Friday, August 30, 2013

Radio Station Asks: Where Are the Wild Parrots of Chicago?

Myiopsitta Monachus (Monk Parakeet) in Chicago
Back in 2006, when Brooklyn Parrots made a trip to Chicago to report on the Wild Parrots of Chicago, the birds were easy to find in Harold Washington Park.

Today, however, they've become more elusive. While Myiopsitta Monachus is classified as a "sedentary species," that doesn't mean they don't move around. In the wild, they'll patrol up to 20 miles, and are known to send foraging parties around to favorite feeding locations in Brooklyn.

In Chicago, the parrots seem to have moved off from their old home base in Washington Park, dispersing to outlying areas within Chicago. While local residents have called in many individual sightings to radio station WBEZ, nobody seems to know where the parrots actually hang.

If you've seen a parrot in Chicago - call the station. If you know where the nests are, my advice is to use discretion. Sometimes these parrots have suffered from too much publicity.

To learn more about what's new with the Chicago wild parrot flock - a hardy crew that have been living in the Windy City for 40 years - visit the site of WBEZ, where, thanks to Tricia Bobeda and a flock of talented producers, an in-depth feature on the mysterious green birds can be found.



Thursday, August 22, 2013

Parrot Surprises U.K. Farmers By Driving Combine Harvester for 20 MInutes

A wayward Macaw recovered by two U.K farm workers seized control of a large Claas Lexion 600 Combine Harvester and drove it successfully for 20 minutes, according to an article posted to SWNS.com. The parrot – spontaneously named Rio by the two men– took hold of the steering wheel and “directed the combine all the way across the field and back to the farmers’ truck.”

Parrots seem to have a natural aptitude for driving, as shown in the video below.

India Cracks Down on Fortune-Telling Parrots

The fortune-telling parrots of India – who for years have been assisting mystics by picking out Tarot cards indicating what Fate might bring – may soon have to get new jobs, according to an article posted onTheInquisitr.com.  This is a very good thing, because these parrots typically have to operate out of extremely small cages that constrain their natural movement. VSPCA – the Vishakha Society of Protection and Care of Animals – has taken the lead in removing parrots from the fortune-telling trade, reportedly has conducted several raids of fortune-tellers, and has been quite successful in stamping this cruel practice out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Southern California Wild Parrot Count Now Exceeds 3,500

According to an August 20th article in the Orange County Register, there are now some 3,500 parrots flying wild in the skies over the greater Los Angeles area. Southern California seems to be an ideal place for wild parrots to thrive; there are no predators, there's plenty to eat, and winters are mild. It seems that utility companies aren't bothered by them, because none of the 13 parrot species build their nests in electrical infrastructure like the Monk Parakeets do.

For the latest news on California's impressive and diverse wild parrot flocks, check out californiaparrotproject.org, a site maintained by Kimball Garrett.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Does This Photo Prove That Monk Parakeets Travel Over Water?

After poring over an old news report chronicling the arrival of the wild Monk Parakeet (AKA Myiopsitta Monachus, or Quaker Parrot) in the New York area, I was struck by two peculiar 1970 sightings of the parrot cited in the article, the first, on Ellis Island; the second, at the Statue of Liberty.

It seemed to me odd that this parrot -- long known to have an aversion to flying over water, would be seen on these two islands, as well as Rikers Island, where it appeared a few years later. Sure, the birds could have been brought there by human beings, but I considered this highly unlikely. Why on earth would people have been transporting these birds to remote islands? Isn't it more likely that the birds flew there themselves -- over water- even though the prevailing wisdom is that Myopsitta Monachus never travels over water?

I then recalled a photograph I took several years ago, in Edgewater, New Jersey. Edgewater is located just across Manhattan from New York City -- at a latitude roughly corresponding to the neighborhoods of Harlem and Washington Heights, where Quaker Parrots are legal to sell at pet stores, as long as they are affixed with leg bands.

