Friday, December 29, 2006

Parrots Have Colonized the Wilds of Brooklyn

NEW YORK -- Alex Joseph, a West Indian-born parks worker, rakes the lawn at the grandly gothic Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn when he and his fellow laborers hear what sounds like a flock of sea gulls dive-bombing at their heads. The workers instinctively duck and whip round and look up and see -- those crazy green parrots, expertly mimicking the sea gull's caw.

"Man, they do that a couple times a week just to play with our minds," Joseph said, grinning wide and shaking his head. "They are a crazy bunch of immigrants, those birds."

They are the wild parrots of Brooklyn, these emerald-feathered yakkers with the wisenheimer sense of humor. Thought to be long-ago escapees from a container at John F. Kennedy International Airport, their ranks replenished by unauthorized releases from pet shops, the parakeets -- originally from Argentina -- have become accomplished city dwellers. There is a parrot colony along the Hudson River cliffs in New Jersey and another bunch that prefers Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. Of late, two arrivistes have taken up residency on an apartment ledge on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

But mostly these are Brooklyn parrots, content in their adopted borough of 2.5 million people.

"They are successful Brooklynites, in that they are adaptable, eat a wide variety of foods and like to talk," says Eleanor Miele, a professor at Brooklyn College who lives in the Park Slope neighborhood and has found herself entranced by the parrots.

New York has many wild critters, and a few are not human. A coyote wandered into Central Park before running afoul of sunbathers, and the hawks Pale Male and Lola established aeries on a gilded stretch of Fifth Avenue. Raccoons know their way around Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and muskrats poke at the mud flats of the Harlem River.

But the parrots -- which are about a foot long and are known as monk parakeets because their gray chests and tufts resemble a monk's skullcap and frock -- are among the city's more cacophonous and unexpected residents. Their cry sounds like metal scraping metal. (San Francisco has parrots-in-residence on Telegraph Hill. And Chicago has a broad-shouldered, loud-squawking crew that has been called "Hells Angels with wings.")

Most Brooklyn parrots live in colonies of 50 or 60 birds, although a few less sociable types live on Coney Island or in Canarsie or Gravesend. They favor homes atop light and transmission poles; at Green-Wood Cemetery they inhabit the soaring gothic spires near the gate. Their nests are vast 400-pound constructs, with foyers and anterooms and a space where the females lay eggs and enjoy a respite from the males.

Con Edison knows these nests well, as periodically the power company's workers clamber around them. "These aren't nests; they're condominiums," a spokesman said.

Half a dozen nests can be seen atop the light poles at the Brooklyn College athletic field. On a recent Saturday, 20 or 30 of the resident parrots swooped down and, amid much screeching, alighted on the branches of an oak tree beside a pre-World War II apartment building. Children inside the apartments gestured and called at the birds; sometimes the parrots talk back. (In captivity, monk parakeets can develop a vocabulary of about 200 words.)

Steve Baldwin, 50, lives in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn and acts as the parrots' pro bono publicist and bard. He has composed a Lou Reed-style song, "The Ballad of the Brooklyn Parrots" (available at, which mixes human and parrot voices and which one "critic" called "Jim Morrison meets Rick Moranis at the Audubon Society."

"They eat berries, ornamental plants and sometimes pizza," Baldwin said as he gave a tour of the Brooklyn College nests to a dozen birders. "They are very intelligent, and of course they don't like the suburbs."

How the parrots came to Brooklyn is a mystery. Apparently a large crate filled with the parrots broke open at Kennedy International Airport in the late 1960s. Baldwin's voluminous research tends to implicate mafia goodfellas in the deed, although that "fact" might be too delicious to check out. The parrots hung around the Jamaica Bay marshes that girdle JFK's southern edges before moving into Brooklyn. The cold was no problem, as the parrots hailed from temperate-to-chilly Argentina.

At first, state and federal wildlife-control officers tried to wipe out this "invasive species." Hundreds of parrots perished, and in the 1970s, the last large colony relocated to light towers at the Rikers Island jail. An eradication team showed up to finish the job -- but the parrots had disappeared.

"Someone tipped the parrots off," Baldwin says with a shrug. "They circled back to Brooklyn, and everyone left them alone."

Now there is a new threat. Poachers with nets are snatching the parrots and selling them to pet stores. The poachers have all but denuded several neighborhoods. It has parrot-loving denizens of Brooklyn talking about vigilante patrols.

Kay Martin lives somewhere near Coney Island, in a house filled with at least nine varieties of parrots. She acknowledges that their racket awakens her at night. So what? They are friends, and they talk to her. Martin, diminutive and pugnacious, spends most of her spare time safeguarding the wild parrots.

Are there nests near your home? She frowns.

