A Monk Parakeet Colony in Stamford
Snug along Connecticut’s southwestern shoreline, only minutes from the New York state line, is the grand old city of Stamford. The fourth largest city in Connecticut and a fixture of the state’s southwestern “Gold Coast,” Stamford is rightly proud of its extensive urban renewal program that produced a magnificent skyline and its ultimate ranking as one of North America’s safest cities. Stamford is equally proud of its many city parks and playgrounds that serve its citizens and visitors, including Cummings Park, near the shoreline of Long Island Sound.
Cummings Park stands near the end of Elm Street, bordered to the south by the waters of Long Island Sound and to the east by a greenbelt of open woodland, and includes scattered shade trees, mostly pine and maple. One of its biggest draws is the softball field that is used by kids of all ages, but it also boasts a lesser known attraction that delights both bird-watchers and casual visitors alike: the colony of Monk Parakeets who have taken up residence in the park for several years now.
Native to Northern Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, the colorful and charismatic Monk Parakeets are about a foot in length, bright green, with heads and chests grayish white and deep green wings with bright blue streaks. They are the only parakeets to build nests, consisting of hundreds and sometimes thousands of intricately woven sticks. They spend enormous amounts of time building and repairing these nests, which serve as their refuge throughout the year, providing a breeding platform in summer and a safe home during winter cold and snow.
The chatter and industry of these busy birds keeps everyone enthralled with their daily antics and activity. The parakeets harm no one, compete with no other species and, in fact, provide nesting and roosting sites for other birds. Surveys reveal that the general public overwhelmingly enjoys the parakeets and consistently favor their protection. Monk Parakeets even become food for urban Cooper’s Hawks, while their eggs are eaten by Fish Crows and Common Crows.
Unfortunately, some of the Monk Parakeet pairs of the Cummings Park colony have chosen to build their stick nests in the light fixtures around the softball field. Most of the tall structures have masses of sticks interwoven into their service platforms, forming large and bulky nests which the birds peer over to watch the baseball players below. Eventually, the time came to service the light platforms, which meant removing the nests once and for all.
Prior to destroying the nests, city planning officials -- including Joe “Pepie” Barbarotta of the Parks and Recreation Department and Kevin Murray -- contacted The Wildlife Orphanage of Fairfield County for advice. Staffers Cathie Kovacs and Heather Bernatchez recommended an enlightened program that included four components: (1) a timetable in which the nests will be dismantled after the breeding season but still early enough in the fall to give the birds time to build new nests before winter onset; (2) a safe dismantling of the nests to minimize disturbance to the birds; (3) placing barriers on the new platforms to prevent re-nesting on the light fixtures; and, most importantly, (4) erecting a series of artificial nest platforms within the park.
The site chosen for the placement of the nesting platforms is a nearby lightly wooded hillside, just far enough away from the ball fields to discourage the parakeets from using the light fixtures as roosting sites. The artificial nesting platforms are being constructed using plans supplied by Marc Johnson, who has provided plans and advice to town and city planners across the country, from West Haven and Lordship in Connecticut to the little town of Yacolt in the state of Washington. These platforms have already been adopted by parakeet pairs in West Haven and Lordship. The birds have successfully raised families during each breeding season for the past two years.
At Cummings Park, the Parks and Recreation Department will oversee the construction of at least three of the artificial nesting platforms on poles. Another will be placed in a mature deciduous tree -- chosen because the tree had previously held a Monk Parakeet nest. The simultaneous establishment of these nearby artificial nesting sites is expected to provide a visual stimulus to parakeets in search of a suitable nesting platform in the days following dismantling of the nests in the towers. Such adoption will solve the town’s management and maintenance problem while permitting the parakeets to remain safely within the confines of the park -- to the delight of all concerned.
The success of this venture, at least through its planning and implementation stages, owes everything to the positive attitude of Stamford city planners and Pepie and his enthusiastic folks at Parks and Recreation. Their solutions to the monk parakeet situation can serve as an example throughout their native and introduced range, and it is hoped that other communities across the nation and around the world can learn from this respectful and promising civic experiment.
Dwight G. Smith is professor and chair of the biology department at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut. Dr. Ramirez is the botanist and urban ecologist in the same department and an avid and enthusiastic investigator of Monk Parakeet biology here and in South America.