The photograph, which is presented below, shows a Monk Parakeet -- apparently wild -- flying in proximity to the wild colony of birds in that town. As you can see from the photo blow-up, it is clearly wearing a leg band. I cannot say whether this band is of the same exact type as is worn by New York-bred birds, but there are no other states within hundreds of miles in which Myopsitta Monachus must wear a band (the bird is completely illegal to sell or own in New Jersey without a research permit)

Free-flying and apparently wild Myiopsitta  Monachus,
photographed April 2006 in Edgewater, New Jersey.
Photo by S.C. Baldwin

2x magnification of photo above with leg-band circled.
Photo by S.C. Baldwin
Now the mere fact that this bird wears a leg band does not provide conclusive proof that it flew across the Hudson from Manhattan. It is possible that a Manhattan-based owner of the bird simply drove across the George Washington Bridge and freed it to join up with the other wild birds. But this photograph does provide evidence that birds may be travelling back and forth across the Hudson River from time to time. This evidence is bolstered by the fact that the same kind of parrot has begun establishing nests along the West Side Highway above 100th Street -- which is just to the East of Edgewater, on the Manhattan side of course.

The idea that wild monk parakeets are freely travelling over New York's waterways isn't so far fetched, when one considers the fact that in their native Argentina they will travel up to 25 miles to feed on a favorite food. While it is impossible to conclude with certainty that this is happening, or has happened, the evidence mounts that Myiopsitta Monachus may not be as water-averse as was once believed, thus changing the traditional narrative about how it became so widely established throughout the greater New York Metropolitan area.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Day of the Monk Parakeet: December 16, 1970

Myiopsitta Monachus in Brooklyn. Photo by S.C. Baldwin

Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta Monachus, AKA Quaker Parrots) reached notoriety in December 1970 when the New York Times devoted a short feature article to the bird written by John C. Devlin. Devlin had joined the Times in 1949 who had a strong interest in birds; he and his wife Grace Naismith had authored a biography of Roger Tory Peterson, whose Bird Guides served as indispensable field references for America's bird watchers.

Another Bad News Day in New York
It's unlikely that Devlin's article on the Monk Parakeet - the first the Times had ever published - made much of an impression on The Times' millions of readers, given the other grim events reported that day. In Washington, the House and Senate were noisily engaged in a tug of war over a $66 billion defense bill; at issue was a prohibition against the Nixon Administration sending American ground troops to Cambodia. Although the Times did not know it, Operation Linebacker II, otherwise known as the Christmas Bombing of North Vietnam, would unleash more than 200 B-52s against North Vietnam two days later. Elsewhere, refugees from the Soviet Union's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia were warned to return -- with hard currency -- if they hoped to evade criminal prosecution for their "illegal presence" in other nations.

Closer to home, on December 16th the Times reported that the Food and Drug Administration had just recalled a million cans of tuna fish as a "precautionary measure" against consumers being poisoned with mercury. In New Jersey, the president of Rutgers University, noting a fearful increase in bomb threats, complained that his university was bring "brought to a standstill." In New York State, Controller Author Levitt was rounding up support to audit the dangerously teetering finances of New York City, Buffalo, and Rochester, while newly elected Senator James L. Buckley warned about the twin evils of welfare reform and the SST. To make matters worse in the Big Apple, a Teamsters-led strike among fuel oil drivers threatened to chill New York's holiday festivities before they even started.

A Wide Range For the Parrots
Reading Devlin's article more than 40 years later, one is puzzled by several observations made on the Monk Parakeet in its earliest days of colonization in the New York Area. These observations may hold clues to the mystery of why Myiopsitta Monachus has done so well here, and perhaps predict what the bird might do next as it seeks to further expand its range in the Northern Hemisphere.

According to Devlin, by 1970 Monk Parakeets had already colonized a large area extending from Valley Stream, New York, to New Brunswick, New Jersey. Two flocks of between 9 to 12 birds had established colonies at Fort Tilden, on Rockaway Point, and on Staten Island. Other sightings had been made at Great Kills, Staten Island, Jacob Riis Park, in the Rockaways, at Ellis Island, and "around the Statue of Liberty." An additional sighting of a Monk Parakeet nest had been made in a broken floodlight illuminating Cleopatra's Needle, an obelisk just to the West of the Metropolitan Museum on the island of Manhattan. Interestingly, no sightings of the parrot in Brooklyn appeared in the article.

What Shifted The Parrot Population?
Today, the distribution of wild Monk Parakeets in the New York area is markedly different. While big colonies of the birds reside in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, they are largely absent from Staten Island and Manhattan. In New Jersey, the birds no longer appear to reside in the southern portions of the state, although a large colony exists in Edgewater, to the North.

