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Winter 2007 - Act•ionLine

by Dwight G. Smith and Marc Johnson | Winter 2007


A showdown over the extermination of hundreds of monk parakeets was short-circuited in Superior Court in New Haven Tuesday, after The United Illuminating Co. promised to cease capturing the birds — for the time being.

Priscilla Feral, president of the Darien-based Friends of Animals, was relieved that dozens or more birds that have escaped capture — and death — will not be asphyxiated. She said, however, it was a Pyrrhic victory, after about 200 of the gregarious green birds were killed in the UI’s three-week campaign to remove nests from 103 utility poles from West Haven to Fairfield.

- Excerpt from “Deal Allows UI to Destroy Nests but Not Send Birds to Death” in Ken Dixon’s award-winning series of articles on monk parakeets for The Connecticut Post (7 Dec. 2005).

Programs to eradicate populations of monk parakeets in the Northeast and elsewhere throughout their North American range sparked widespread criticism and activism from wildlife enthusiasts, local residents and organizations that protested destruction of the birds. To provide alternative nesting sites for the parakeets we designed and tested a nesting platform, and, with the help of volunteers and donations from Friends of Animals, erected fourteen artificial nest platforms in areas where parakeet nests had been removed from transformers and power poles.

Two of the platforms were adopted by monk parakeet pairs. Although this adoption rate is low, both platforms were subsequently used as breeding sites from which young birds fledged. We suggest that widespread erection of artificial nesting platforms provides an alternative that remains attractive to birds and expedient for the utility companies and other agencies charged with routine maintenance of poles, light fixtures and similar structures on which monk parakeets may nest.

The monk parakeet is the most successful invasive parakeet in North America and the only one to colonize parts of the Northeast, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Present in this area since the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, these parakeets have been the target of several eradication programs that attempted to eliminate the entire population as well as more sporadic campaigns to destroy individual nests and birds at the local level.

Justification for these eradication programs has been based on two claims, neither of which is necessarily supported by ecological study. The first is that, since the parakeet is an invasive species, it is therefore undesirable and undeserving of protection. In response, we can point out that the monk parakeets bring color and wildlife interest to often blighted urban environments and are appreciated by the great majority of urbanites. The second complaint is that the enormous stick nests that monk parakeets construct cause occasional power outages, becoming the target of local and regional utility companies that then advocate their removal and the bird’s destruction. It is the latter argument that has generated repeated removal and destruction campaigns against this parakeet.

The last and most fractious eradication program to remove and destroy monk parakeets occurred in late 2005 in several Connecticut towns that fronted Long Island Sound. Citing public safety concerns, the United Illuminating (UI) Company, which services a part of the southern Connecticut shoreline towns, removed over a hundred active nests and destroyed 179 birds at a cost of $698.32 per bird. A subsequent nest removal campaign occurred in late 2006, when UI company workers removed nests from power poles in West Haven, Milford and Stratford but did not destroy the birds as in previous nest removals.

All recent eradication programs targeting this species have failed, instead resulting in energizing a large segment of the public that enjoys the bright and colorful parakeets in their urban landscape.

The destruction of monk parakeet nests along with adult birds, their eggs and their young spurred the search for suitable artificial nests that may appeal to the parakeets. Marc Johnson of Massachusetts drew up the plans for an artificial platform that would be simple to construct and cost-effective, while providing a roosting and breeding platform that was a visually stimulating alternative to power poles for the monk parakeets.

Marc designed and constructed a boxlike nest platform of plywood supported by PVC tube. The platform was further modified to include a simulated nest complete with an entrance and interior cavity to serve as a roosting and nesting chamber.

The platforms are constructed using readily available materials and are simple to build. Materials include 2x2 exterior ¾-plywood sheets that form the top and bottom of the basic platform, rolls of chicken hex mesh wire to frame and shape the entrances, and straw as filler. Six pieces of 1x8 pine were screwed to the bottom 2x2 exterior ¾- plywood base, providing six pie-shaped chambers. Each of the six chambers was loosely filled with straw to provide insulation. Each had its own circular entrance fashioned from twigs. The roof of the platform consists of 2x2 exterior plywood.

Volunteers assisted in building the fourteen nest platforms. The first two platforms were erected on 18-foot lengths of two-inch diameter PVC pipe. Support poles for the next 12 platforms were two-inch diameter steel pipe 20 feet in length. Platforms were anchored in concrete and supported by guy wires. Total costs for all materials, including the mounting poles, were about $100 per platform. Volunteer labor, including construction, transportation and erection, considerably reduced costs of the pilot project.

Between November and December 2005, the platforms were erected on private property in West Haven and Stratford, Conn., placed between 50 and 150 feet from existing nests on power poles, or at sites where nests had been removed by the United Illuminating Company.

Two of the fourteen platforms were adopted by the birds. One platform in West Haven was adopted by a single pair of monk parakeets in December, less than a month following destruction of the parakeet nest by the UI company. The artificial platform was located about 50 feet from the original nest and this pair -- the only survivors from that nest destruction -- immediately started work on building up the nest platform, weaving twigs into the straw to increase both width and height of the nest. The pair succeeded in raising two young, and these fledged sometime within the first week of July 2006. Four parakeets were attending the nest on this platform as of November 2006.

A second nesting platform, at 25 Crown Street in Stratford, was adopted by another single surviving pair in April 2005, nearly five months after the destruction of nests in this town and four months after the platform was erected in December 2006. This pair raised two young as well. The pair and their young attended this nest all through summer and autumn, 2006. Five additional parakeets took refuge in this nest following removal of their nest in October 2006.

While utility companies constantly claim to be concerned with safety hazards arising from monk parakeet nests on transformers, here we have a proven suitable alternative that saves the parakeets while minimizing costs associated with management concerns. We suggest that large-scale construction and use of artificial nesting platforms based on this proven model would be cheaper than the company’s deadly approach. We hope these platforms prove to be a viable, long-term solution. Furthermore, we hope that the young raised at these sites may imprint on platforms rather than power poles, producing generations of monk parakeets that will use the platforms to establish new nesting colonies of this colorful and desirable parakeet in urban landscapes.

Erection and maintenance of artificial nesting platforms requires the cooperation of local homeowners. With their help, we believe these alternative nests can provide a safe haven for future generations of monk parakeets, and eliminate or at least reduce maintenance costs and public safety issues that occur when the birds nest on transformers.

We thank the large contingent of volunteers who donated time, money, and space to construct the platforms and then erect them on their property. Julie Cook of West Haven and Michelle Slowik of Stratford kindly gave permission for us to work on their properties. Partial support for research on the ecological behavior of monk parakeet acceptance of the platforms was provided by funds from the Werth Family Foundation of Woodbridge, Conn.

Dwight G. Smith is professor and chair of the biology department at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He teaches conservation ecology, mammalogy and ornithology. He and a cadre of students have been studying Monk Parakeet populations in the Northeast and elsewhere in North America for the past 15 years.

Marc Johnson is founder and chief executive of the Massachusetts-based Foster Parrots Incorporated.

Dwight G. Smith and Marc Johnson

Act•ionLine Winter 2007

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