Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

By Laura LaFay

EVERY SUMMER EVENING, as dusk descends on Temple City, California, hundreds of raucous green and red parrots settle into the sweetgum trees planted along the city’s residential streets. Abruptly, the cacophony falls silent. It will begin again before dawn, as the birds take off toward the northwest to spend another day foraging for sustenance in the supermarket parking lots and suburban streets and strip malls of greater Los Angeles.

San Francisco conures
Some of San Francisco's wild conures survey the city and Alcatraz island. (Photo courtesy of Mark Bittner.)

These are flocks of red-crowned and lilac-crowned parrots, also known as Amazons. Both are seriously endangered in their native Central American habitats. Here, however, their numbers are increasing. In this valley live an estimated 2,000 red-crowned parrots and an estimated 400 lilac-crowns. From all appearances, they are healthy, growing flocks.

And they’re not the only ones.

On the coast, a flock of black-hooded parakeets (or Nanday conures) has taken up residence in Malibu. To the north, an estimated 1,000 rose-ringed parakeets (also known as Indian ringnecks) roost in palms and feast on the blossoms of native and introduced fruit trees of suburban Bakersfield.

Up in San Francisco, a small but famous flock of red-masked parakeets (cherry-headed conures) has become an established city attraction. In between are at least a dozen smaller flocks of the same and various other psittacids, holding their own in California’s urban and suburban landscapes.

Florida, home of feral parrots
Established flocks of wild parrots are also widespread in Florida, where at least 10,000 monk parakeets (or Quakers) are now believed to live.

"We don't believe these populations were started by some little hand-raised bird getting free."

Florida also hosts substantial populations of wild black-hooded parakeets, red-crowns, orange-winged parrots (Amazons), yellow-chevroned parakeets, white-winged parakeets, mitred parakeets (mitred conures) and chestnut-fronted macaws (severe macaws). Arizona has a burgeoning population of wild lovebirds.

None of these birds is native to the United States. Only two species of parrot - the Carolina parakeet and the thick-billed parrot - were ever indigenous to the U.S. The Carolina parakeet became extinct in 1918, killed off by a combination of guns, habitat devastation and capture. The thick-billed parrot, which has not been seen in Arizona since the 1930s, is undergoing a reintroduction effort there.

Where did all these parrots come from? And what are they doing here?

Lost in the suburbs
Experts point to the confluence of two key events, both of which accelerated in the 1960s. One was the mass importation of wild-caught parrots. The other was mass residential development.

In the decades prior to 1992, when Congress banned the importation of wild-caught birds by passing the Wild Bird Conservation Act, hundreds of thousands of wild-caught parrots were imported into the U.S. According to Kimball Garrett, an ornithologist and researcher who founded The California Parrot Project to monitor and study California’s parrot population, those imported birds were the progenitors of today's naturalized flocks.

"We think all these populations got established when a large shipment came in directly from the wild and, for whatever reason, they (the parrots) got out," says Garrett. "They were wild birds. They knew how to survive in the wild. We don't believe these populations were started by some little hand-raised bird getting free."

Once released, says Garrett, the wild-caught imported parrots of yore did not have to struggle in the open grassland and dry scrub of California or learn to survive in the inhospitable swamps of Florida. On the contrary. As if by magic, they found themselves in parrot habitat.

All of the exotic, non-native tropical plantings so beloved by California landscapers are perfect for parrots. The palms, the eucalyptuses, the exotic fruit and nut trees, the ornamental flowers and berries - what more could a parrot want?

And where there is development, there is water. Plenty of natural waterways, as well as concrete washes, flood control channels, debris basins and reservoirs for parrot bathing and drinking needs.

As the years went by and urban sprawl did its work, this landscape has replicated itself over and over and again. The parrots have done well.

Usually not a threat
Native bird species, on the other hand, have suffered and dwindled. But biologists, ornithologists and other experts do not believe this has anything to do with the parrots. The parrots are thriving in degraded habitat planted with non-native flora. Most native birds, they say, have long since disappeared from these places.

"As far as we can tell, parrots are not displacing other species," says Garrett. "The habitat is being converted. That is what is doing in the native species. In these new habitats, a new set of birds is coming to thrive. The parrots didn't bulldoze down the natural habitats. They’re just taking advantage of what has replaced them."

monk nest
Monk parakeets in Clearwater, Fla., have chosen stadium lights as a site for their huge twig nests. (Photo courtesy of Bill Pranty.)

