeets match Hyde Park's self-image as a diverse and tolerant neighborhood. "It's one of the few communities in Chicago that's genuinely integrated," says Mark Spreyer, an area naturalist who has studied the birds for years. "The monks found the right neighborhood to be in."

Monk parakeets don't appear to be as welcome in southern Florida, where there are more of them than anywhere else in the country. They like to eat another imported species, longan trees, which yield a Southeast Asian fruit related to the better-known lychee and have become a popular crop in subtropical south Florida. Growers there maintain small but lucrative orchards, with crops worth up to $15,000 an acre.

In 1999 and 2000, researchers from the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found that monks did damage some longan groves. It's worth noting, though, that this study had a very small sample size, and that the great majority of these losses were confined to two small orchards. "The damage appears to be connected to an orchard's proximity to a nesting site," says Mike Avery, a USDA research biologist in Gainesville, Florida. "When [the parakeets] started showing up, everyone was very concerned about their effect on agriculture, but that just hasn't materialized yet."

Fruit growers, in any event, are a tiny proportion of south Florida's population. On the other hand, everyone uses electricity, and that's why monk parakeets' habit of nesting on transmission lines and electrical transformers has landed them in big trouble. The nests—"some are as big as Volkswagens," says Winifred Perkins, manager of environmental relations for Florida Power & Light Company (FPL)—regularly cause fires and service outages. "We've spent almost half a million dollars looking at deterrents like noisemakers, repellents, and other techniques. Nothing to date has been successful. They're very savvy birds."

Recent figures from Audubon's Christmas Bird Count have documented numbers of monk parakeets in Florida in the low thousands, but Perkins says those figures are way too low. She estimates that 150,000 nest on electrical structures in south Florida. Because of the failure of deterrents, FPL has resorted to severe measures: knocking down nests, then trapping the parakeets at night and euthanizing them with carbon dioxide. Perkins says there's no other option; the parakeets can't be relocated, since it's illegal to release them in Florida. "This is sort of one of your corporate nightmares," she admits, "but we have an obligation to provide power. There's no other legal alternative."

In a world of international trade and profound human alterations to the environment, it's becoming more and more difficult to specify just what's natural or desirable. An estimated 2,600 red-crowned parrots live in the greater Los Angeles area, which with its mild climate and wide array of exotic vegetation is an epicenter for imported birds. Red-crowned parrots are endangered in their native eastern Mexico. There may be as many in feral colonies in California, Texas, and Florida as there are south of the border. Kimball Garrett of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has raised the possibility that the U.S. birds might someday have value as a source for reintroductions in Mexico. He cautions, though, that some of the birds have been hybridizing with another parrot species in the Los Angeles area, and that returning birds to the same degraded Mexican habitat that caused their decline in the first place would be pointless.

Monk parakeets, meanwhile, echo the native but now extinct Carolina parakeet, which was vigorously hunted in the 19th century because farmers didn't like it feeding on their fruit.

In Hyde Park, too, lines have blurred. "There's a Cooper's hawk nailing monk parakeets in Hyde Park, and it doesn't mind that they're not native," Mark Spreyer points out. The peregrine falcons that enliven the Chicago skyline and feed on imported pigeons are ostensibly native, but before the skyscrapers they nest on were built, they probably weren't breeding anywhere near this once flat and marshy place.

In Florida, blue jays and common and boat-tailed grackles present as great a threat to longan fruits as monk parakeets do—and they're native. Monk parakeets, meanwhile, echo the native but now extinct Carolina parakeet, which was vigorously hunted in the 19th century because farmers didn't like it feeding on their fruit. Spreyer suggests that monks are merely filling that currently vacant ecological niche. Perhaps, he has written, "we have at least learned some tolerance."

Ecological complexity is simply complex. Monk parakeets in Hyde Park may pose no problem to farmers or to other birds, but that doesn't mean those in south Florida don't. Different ecological circumstances may call for different management strategies. Trying to get rid of an entire imported species often isn't possible or politically feasible, but in some cases control measures may be warranted; imagine what our avian landscape might look like had someone decided to get rid of starlings before they were well established. Ecologist Daniel Simberloff of the University of Tennessee has pointed out that about 90 percent of North America's new species don't appear to cause any ecological problem, but that's not to downplay the harm caused by the remaining 10 percent. Spreyer notes that these problems are largely restricted to areas that have already been ecologically altered. "It's extremely rare for a nonnative bird to successfully colonize an unaltered ecosystem," he says. "Most introduced species don't survive."

What does seem consistent is that most people in our nation of immigrants seem to like these new avian arrivals, some of which even achieve celebrity status. In February The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill will open in big-city theaters nationwide. The entertaining, feature-length documentary explores the relationship between a homeless street musician in San Francisco and a flock of cherry-headed conures (go to www.pelicanmedia.org for information).

Spreyer points out that all our birds—and that includes not just parakeets but starlings and house sparrows, too—have the potential to make new birders, new naturalists, new conservationists. He knows, as birders do, the lure of the new. "There's an exotic appeal to these parakeets," he says. "It's not just a new species but a whole new category of bird."


Peter Friederici's most recent article for Audubon, on earthworms, ran in the March 2004 issue.

 

 

© 2005 National Audubon Society

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