Thursday, May 11, 2006

Photo-Essay: The Fabulous Wild Parrots of Chicago

Like wild Quaker parrots living elsewhere in the 
U.S.A., the Chicago parrots love dandelions. was lucky to be sent to Chicago this week on a business trip, which gave me an opportunity to see the wild quaker parrots that I've heard so much about. These remarkable birds comprise the Midwest's only known colony of wild parrots, and they've lived in Harold Washington Park (formerly Hyde Park) for many years.

Unlike the free-range monk parrots of New York and New Jersey, Chicago's hardy birds build nests in trees, not man-made structures. I find it truly remarkable that they can survive here, especially in the winter, when their nests are exposed to the brutally cold winds blowing off Lake Michigan, which is only a few hundred yards away.

I got out to the park around 7:00 AM on a Tuesday and found the parrots very busy. The low light at this time of the day is very good for photography. You can get to Harold Washington Park via cab (it's about a $20 ride from downtown Chicago), or by Metra commuter train, which, at just $2.10, is much more affordable. If you're taking a train from downtown, just get off at the Hyde Park station and walk East about three blocks. Head for the tennis courts, which are just off of 53rd Streets. Keep your ears peeled and follow the raucous cries of these amazing avian invaders to their Midwest headquarters!

Without further ado, here are some photos of the fabulous wild parrots of Chicago. Long may their presence grace the Windy City! (click on any photo for an enlarged image).

The park where the parrots live was once known as Hyde Park, but was renamed Harold Washington Park to celebrate Chicago's former mayor, who did much for Chicago and also protected the parrots, who he regarded as "true survivors," from those who wanted them eradicated.

The parrots' nests are in four trees at the lakeside side of the park. Given this open exposure to the lake, it's a miracle that the they can deal with the brutal winds coming off Lake Michigan.

I count five monk parrot nests in this large tree.

Like their brethren in NY and NYC, these industrious parrots are always strengthening and improving their nests to endure the buffeting of the elements.

These little parrots are strong (Chicago being the city of "broad shoulders") and can flip heavy twigs around like tiny stevedores. Interestingly, the Chicago wild parrots seem to have no problem picking up twigs which have fallen from nests as a result of construction mishaps. I have never seen this behavior among New York monk parrots; once a twig is dropped on a Brooklyn street, it's left there to rot.

A monk parrot lifts off with a heavy twig in its beak. This twig will soon be an integral part of a sturdy lakeside tree nest. Nest-building (which seems to go on without a break from dawn to dusk) is a group activity engaging both male and female monks.

Across America, the month of May brings delicious dandelions, which monk parrots find particularly delectable. What could taste better, I ask you?

Chicago is full of large, magnificent American Crows, but they do make life difficult for the wild monk parrots, because the crows will rob the nests of eggs. This crow takes a drink from a water fountain in the Park.

I was sorry that I only had an hour or so to spend with the monk parrots of Harold Washington Park, but will be back to see them the next time I'm in Chicago.

Note: After running this photo-essay, I heard from Cliff Patterson, of the Baby Bird Farm. Cliff has some clarifying info about my essay; he writes:

Excellent as always, Steve!

Actually, you found the original colonies in Harold Washington Park. They have since multiplied and spread out. There are probably 20 locations within half a mile of there, plus there are now more isolated colonies springing up around the city and suburbs.

They used to capture whole flocks at one time for export back when they were allowed to be shipped into the country. It is thought that a crate got opened at O'Hare Airport back in the '70s. The flock was cohesive, so they all took off together heading in an easterly direction. When they hit Lake Michigan (you can't see across it), they thought it was an ocean or something and just stopped and set up housekeeping on the lake's edge.