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Spring 2006 - Act•ionLine

by Lee Hall | Spring 2006

Feature: Operation Parakeet: Representing Connecticut’s Littlest Immigrants

Forty years ago, the South American parrots appeared, bringing the song of the lush rainforests to the coast of the northeastern United States. Thriving on weed vegetation, these refugees from the exotic pet trade managed to find their place in a new biocommunity, and today they are a vibrant part of Connecticut’s web of life. Numerous monk parakeet colonies have also taken hold in New Jersey and in New York, including Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

With the tails of parrots, yet compact in size, the birds are commonly known as monk parakeets. They’re now a regular part of the diet of hawks and peregrine falcons, and they help other regional animals — such as Great Horned Owls, who rely on abandoned nests — to survive and thrive.

They are much admired by people in the region. Fran wrote to our Internet log: “I can still remember the astonishment and joy I felt when I saw the first one in Bridgeport. Whenever my neighbor and I would hear one, we would rush outside to try and catch a glimpse… If you remember, there was a steady stream of cars riding by their nest in Black Rock.” Industrious and charismatic refugees, the monk parakeets had clearly forged a strong network of community ties.

But now, the United Illuminating Company, which serves about 320,000 customers in southern Connecticut, wants the birds dead. And last November, the company, with the support of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Connecticut Audubon Society, the National Audubon Society, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), sallied forth to wipe out southern Connecticut’s monk parakeet community.

The location of their nests and potential resultant hazards are the only problems being pinned on the parakeets.1 While we don’t take the possibility of hazards lightly, it shouldn’t be the end of the birds’ world. If we’re aware that we are not the only animals with inherent value, then we’ll reject the view that a convenient way of lighting up our houses outweighs the parrots’ lives.2 We’ll redirect the resources available for killing into finding more sensible and decent answers.

Nesting issues are fairly common with a wide variety of birds in public places. Ospreys are provided safe structures; train stations deal non-violently with nesting prevention for pigeons and other birds as a matter of course. Human wisdom is needed to devise a way to steer parrots, too, to more natural settings.

The United Illuminating Company hasn’t done too well with its pole maintenance; nor has it come up with alternative nesting sites to the tall poles. Instead, the company and the state’s environmental experts tell us that those who have the technology to light up every home in Connecticut lack the creativity to move nests and deter them from being rebuilt. Round up the birds and kill them, says the company: That is the best solution for everyone. Obviously, they didn’t ask the birds. And the action didn’t prevent outages. In fact, some communities braced for the first power outages they’ve ever had, as they watched workers come into their communities and rip nests down with grappling hooks.

The sight provoked outrage. Nathaniel Woodson, United Illuminating’s CEO, declined to reply to letters, while other involved parties deflected criticism by repeatedly bringing up a factor that’s irrelevant to the utility’s operations: the presumed invasive status of the parrots.

Native or Not: A False Dichotomy?

Monk parakeets have been described as invasive, as though that mitigates the decision to treat them as an inconvenience and dispose of them. Yet ornithologists note that changes in weather patterns are pressing a variety of southern birds northward — and enabling them to stay, once moved. The Northern Mockingbird and the Northern Cardinal are examples of birds whose native latitudes are changing. Thus it seems that the absolute, rigid idea that any bird deemed non-native is owed no protection is as questionable from a biological position as from a moral standpoint.

Reliance on the dichotomy is particularly dubious here. Federal language tells us that an invasive species is “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” But the birds pose no more harm than squirrels or other birds do.

Experts who predicted 30 years back that the birds would become an agricultural nuisance turned out to be wrong. Indeed, Dwight G. Smith, who chairs the biology department at Southern Connecticut State University, believes that the northeastern ecology it would be poorer without monk parakeets. Even the Connecticut Audubon Society, which supports the extermination, admits that the birds are not harming the environment.