Bill Pranty, a Florida ornithologist who has studied monk parakeet and other naturalized parrot populations in Florida, echoes this sentiment.

"If you look at where the monks are, they need TV antennas and electrical substations and exotic palms for nesting," Pranty says.

"These birds would have nothing to eat if it weren't for birdfeeders and the exotic plants we've planted throughout the tropical areas of Florida. They have almost nothing to do with native plants. They stay in urban and suburban areas, and the native diversity of those areas is already compromised. Most of the native species are gone. There are crows, pigeons and starlings. That's pretty much it."

The conures of Maui
Experts caution that naturalized flocks should be monitored. If they do begin to venture away from residential and urban areas and into natural undeveloped habitat, they will almost certainly interfere with remaining native species. So far, however, there have been few reports of this.

An exception appears to be the wild mitred conures of Maui, Hawaii. State authorities are worried that a flock of about 260 birds will displace native seabirds.

The conures apparently descended from a pair of wild-caught mitreds set loose in the 1980s by their owner, who let them come and go out of an aviary. The birds have survived by feeding on fruit and other trees on the island, including Chinese banyan, guava, rose apple and mangoes. Cliff dwellers in their native Peru and Bolivia, they have taken up residence in the 300-foot seacliffs on Maui's north shore, where they nest in crevices between layers of volcanic ash.

The conures are crowding out wedge-tailed shearwaters, bulwer petrels, and other Hawaiian seabirds that would normally use those burrows, said Mele Fong with the Maui Invasive Species Committee. And that's not all she's worried about.

"(The conures') expanding range, potential to transmit diseases to Hawaiian birds, and the dispersal of nonnative tree species all pose serious threats for native Hawaiian flora and fauna," said Fong in an e-mail. "Furthermore, the ability to damage commercial fruit and seed farms presents a serious economic concern. Complete removal of parrots from the wilds on Maui was recommended."

Last year, with the state's blessing, the Maui Animal Rescue Sanctuary tried to capture the flock so it could be housed at its 5.5-acre property in Haiku. But the birds were too difficult to reach in their cliffside location.

Fong said her group now will conduct up to three more studies on the birds' habits before deciding who to contract for their control.

Peach-face lovebirds have adapted well to Arizona living. (Photo courtesy of Fran Barbano.)

Lovebirds love Arizona
Another place where parrots have been sighted investigating the nest cavities of native birds is central Arizona, north of Phoenix and Scottsdale, where an unknown number of wild peach-faced lovebirds have become established.

Native to southwestern Africa, the lovebird, unlike most naturalized wild parrots, is well suited to the natural habitat of its adopted landscape. It therefore has the potential to do some damage. Greg Clark, an area bird enthusiast, has been monitoring the lovebirds since 1998 and is gathering information about their distribution and behavior on his website, So far, he says, they seem to be everywhere east of Route 17 and north of Route 60, also known as the Superstition Highway.

"We don't have a good idea of the numbers yet, but we think it's pretty big," Clark says. "Anecdotally, we've heard about people chopping down trees and finding nesting colonies with 50 eggs, we’ve heard of flocks with as many as 100 birds. I've seen flocks of 20 to 30 birds in East Tempe. You can’t count them."

As far as he can tell, Clark says, the lovebirds are sticking close to residential areas. People love them, he says. And as long as they stay in town, so will he.

Not an agricultural pest
Another fear that arises with naturalized parrots, especially with rose-rings and monk parakeets, is that they will become agricultural pests, as they are known to be in their native countries. Again, though, because the birds stick close to urban and residential areas, this hasn't happened on a noticeable scale.

Alison Sheehey, a graduate student who studies the population of about 1,000 rose-rings in Bakersfield, Calif., believes the rose-ring will never become the kind of agricultural pest in Bakersfield that it has proven to be in its native India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is constrained, she says, by geography.

Rose-rings need a water source close to vegetation, according to Sheehey. To get to any land used for agricultural purposes, they would have to leave Bakersfield and travel along waterways bereft of plant life. This, she says, they will not do.

Wild ringnecks often are difficult to spot because they blend in so well with their surroundings. (Photo courtesy of Alison Sheehey.)

"If they ever become agricultural pests, it will be because the suburbs moved out to the farmlands, taking the rose-wings with them," she says.

