Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Exotic existence: Parakeets nesting in Louisiana back yard

When Lois Martin walks out into her back yard, she can hear the raucous call of parrots. Sometimes, they land on her fence and visit for a while.
Martin doesn't live south of the border, but just slightly south of Lafayette. Her home is in Lafayette Parish, where Duson meets Maurice.

Wild monk parakeets are nesting in a neigboring tree, just across her fence. Martin said she has spotted five of them. The birds, which are actually small parrots, are also called Quaker parrots. Martin, a former bird breeder from Virginia, owns four monk parakeets of her own - domesticated birds that live in wrought iron cages on her patio. "(The wild parrots) hear them and I'm sure that's what calls them to my back yard - maybe what attracted them to this neighborhood," Martin said.
Although it's unusual for wild exotic birds to establish colonies in the Lafayette area, there are monk parakeets living and thriving in New Orleans, said Nature Station curator Bill Fontenot.
"They're established in Chicago, Portland (Ore.), in the Northeast, Florida, Texas and in Louisiana, now," Fontenot said. "They can only make it in urban settings. In New Orleans, the palms are providing them a nesting substrate and something to eat. I'm intrigued to know what these birds are eating."
Where the birds came from is a mystery.
They could have escaped from a local home, said LSU ornithology professor Van Remson. "There could have been enough of them that they formed their own colony. Or two could have come from New Orleans, although Lafayette isn't exactly next door. Or they could have come from someplace else. There's no way to distinguish."
Monk parakeets aren't the first non-native birds to establish themselves in the United States, Remsen said. "From Europe, we have house sparrows, European starlings, the rock pigeon, the common city pigeon and the Eurasian collared dove.
The monk parakeet is just one of the latest arrivals that is able to survive in its new environment, he said.

While the birds are a novelty here, in some areas, they are considered to be an environmental threat.
"At one time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was going to try to exterminate them," Remsen said. "In Argentina, they are a severe agricultural pest."
Martin is familiar with the potential for problems.
"They build huge community nests and they like the high tension wires. Especially in Florida, they're always having to go out and knock nests down."
Even so, Martin said she wishes she had a tree large enough in her own yard to accommodate them.
"It's thrilling for me to see them in the wild."

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