Connecticut’s statutes prohibit the capture and killing of wild birds. Until 2003, the parrots were among the birds covered by this protection. That was the year that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection requested an amendment to exclude monk parakeets from protection if the birds began to congregate in significant numbers. Asked about the precise basis of the department’s request to take protections away from monk parakeets, so far, state lawmakers haven’t remembered exactly what it was, let alone provided any solid evidence to back the change in the law.

Estimates regarding problems with Connecticut power lines indicate that only some nine percent are animal-related, and that most animals involved are squirrels. The company hasn’t suggested a roundup and gassing of squirrels who are caught congregating, but that’s what they’re doing to the birds. In a $125,000 undertaking, the company brought in contractors who have killed birds in Florida. Crews went out at night to seize the birds, then turned them over to agents sent in by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These federal agents then asphyxiated the parrots in carbon dioxide chambers. After that, the company began ripping down nests.

Corey L. Slavitt of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that United Illuminating’s subcontractor asked for federal assistance in killing the birds. “The Connecticut General Assembly could vote to make them non-invasive,” Slavitt told the Connecticut Post, thus indicating that the federal government doesn’t officially consider the birds an invasive species.

A Community Rallies

The showdown over the extermination of the monk parakeets came before the Superior Court in New Haven early last December. Friends of Animals withdrew our challenge to the phase of the roundup then underway, when the United Illuminating Company agreed to stop netting the birds and turning them over to the federal agents.

By the court date, nearly 200 birds had already died in the campaign to remove nests from more than a hundred utility poles in the towns of West Haven, Milford, Stratford, Bridgeport and Fairfield. But gathering enough public support to make the court visit count was essential to obtaining another hearing in 2006, thus gaining the opportunity to bring a case to show that feasible, prudent alternatives to killing parakeets exist, and to restore long-term statutory protections for the birds.

And the public did rally to support the birds. Throughout southern Connecticut, people turned off their holiday lights in memory of the captured parrots, and in respect for the surviving birds. On the Dec. 6th, the day of our court visit, Connecticut’s U.S. Representative Christopher Shays told the Associated Press: “The bottom line is there has been an incredible outpouring of support for these animals, and we need to work with the USDA, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and United Illuminating Co. to find another viable approach.” The Associated Press carried the parakeets’ story all over the country and the world, including in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

From the courthouse, Priscilla Feral issued an update to the advocacy community: “Professor Dwight Smith, as much a dedicated advocate as a learned biologist, has supported our legal action in state court today as the expert witness. Smith’s dedication to the well-being of the parakeets shows that fine scientists not only study life, but celebrate it.”

This dedication caught the attention of U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, a member of the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, and state Representative Richard Roy (D-Milford), co-chair of the state Legislature’s Environment Committee. Roy expressed relief that the company’s eradication plan was apparently altered.

Crediting public pressure against the utility as the reason, Roy declared, “I’ve had over 50 calls about this, and only one person has been on the side of UI.”3 About Friends of Animals’ court date result, Roy said, “This gives us some breathing room in the Legislature to develop some amendments for the law that has allowed the UI to capture these birds and give them to the USDA.”

But the birds who escaped the gassing faced the winter homeless, as the company had torn down their elaborate, thatched-stick shelters. When Priscilla Feral said, “It’s a terrible time of year to yank their nests down,” the company waved off these concerns.4

“If there are birds, they’ll just fly away,” said spokesperson Al Carbone, who also denied that the company changed its work plan in response to Friends of Animals’ complaint.

For the Birds?

“We are utility experts, not bird experts,” United Illuminating’s Carbone said. “This was a solution that was formulated by the USDA in support with the DEP and several bird organizations, like the National Audubon Society.”5

The scene showed how state and federal environmental officials, and environmental charities as well, need the influence of people who respect the ecology and the animals who live in it. The maltreatment of monk parakeets was nothing more than a grotesque sanitation exercise, an exhibition of flagrant disrespect for birds and the sensibilities of the community. When government officials — and the charities that enable them — lack insight, their legislative wish lists should get thorough scrutiny.