Some shift of the wild population is to be expected with the passage of more than 40 years, given that the parrots -- while classified as a "sedentary" (non-migratory) species -- do move around, and appear to "split" their flocks when a critical threshold number of birds -- I'd estimate between 40 and 75 -- is reached. At the same time, the parrots in at least three of the areas cited above -- Manhattan, South Jersey, and Staten Island -- were subject to deliberate eradication campaigns in the 1970s, and while these eradication campaigns were deemed "successful" by the agencies conducting them, it is possible that surviving parrots relocated -- perhaps to Brooklyn or other areas where they could count on people not trying to shoot at them. In fact, one can argue that the eradication campaign may have actually created the colonies we see today, although this is just a guess, not an actual hypothesis at this time.

No Fear of the Water?
Another fascinating fact is contained in John Devlin's 1970 article -- the fact that Monk Parakeets had been spotted "in and around the Statue of Liberty" and on Ellis Island. The consensual wisdom about the Monk Parakeet is that the bird has an aversion to flying over water, prohibiting the colonization of islands. This aversion explains why the wild parrots of Chicago -- fleeing the airport -- progressed no further than the western shore of Lake Michigan. So how did these parrots get to these islands? Unless they were left by a wayward mariner, they must have flown there on their own.

One must conclude that if these sightings were bona fide, and if Monk Parakeets were actually living on Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty in the late 1970s -- the "flying over water fear" may in fact be a myth. And if Monk Parakeets actually fly over water from time to time, this might offer a whole new explanation for why there are parrot colonies in Edgewater (which is just across the Hudson River from Washington Heights, where many pet Monk Parakeets are raised and often released), Brooklyn (just a short flight from Staten Island), and other non-landlocked areas as well.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

How Do Wild Quaker Parrots Keep Squatters Out of Their Nests?

A Wild Quaker Parrot Colonial Nest in Brooklyn. 


Wild Quaker Parrots living in American cities are often seen congregating with other introduced bird species such as pigeons, sparrows, and starlings.  Occasionally these other species attempt to nest within a structure built by the parrots, and one can't blame them. Quaker Parrot nests are generally very strong, well-insulated, and durable -- much more so than nests built by these other species. For example, when parrot nests were removed from the Throggs Neck Little League Baseball Field in 2007, we found that at least one of these nests had been occupied by starlings.

Wild Quaker Parrots are generally highly territorial about their nests, and each nesting pair occupying an individual chamber within a colonial nest appears to regard this chamber as their own personal property. Parrots that have not been granted some kind of permission are actively repelled, as are squirrels and other unauthorized animal trespassers.

At the same time, however, recent evidence from Argentina suggests that Quaker Parrots sometimes employ a lower-profile, less confrontational defense against other species  attempting to establish quarters within an active parrot nest. In a survey conducted by Manual Nores whose results were published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, Quaker Parrots did not directly attack pigeons attempting to "squat" in a parrot nests.  Instead, the parrots simply "blocked the chamber entrances with thorny sticks where pigeons nested, eliminating access to chambers and causing the pigeons to abandon their nests."

This new evidence further erodes Myipositta Monachus' undeserved reputation as an "aggressive" species. In more than eight years of observing the wild Quaker Parrots of Brooklyn, I've never seen a parrot attack any of these species. If there's any fighting that I've observed, it's between the parrots themselves, and this "fighting" is more Brooklyn-style kvetching than knock-down, drag out physical conflict. Let us hope that these new findings from Argentina support the notion that Quaker Parrots are capable of resolving conflicts -- even inter-species ones -- constructively and creatively.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Parrot Inspires Costa Rica To Free Its Zoo Animals

Gawker.com reports that Costa Rica is in the process of liberating all of its zoo animals and repatriating them into the wild. The inspiration for this happy event came from a parrot, according to Rene Castro, Costa Rica's Minister of the Environment. ""One day, we took the parrot out to the patio, and a flock of wild parrots passed, and the parrot went with them. It made a big impression on me because I thought that we were taking good care of her. We fed her with food and affection. ... all these things that we as humans thought she liked. And when she had the chance, she left."

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Wild Parrot Mystery on Rikers Island: What Really Happened in 1973?

By Stephen C. Baldwin, The Brooklyn Parrot Society.

