City-Dwelling Monk Parakeets: Urban Boon or Bane?
Despite all odds, and with almost all hands turned against them, Monk Parakeets seem to be here to stay. They have endured four decades of harsh winters, cool and wet springs, and hot New England summers. They also managed to survive a major eradication campaign, conducted in the early 1970’s by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which eliminated nearly half of the existing population. And they have overcome sporadic attempts by local urban planners and town engineers to remove nests and sometimes destroy individual birds whenever they were deemed an annoyance.
The most vigorous campaign against Monk Parakeet populations in recent memory was conducted by the utility company United Illuminating in late 2005. This effort resulted in the destruction of 198 birds and several hundred nests along portions of the Connecticut shoreline towns, and produced an outpouring of sympathy for the parakeets and rage against the company, as well as Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some parakeets managed to evade capture and destruction. These survivors regrouped, and immediately set about reconstructing their nests with their usual energy, even amidst snowstorms, ice storms, and near record cold snaps. Now, nearly half a year later, their nests are approaching their previous size and United Illuminating is once again promoting efforts to remove them, recently taking several nests from transformer poles and power poles lining West Haven streets. This last removal was painless for adult monks but bid ill for their eggs and young. Still, the survivors of this latest purge are yet again setting about patiently and persistently rebuilding.
The focus of the all the attention is a foot-long, lime-green bird, originally a native of South America but part of Connecticut’s wildlife landscape for the past 40 years. Also known as Quaker Parrots or Gray-headed Parakeets, these birds were imported in large numbers for the pet trade during the 1960s. Accidents, escapes, and deliberate releases by bored pet owners formed the nucleus of the population which now spans 20 states -- with the largest numbers in Florida, Illinois, parts of the Pacific Northwest, and the Northeast.
Wildlife biologists first took note of the northeastern populations in the early seventies, and confidently predicted their demise with the first harsh New England winter. Instead, the parakeets seemed to have prospered and settled amongst the urban and suburban habitats that have overtaken much of greater New York City, New Jersey, and coastal Connecticut, much to the delight of residentswho enjoy the colorful and charismatic birdsmore than they dislike their constant chatter and messy nests.
The birds are very social, often found in flocks of 20 or more; sometimes as many as 100 are found in one flock. These birds are also very vocal, with a great many sounds and calls in their repertoire. Monk Parakeets are primarily granivorous, eating seeds and buds of many plants, nuts, berries, as well as grasshoppers and other insects. In their native range the parakeets are reputed agricultural pests -- large flocks are said to wreak havoc on fields of maize, sunflowers and sorghum -- but such destruction has not been demonstrated anywhere in North America. Furthermore, some researchers have questioned the actual extent and impact of agricultural damage previously reported. In urban habitats of Connecticut and elsewhere in the Northeast, the Monk Parakeets seem to be mostly a benign species. Their bulky stick nests are used by other species for nesting, roosting and shelter. Most notably, both Great Horned Owls and Ospreys have successfully appropriated the tops of urban-dwelling Monk Parakeet nests for their own nests.
They are the only one of 330 species of parrots and parakeets to build stick nests rather than nest in cavities. Their enormous nesting structures can reach eight feet in height and several feet in diameter. These nests are placed on trees, posts, light poles, telephone poles, power line poles and other structures that provide firm foundations for their expansive nests. Monks are especially fond of poles with transformers, which apparently provide additional support for their nests and possibly contribute heat as well. Despite the noise and the messy concentration of sticks that invariably accumulate below their nests, the birds were popular in surveys taken before and after the UI’s eradication campaign.
Unfortunately, nests on transformers are occasionally associated with fires and local power outages. Citing this concern, the Connecticut utility company has undertaken nest removal and eradication procedures in which the parakeets are captured and slaughtered.
The eradication campaign has produced an enormous outcry from local and regional animal-rights groups led by Friends of Animals.
No one doubts or denies that the UI company agencies have the right to protect their telephone poles and transformer units. But their insistence on slaughtering the birds, notwithstanding the condonation of the federal agriculture department, is the subject of questions and a legal dispute.
Amidst the furor, one possible solution advanced by Friends of Animals along with the designer, Marc Johnson, involved artificial nesting platforms to divert the Monk Parakeets from the transformers. A cadre of volunteers assembled to manufacture the artificial nest platforms and set them up in several local neighborhoods where the parakeets were common. Several of the platforms were adopted by Monk Parakeets and at least one pair successfully raised two young at a platform located on Ocean Avenue in West Haven.
Whither the current status and future of the Monk Parakeet population in the Northeast? After four decades of living in the Northeast and elsewhere across the United States, their status as well as their potential impact on the environment remains largely unknown; but extensive and persistent eradication campaigns may yet result in the destruction of North America’s only parakeet.
For now, like so many other immigrants to this continent, they have survived and spread, and now several hundred thousand prosper. The alternative to wholesale eradication is to find a way to live with the birds. Ospreys and other birds routinely nest on power lines, poles and on edifices; yet rather than destroying them, their nests or both, companies, agencies and wildlife professionals have worked together to alleviate the problems by means of artificial nests and other devices. Perhaps it is time for UI and similar power companies to begin working in concert with Friends of Animals, wildlife professionals and wildlife enthusiasts to seek a workable solution that will ultimately benefit urban Monk Parakeets.
Dwight G. Smith is professor and chair of the biology department at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut. He and his student cadre have been studying the ecology of Monk Parakeets for more than a decade.