Connecticut’s environmental officials were, just a few years back, trying to lure birdwatchers to Connecticut in hopes of augmenting the $7-million-a-year tourism market.6 The Department of Environmental Protection had obtained a federal grant through the Wildlife Conservations and Restoration Act to promote business and conservation by advertising the Connecticut Coastal Birding Trail. The Connecticut Audubon Society was in on the project. The DEP told the media in 2003 that a virtual-birding trail would soon grace the project’s Web site — a site which is now gathering virtual dust.

Now, the Connecticut Audubon Society is behind the parrot-gassing plan. Its decision to go along with the DEP’s contradictory ideas should not astonish us, for the society advertises itself as “working in partnership with other environmental groups like National Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, the state’s DEP and many smaller local and regional conservation groups around the state.”

Milan G. Bull, the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Senior Director of Science and Conservation, defended the gassing matter-of-factly, insisting that research has not yet come up with a system to prevent monk parakeets from nesting on utility poles near transformers.7 With stunning irony, sort of we-had-to-destroy-the-village-to-save-it type of thing, Bull said the gassings properly addressed a situation that was “hazardous for the birds themselves as well as for people and homes.”

Bull’s claim to support the scheme as an “isolated case” also rang hollow. What the case showed was an outright refusal to extend serious ethical concern to birds, and a lack of the ingenuity to follow it up with the work that residents themselves began to provide by building alternative shelters for the birds.

Bull said, “No one appreciates birds more than we do, whether native or not.”

Some people obviously do appreciate birds more than the Connecticut Audubon Society does. Many of them desperately tried to talk sense into the society, explaining that the birds are social animals who fear death and injury, and noting that the society’s support for the roundups indicates that Audubon thinks little of its promise to “offer enlightened leadership on key issues” related to birds.

Planning Ahead

It’s incumbent upon the United Illuminating Company to spend money more wisely, by paying their workers to maintain utility poles year-round. Doing so would be in the best interest of public safety and would prevent the formation of nests, about whose weight and mass the company now complains.

If necessary, alternative nesting poles could be built. In several areas where horrified people have watched United Illuminating command roundups, communities are providing nesting platforms on their own initiative. The home of Julie Cook, who was arrested for taking part in a vigil on behalf of the birds, now has a platform out in front to welcome homeless parrots while the dispute carries on. Cook’s platform began attracting the bright-green birds in just a few days.

The idea of platform building has gained international support — and has made people wonder why the company itself isn’t leading the effort. As Allan M. Doyle wrote to us from Halifax, Nova Scotia, “I was wondering why the power company could not erect proper nesting posts for them nearby and somehow cover over the present power boxes as has been done for other nesting birds in other areas of North America by other power companies. They are intelligent birds — more intelligent than the flighty types now making the decisions…”

The state legislature, if it really wants to act as though it represents the communities and not big-money interests, should restore the provision that has protected monk parakeets, along with other free-living birds, for decades. It should acknowledge that monk parakeets have assimilated into the regional ecology. And it should understand and appreciate that public support for the birds shows Connecticut at its best.

What the legislature should not do is drop the provisions that shield these birds from becoming pets. Lawmakers should focus on creating the least possible intrusions on the birds’ lives.

The Agriculture Department’s Corey Slavitt said the birds haven’t been relocated or taken for adoption because of their purported invasive status. But even if the birds are accepted as being tantamount to a native species, that does not mean that wild birds should be brought inside and kept as pets — even with the best of intentions.

In nearby states, breeding and trading in parrots and parakeets is rampant. Bird clubs promote rescue projects at the same time they promote breeders, so that these functions become symbiotic. The non-profit Long Island Parrot Society of New York, for example, advertises contact information for both rescuers and breeders, talks up vague “conservation” ideals, and promotes “Parrot Expo 2006,” a “world’s fair for pet bird lovers” that will feature a bird sale room. The trade-and-rescue cycle only ends up making perfectly self-sufficient birds vulnerable to captivity, neglect, and the abandonment — and later calls for state and federal officials to control them.