Until 1972, the monk parakeet (AKA Quaker Parrot) was regarded as no more than a "curiosity" by New York-area observers including legendary ornithologist John Bull, who first observed a group of such parrots constructing a nest in Lynbrook, New York, and reported these odd findings to the scientific community. Monk parakeets had been seen before in the New York area - sitings as early as 1968 were noted in the literature, but Bull was the first one to actually publish a paper.

Bull liked the parrots he found, noting their intelligence, sociability, and gumption. But he also feared that the monk parakeet -- like other introduced species such as the starling, released intentionally to the U.S.A. in 1891 and destined to be the scourge of tree-dwelling native songbirds and woodpeckers -- would become a problem unless some effort to control it were made.

By 1973, as more sightings of the raucous, noisy parrot surfaced, curiosity turned to outright alarm, and by the Fall of that year, a full-stage assault was being staged against the avian invader. In New York State, this effort was spearheaded by the Department of Environmental Conservation, along with an unusual coalition of conservation-minded organizations, including the New York State Chapter of the Wildlife Society and the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs, each of whose representatives called for the parrot's immediate eradication.

From June 1 through August 11, 1973, biologists and DEC officials, supported by rifle-toting sportsmen from the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, fanned out across New York State in a search and destroy mission targeting wild parrot populations. By the time the campaign had ended, 75 wild parrots were either caught or killed, a handful of eggs were recovered, and any live  survivors were interned at a secure research facility in Cornell, New York, for future study.

Overall, the eradication campaign was deemed successful by the authorities, but also maddeningly incomplete, because the DEC's largest single objective -- the substantial wild parrot colony at Rikers Island, said to number "in the hundreds of birds"-- could not be targeted without first gaining clearance from New York prison officials. By the time such clearance was granted (and let us not forget that in those pre-computer days New York's "red tape" was legendary), and the hunters were finally allowed to step onto the island, the parrots had completely disappeared, leaving only a single abandoned colonial nest behind.

What really happened on Rikers Island in the Summer of 1973 may never be known. But the incident raises some tantalizing questions for those who study urban parrots:

1. What Were The Parrots Doing on Rikers Island In The First Place?
The fact that there was a large nesting colony of parrots on Rikers Island in the early 1970s is in itself a highly unusual occurrence. Quaker Parrots do not ordinarily like to fly over water; such an aversion to H20 was advanced by the late Quaker Parrot expert Cliff Paterson to explain why the wild Quaker Parrots in Chicago, flying East from their escape site at Chicago O'Hare Airport, stopped their exodus on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

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.

Perhaps the parrots at Rikers Island had learned that they could easily fly over New York's many waterways without risk. If this is not the case perhaps the parrots were introduced to Rikers Island by humans, perhaps prisoners, visitors, or prison staff. This seems highly unlikely: the days of Robert Stroud -- the fabled "Birdman of Alkatraz" was allowed to keep canaries in his cell -- were long over by 1973 and prisoners at Rikers were not authorized to have pet birds. Nor, to my knowledge, were prison officials allowed to keep parrots on Rikers Island.

Each of these explanations remains highly unsatisfactory, leaving the question of the parrots' existence at Riker's Island an utter mystery.

2. Did Prison Authorities Capture The Parrots Themselves?
The question of how the parrots got off Rikers Island before the sniper teams arrived is equally difficult. It is certainly possible that the flock miraculously mustered the strength and morale to mount what must have seemed to the entire flock a crazy suicide mission over water.

One important clue exists in the official accounts: the fact that the DEC eradication teams encountered only one nest when they arrived. Although monk parakeets are widely known for living in dense housing enclosures, it is practically impossible for 100 or more monk parakeets to reside comfortable in a single nest together, however large: there must have been others. What happened to them? Is it possible that prisoners -- or prison officials -- decided to do their own eradication? One cannot rule this possibility out, especially because of the economic incentive. Even in 1973, wild parrots of this kind had market value -- especially as breeders. And yet no record appears to substantiate the "prisoners capture parrots" hypothesis -- at least none has surfaced in my research.

3. Were The Rikers Parrots Given an Ultimatum?
Those of an anthropomorphic bent like to claim that the parrots were "tipped" off, either by prisoners or by a friendly guard, that they should immediately leave Rikers or be killed or captured by the DEC, and that the parrots immediately took heed. But for this to occur there would have to be some kind of inter-species communications channel present of which scientists are not currently aware, and despite the efforts of several pioneering behavioral scientists who have advanced the idea of parrot-human telepathy, it does not seem that these findings have been accepted by the scientific establishment, so we must rule this idea out.