"I'm not saying," she says. "The last thing our parrots need is another reporter poking around."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Wild Parrots find a home in Claremont

Hundreds of brightly colored wild parrots have been spotted in different areas of Claremont over the past weeks, giving residents a unique opportunity to witness these wild birds living in a naturalized environment. Although the parrots are not native to Southern California, they have made it their home and have been here for several decades.

“Around 9 a.m. on Saturday, I walked out my front door, looked up and saw hundreds of these beautiful birds in the trees,” said Claremont resident Yvonne Cervantes Coleman, who lives on the 1100 block of Mountain Avenue. “They were so loud, I felt like I was in the movie ‘The Birds,’” she said, referring to the classic 1963 Alfred Hitchcock horror film.

Dr. Dan Guthrie, a Claremont Graduate University biology professor and president of the Pomona Valley Audubon Society, explained that for at least a dozen years, more than a thousand of the parrots have permanently settled in Temple City. “It appears that a group of around 300 of the Temple City flock have come over to this area, possibly to find new areas for feeding,” Dr. Guthrie said. “The ones we are seeing here are of the species Red Crowned Amazons, which are native to central and northern Mexico.”

Despite their name, the red crowns are mostly a bright yellowish green color, but have distinguishable blue and red markings around the head. They like to eat persimmons, china-berry, walnuts, pine cone seeds and other fruits and grains. The birds spend their days searching for food, sometimes traveling several miles. Around sunset, they return to their established roosting area where they rest until sunrise.

“These parrots have lifelong mating partners, and if you watch them, you will notice that they will even travel in pairs as they go out and forage for food,” explained Dr. Guthrie. “They don’t have any real natural predators like they do in their native habitat so they breed quite well here. The population appears to be steadily increasing as this group indicates. And they seem to be able to tolerate the cold weather, as long as they have can find plants with berries and fruit.”

According to Tim Tipping, who lives near the corner of Towne Avenue and Amador Street, the birds are loud enough to wake you up, even with the windows closed.

“At around 6:30 a.m. you can hear them,” he said. “I’ve seen them here every morning for about the last week and a half.”

Parrots are native to many regions of the world, with most species found in central and South America, but also in Africa, southeast Asia and Australia. In some places, deforestation has led to dramatic decreases in native parrot populations. Several parrot species are officially listed as endangered species.

Since these birds are not native to southern California, there are a variety of urban legends as to how they came to settle throughout the area. Among the rumors are that an exotic bird smuggling ring was about to be busted by authorities. In order to destroy the evidence of their crimes, the group released the birds into the wild. Another theory describes a passionate group of firefighters who set the birds free to save them from a burning pet store.

According to a website dedicated to the parrots, these birds are the descendents of wild-caught parrots which were imported into the United States many years ago and then either escaped captivity or were intentionally released into the wild.

However they got here, Claremonters seem to be happy about the new arrivals, despite the early morning squawking.

“They’re just so beautiful and it’s amazing to watch them fly around, from tree to tree, said Ms. Coleman. “When they first arrived, a lot of the neighbors were out in the street and we all enjoyed seeing them here.”

Birds of a feather

Although endangered by loss of habitat in its native Mexico, the green-cheeked Amazon parrot thrives in the comparatively tame outdoors of Palm Beach.

The parrots have adopted as their home the lanky Australian pines along the Pine Walk beside The Breakers, where they can be seen cavorting and squawking at dawn and dusk.

Keith Lovett, director of living collections at the Palm Beach Zoo, said he knows of no other green-cheeked Amazon parrot flock in Palm Beach County.

"It is rare," he said.

Highly evolved and intelligent creatures, the Amazon parrot, like many other species of parrot, has blossomed here because of the warm climate, abundance of food and the lack of a serious threat from predators, Lovett said.

And because of their scrappy attitude.

"Hawks will go after a dove instead," he said. "It's an easier meal."

Some of the non-native palms planted in South Florida originated in the tropics of Central and South America — an ideal arrangement for the parrots that depend upon the trees for their food.

"These birds are opportunists. They eat nuts, seeds and fruits," Lovett said. "There's very little to stop their reproduction once they are established."

Another reason they have prospered in Palm Beach is that they are legally protected by a 1996 town law that forbids the killing, wounding or maiming of any bird, Town Manager Peter Elwell said. The law also protects the birds' eggs and nests.

"The town is a bird sanctuary," Elwell said.

The Amazons are actually one of seven species of parrot that reside in the Pine Walk, Breakers spokeswoman Ann Margo Peart said. Inspired by the "star attraction" of the tree-lined avenue, the resort published its own children's book, Coconut Crew, featuring animated parrot characters that play and frolick among its amenities, she said.

The Pine Walk Australian pines were planted around 1880 to line the old road that led to a casino. The Breakers has kept them pruned to a height of about 70 feet, which reduces the wind load and extends the life of the trees. That is good for the flock of perhaps 100 or more green-cheeked Amazons, which favors the tree because it can easily nest in the hollow trunks, said Paul R. Reillo, a conservation biologist and director of the nonprofit Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, which has been monitoring the flock since the early 1990s.