The monk parakeet, once believed to have major agricultural pest potential, can now be found thriving in more than a dozen states, including Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia. But it has yet to noticeably damage any crops. It, too, appears to be happily sustained by non-native humans and their non-native plantings. Several flocks even prosper year-round in Chicago and its suburbs, subsisting through the harsh winters almost entirely on human-supplied birdseed.

Mark Spreyer, a biologist who directs the Stillman Nature Center in Illinois and who authored the section on monks for the book, Birds of North America, has been watching a flock in Chicago's Southside for 10 years. He describes them as "especially interesting."

"They chose the right place to put up a colony," he says. "Everyone there really likes them. It's a really diverse neighborhood and I think there's a kind of multiculturalism connection between the people and the birds. They fascinate people. As an educator it gives me a great opportunity to talk to an urban audience. People want to know all about them. Where are they from? How do they work? What is the weather like where they came from? When you see a parrot flying around wild on a March day in Chicago with the snow blowing off Lake Michigan, you've got questions."

Spreyer thinks monks may be filling the niche left by the Carolina parakeet, the range of which once extended across the southeastern U.S. and which may also have been seen as far west as Illinois. Certainly, monks are the most adaptable of the naturalized parrots in the U.S., and the most successful.

There are two reasons for this, according to Florida monk expert Pranty: First, unlike every other parrot in the world, monks are not dependent on nest cavities for breeding. They build their own. Second: Perhaps because of these nests, in which they sleep year-round, monks are able to survive colder temperatures than most parrots.

San Francisco conures
Mark Bittner, unofficial caretaker of San Francisco's cherry-headed conures, feeds some of the semi-tame flock. A documentary about the birds will be released this fall. (Photo courtesy of Mark Bittner.)

Because all the other naturalized parrots are cavity nesters and cavities are scarce, it is believed that only about 20 percent of them nest and breed every year, Pranty says. Monks, on the other hand, can build their massive, multi-chambered twig-and-stick edifices in trees, telephone towers, fire escapes, stadium lights and all manner of natural and man-made structures. They are not obliged to depend on already existing nests.

Monk nests are composed of multiple chambers, each occupied by a nesting pair. When an entire colony roosts together in such a nest, the temperature stays significantly warmer than the air outside. This is how monks are thought to survive in Illinois, Connecticut and other inhospitably cold states where they are found in significant numbers.

In 1999 and 2000, Pranty conducted the Florida Monk Parakeet Survey and Mapping Project, during which he attempted, with the help of volunteers, to find and map monk parakeet nests in Florida. In all, the project found and mapped 1,042 nests occupied by an estimated 3,800 birds. However, Pranty says, he is certain that there are at least 10,000 monks in Florida, and that is a conservative estimate.

"There were some places, in Miami, St. Pete, Ft. Lauderdale, where there were more nests than we were able to count," says Pranty. "Where you could drive down every other street and find a nest. One of the problems in those places is that there are people who raid the nests for the pet trade, and for that reason, the birders in those areas will not tell anyone where the nests are. Friends of mine won't even tell me. They're afraid of the nest raiders, and they're afraid that someone from a state agency might try to eradicate them."

Here today...
Not all naturalized wild flocks are destined to last. In California, in the 1950s, there was apparently a sizeable population of wild yellow-crowned parrots in the San Gabriel Valley near Pasadena. But they disappeared, largely, it is believed, because of nest predation by humans.

In Florida, in the early 1970s, the population of wild budgerigars, or budgies, is thought to have exceeded 20,000. These birds, which are native to Australia, once ranged in 31 of the state’s 67 counties, sustained by human-supplied nesting boxes and birdfood . There are now only about 200 left. Pranty believes they were out-competed for nest boxes by house sparrows.

The fact that the legal importation of wild-caught parrots has been banned here for more than 10 years almost certainly means that no new wild species will establish flocks, says Pranty. It is doubtful that escapees and releases from aviaries, pet stores and pet owners will ever be sufficient to establish naturalized flocks.

Other examples of once populous naturalized flocks now gone include white-winged parakeets and rose-rings that once ranged over Miami and white-winged parakeets that frequented San Francisco during the 1970s.

ONCE UPON A TIME in the not-so-distant past, the thick-billed parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha) roamed southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico by the thousands. A dark-green bird with a distinctive red forehead patch and a fondness for pine nuts, it was one of only two hookbills indigenous to the United States.

Then in the 1930s, the 15-inch-long psittacine died off in the states, a collateral victim of logging. In 1979 the thick-billed parrot officially landed on the endangered species list. Now, only about 4,000 live in the forested mountains of Mexico.