No legal change is needed in the provision that keeps such enterprises from shooting up in Connecticut. The birds do not need to be rescued and put into cages. They simply need to live free from harassment. The best thing Connecticut officials could do for monk parakeets is to press the company to deter them from poles, providing safe alternative nesting arrangements if needed, and then let the birds go about the business of living.

The United Illuminating Company: Who They Are

The United Illuminating Company is a Connecticut electric utility. UIL Holdings, the parent of United Illuminating, is owned in significant part by Chase Enterprises, an investment company focused mainly on real estate development. The Chase family also launched Gemini Networks, the Hartford telecom enterprise. A subsidiary of UIL Holdings Corporation, United Capital Investments, Inc., invested $3.9 million in 2000 and 2001 to purchase a minority ownership interest in Gemini.

The Chase family is as renowned for its philanthropy as its wealth. Chase Family foundations have supported the arts, medicine, and legal education in Connecticut and beyond.

Rather than forcing our local communities to spend time and resources building platforms in each others’ yards and going to court for the birds, it would seem that such a well-heeled network of Connecticut residents could support the parrots’ interest in remaining alive and flying free, for as long as they and their joyful songs grace the state.

David T. Chase, CEO
Chase Enterprises
1 Commercial Plz.
Hartford, CT 06103
United States

Tel: 1.860.549.1674
Fax: 1.860.293.4297

Connecticut Audubon Society: Who They Are

The society issues an Educator’s Guide to “exploring the environment”; this interest in schools could make for a great platform-building project. Why didn’t they think of it?

Working in partnership with National Audubon, the group says it’s “keeping environmental issues in front of state representatives” and that it “promotes all aspects of the environment that together form the web of life.”

To let them know they’re on the wrong side of the web, contact:

Barbara Strickland, Chair
Board of Directors
Connecticut Audubon Society
2325 Burr Street
Fairfield, CT 06824
United States

Tel: 1.860.527.6750

National Audubon Society: Who They Are

The National Audubon Society is a separate entity, but the Connecticut Audubon Society works in “partnership” with National Audubon, and the latter reportedly blessed the monk parakeet killing project. National Audubon, with assets of $227,086,069 in fiscal year 2004, purports to “engage millions of people of all ages and backgrounds in positive conservation experiences.”

Let them know United Illuminating could use their support for a positive conservation experience.

One of their Board Members is Juliet P. Tammenoms Bakker of Greenwich, Connecticut, also a general partner of Pequot Capital Management, a board member of several of private healthcare companies, and an active supporter of the Greenwich Audubon Center.

Juliet P. Tammenoms Bakker, Director
National Audubon Society
700 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
United States

Tel: 1.212.979.3000
Fax: 1.212.979.3188

  • 1. United Illuminating claimed to the Connecticut Post that the sometimes large stick nests have caused up to a dozen power outages per year, plus four fires over the last several years. This is not the same information Friends of Animals received when telephoning the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, whose spokesperson cited only one specific fire (mentioning that twigs were found at the site) and added that the utility company and media accounts — not the department — would have the relevant details.
  • 2. See “Letter on Behalf of the Parakeets” from Lee Hall of Friends of Animals to Nathaniel Woodson, CEO of United Illuminating Co. (18 Nov. 2005).
  • 3. Pat Eaton-Robb, “Lawmakers Get Involved in Fight to Save Parakeets” - Associated Press (26 Nov. 2005).
  • 4. Ken Dixon, “Monk Parakeets Get to Fly: Deal Allows UI to Destroy Nests but Not Send Birds to Death” - Connecticut Post (7 Dec. 2005).
  • 5. “Lawmakers Get Involved in Fight to Save Parakeets” (note 3 above).
  • 6. “DEP Hoping Bird Watchers Flock to Connecticut” - Associated Press (30 Oct. 2002); Fermata, Inc., “About the Connecticut Coastal Birding Trail Project” (updated 2002).
  • 7. Letter from M.G. Bull to Lee Hall of Friends of Animals (electronic; 21 Nov. 2005).
Lee Hall

Act•ionLine Spring 2006

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