4. Are The Parrots in Queens The Direct Descendents of "The Rikers Island 100?"
It is possible, but not necessarily likely, that the wild Quaker Parrots currently inhabiting certain areas of Queens, including the area arond Whitestone, are descendents of "The Rikers Island 100." This area is relatively proximate to Rikers Island (albiet separated by water), and there appear to be no other good explanations for the birds gathering there. On the other hand, monk parakeet dispersion patterns appear highly diverse, and given that in their native habitat these parrots can fly up to 25 miles each day to find a favorite food source, it is perfectly credible that the Queens parrot colony was seeded by one or more pairs from Brooklyn or Long Island.

Forty years have passed since that summer day in 1973 on New York's penitentiary island. Prisoners and prison officials who might know the true story are dead or long retired. If there is anyone alive who knows what happened, he or she has never spoken of it. But monk parakeets -- "the world's most persecuted parrot" -- have not remained silent in New York, and their colorful presence in the Empire State has benefited from the fact that the Great Anti-Parrot Offensive of 1973 was the last major attempt among bird groups and state authorities to wipe them off the map.


Friday, August 09, 2013

Quaker Parrot Bird-Napped at Gunpoint in the Bronx

This past Monday, a Quaker Parrot (the same kind that flies free in Brooklyn) was bird-napped at gunpoint in the Bronx in a brazen heist. The bird, serving as a human companion to a woman named Ana Marte -- who had recently lost her husband -- was being transported in a cage at the time of the theft. The incident was captured on surveillance cameras; the story was fully reported in The New York Times.

The man who allegedly was the robber -- one Darryyl Walker -- was apprehended by the NYPD, but by this time the bird had already been sold. Fortunately, thanks to excellent police work -- including the circulation of a photo of the missing parrot -- the bird (whose name is Cuca) was recovered and returned to the owner, who was very grateful. Cuca -- in addition to providing much-needed companionship to Ms. Marte, also faithfully performs the job of reminding her to take her life-saving medicine each morning.

New York is a tough town and there are always some desperate people about. Keep this in mind if you travel with your parrot through the mean streets and elevators.
NY's skies are also filled with raptors these days -- many hawks, falcons, and other birds of prey nesting on ledges and water tower supports. It is never recommended that you take your bird out of cage, even with a safety leash, in areas where these raptors are especially active. They could target your parrot (they have swooped down on dogs upon occasion in NYC parks). The sad fact is that there is a robust underground pet bird market in New York City, and it seems that the alleged robber had no problem finding a buyer for the stolen bird. This underground economy also absorbs birds poached from the wild; several years back a brazen gang of poachers was active in Brooklyn and New Jersey; they were apprehended only when an observant Edgewater, NJ police officer noticed their odd behavior around a wild parrot nest.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

NatGeo: Subway Sharks and Monk Parakeets

Prompted by an odd incident in which a dead shark was found aboard the N train (a train that two members of the Brooklyn Parrot Society ride each day) the National Geographic Society's web site posts an excellent article listing some of the odd and exotic species inhabiting New York City.

Seen an exotic animal invader in an NYC hood? Post your sighting to NatGeo.com. 

Swearing Scottish Parrot Identified, Returned to Owner

The swearing parrot who stunned Scottish rescuers a few weeks ago has been identified and returned to its owner, according to an article in The Edinburgh News. The parrot, whose name is Jackson, belongs to a local woman named Marie Friel.

While the return of Jackson to Ms. Friel was a happy event for both parties, it seems that the bird is a bit of a man-hater given to harassing Ms. Friel's male friends. Parrots generally -- and African Greys in particular -- seem to exhibit strong gender-specific preferences for humans. I am convinced that my first parrot (who was a Grey) believed my father could do wrong, whereas my mother was always viewed with suspicion, an emotion I could easily detect by observing the bird's narrowing (pinning) eyes whenever my Mom entered the room.  The bird didn't seem to like my sister much either.

It is debated whether gender preference among parrots has anything do to with the bird's own gender; it may not. One school of thought holds that parrots will identify the human surrogate for "flock leader" in any household, and seek to guard this leader against anyone --male or female -- so arrogant as to attempt to displace the parrot as "number two." Power -- not gender -- is what dictates the parrot's behavior.

Let us hope that things in the Friel home sort themselves out.