San Francisco conures
The thick-billed parrot once called the United States its native home. (Photo courtesy of Wildlife Trust.)

In 1986, biologists attempted to reestablish thick-billeds in Arizona. Had they been successful, the U.S. once again would have enjoyed its own native species of parrot. Unfortunately, the project, centered in the Chiricahua Mountains, failed disastrously.

This time, however, the problem was not people. Almost all 40 birds were picked off, one by one, by a northern goshawk.

Flying lessons
Scientists blamed the released thick-billeds' vulnerability on poor flying skills.

Chris Biro, a bird trainer who has been following the thick-billeds' plight, agrees. What the birds needed, he says, was more practice at flying together and evading predators.

"Many of them were adult birds, some were young, all kept in large community cages," he said. "You can't take birds like that and expect them to suddenly survive on their own outside. Birds in the wild need to have 100 percent survival skills. They can't be handicapped in any way. That's just how nature works."

For the last 12 years, Biro has been training his own parrots to fly free on his property, 20 acres near rural Amboy, Wash. The eclectic flock includes mitred conures, a sun conure, a Patagonia conure, a blue-and-gold macaw, a greenwing macaw and a pair of Moluccan cockatoos.

All of the birds have become adept at escaping hawks and other airborne predators by outmaneuvering them. Biro, who studied electrical engineering in college but now makes a living showing his parrots at fairs and other events, believes domestically raised thick-billed parrots can be taught the same evasive maneuvers. What's more, he thinks he's the one to do it.

"My purpose is beyond having birds fly around my yard," he said. "Right now, we are losing birds in the wild, not saving them. Reintroduction of domestically raised birds is to me the future of many of these species of birds."

Proving the theory
Last summer, Biro began putting out feelers for a breeding pair of thick-billed parrots. In October he finally located a pair in southern California. A friend who lives in the area purchased the thick-billeds for $3500 and loaned them to Biro. That allowed him to legally transport the birds across state lines back to Washington without the need for a federal permit.

Biro's ultimate goal is to help to repopulate Arizona with thick-billed parrots. But that's a long way off. First, he has to get his two adult thick-billeds settled and breeding in the nest boxes in their elevated 6 X 6 X 21-foot outdoor cage.

Next, Biro will begin training the pair's chicks to free fly. Those chicks could need three to five years to mature sexually and produce their own babies, which Biro would also free fly. In the end, it could be years before he has a flock that is large enough and flies cohesively enough to make it in the wilds of Arizona.

In any event, the flock won't include his first two birds. The 10-year-old thickbilleds are already too old to learn how to fly free.

"There's a real critical window there," Biro explains. "Flocking skills are developed by flying together and it takes skill to do that. And they have to learn it at the right time in their lives. Babies taught to fly is your best bet."

Scarlets and condors
Biro acknowledges that he is not the only one who believes freeflight is an important component of reintroducing domestically raised birds. Scientists with the California Condor Project and researchers working with macaws in Costa Rica are doing similar work.

Biro also realizes that Arizona officials and scientists, understandably sensitive about the failed 1986 attempt, may be a bit touchy about his desire to help.

"As far as they're concerned, I'm a nobody," he says.

Nevertheless, Biro envisions his flying expertise dovetailing with biologists' scientific knowledge to produce a near-perfect plan for reestablishing the thick-billeds on U.S. soil.

"My objective at this point is to train the babies up the way my freeflight parrots are raised, so I can show that domestically raised thick-billeds are capable of flying as a flock and avoiding predators," he says.

If he is able to do that, the sky is literally the limit in reintroducing other endangered parrots.

"I can do this," he says confidently. "I would bet everything I have that I can make this work."

Only time - something of which the thick-billeds and other endangered birds may not have much left - will tell.

- Carla Thornton

Outside of monitoring numbers through Christmas bird counts and the efforts of individual researchers, there is no way to gauge the viability or potential longevity of any given population of naturalized parrots. In general, experts say, the greater their numbers, the greater their potential to survive. But anything can happen.

For now, though, we have an irony to consider: Once, we destroyed native habitat and drove our only indigenous parakeet to extinction. Now, through the same method, we have inadvertently blundered into helping new parrots gain a foothold.

And once again, our skies are alive with the color and sound of wild parrots.

About the author

Laura LaFay shares her home in Richmond, Va., with two domesticated monk parakeets, Gaspard and Coco. Published 2003.


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