The downside is that, if the trees are ever cut down or lost to a storm, the flock will disperse and almost certainly be lost, he said.

It congregates each year between late January and mid-February to begin mating season. One parrot will use the same nest year after year.

During the rest of the year, the flock is probably in agricultural areas, possibly the orange groves of St. Lucie, Martin and Indian River counties, he said. However, at least some of the flock live in Palm Beach year round.

"I've been seeing them for 30 years, and the numbers keep growing," said Claudine Laabs, a nature photographer and former president of the Audubon Society of the Everglades. "They love to gather on the (utility) wires and are very vocal early in the morning. I guess they discuss where they're going to go for breakfast."

At least some of the quakers, macaws, parakeets, conures, love birds and cockatiels seen flying around Palm Beach County are former pets or, far more often, descendants of pets that either escaped from their owners or were turned loose, Lovett said.

Reillo said, however, that the Palm Beach parrots were established in the 1930s or 1940s before the commercial importation of wild parrots, and are therefore not descended from escaped pets like other small flocks of feral parrots. Most likely the flock derives from a group of birds imported and eventually released by a Palm Beach resident.

They remain in South Florida year-round and stay close enough to return to their nests each evening, Lovett said.

"They definitely didn't arrive here through migration," he said.

As many as 70 kinds of parrot have been identified in Florida, with 20 believed to be breeding, according to the educational web site Florida All are exotic.

There's been little research on the newcomers compared to that performed on native species in general. The state's only native parrot species, the Carolina parakeet, went extinct around 1900.

Timothy Green, a bird lover and former aviculturalist for Walt Disney World who is now a business banker at Citibank on Royal Palm Way, said he was quite surprised to see the Pine Walk Amazons.

"I have not known of anywhere that had such a dense population of Amazon parrots," said Green, who used to lead birdwatching tours in the Peruvian rainforest. "They are distinct. They have an attachment to The Breakers. There is little chance those birds will move on. Once they nest and set up a pattern for feeding, they will keep that pattern for their entire life."

The birds follow a daily mini-migration, departing their roosting area early and flying off to a particular tree that they know is in fruit or seed at that time of year, he said.

Besides their remarkable memory, they possess exceptional vision and hearing. They also are highly social.

"One bird flying overhead and calling out can be heard miles away," he said. "That probably has a lot to do with how they locate one another in the wild. They have a desire to find each other."

Birds that flock can better defend against predators and find mates with whom to breed, he said.

"These birds that don't 'belong' here found a way to survive," Green said. "Talk about real estate: They couldn't ask for a better place to live."

During its breeding season, the green-cheeked Amazon adopts a territorial posture, becoming the only species on the Pine Walk, Reillo said.

To examine the nests, he uses a telescoping video probe with infrared lens and built-in microphone that reaches up to 70 feet off the ground.

After a 28-day incubation period, the birds hatch and then leave the nest in eight to 10 weeks, he said. Typically, the parents will raise two or three to fledging, or departure from the nest.

About 90 percent of the nests fail because of exposure to the elements or predators, including raccoons, starlings and crows, all of which dine on the eggs, Reillo said.

Last year, the Rare Species Conservatory counted 17 active nests. Only seven resulted in chicks, and four were known to have successfully fledged youngsters.

The problem is that there really is no ideal nesting site available. The birds simply have learned to make do.

"This flock must compress its entire breeding population into a nesting area of high-density nesting cavities, right on top of each other," Reillo said. "That is something that doesn't occur in nature."

The green-cheeked Amazon could well go extinct in its native range, yet continue to exist and even thrive in feral groups in non-native areas like Palm Beach, Reillo said.

South Florida has a population of several hundred that dates to the 1930s. Southern California contains by far the largest concentration in the United States; Los Angeles County has at least 10,000. There are also small numbers in Puerto Rico.

It is fitting that the Palm Beach flock has achieved a kind of local celebrity status, because it is in such an unusually glamorous and accessible location.

"This is an opportunity to see exotic wild parrots doing what they do naturally, without having to travel to the tropics and slog through the jungle," Reillo said.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

They may not be partridges and they probably don’t roost in pear trees.

The parrots at the World Parrot Refuge in Coombs, however, are very lucky to have found a roomy place to live out their days — and be a part of the area’s many natural world attractions.

World Parrot Refuge is run by the For the Love of Parrots Refuge Society (FLOPRS), which is led by Wendy and Andy Huntbatch, who moved to the area from the Fraser Valley. A facility was built in Coombs in 2005 for the more than 500 parrots they have taken in.

Many of the exotic birds have been rescued — or adopted — from families who can no longer care for them.

Parrots are long-lived and can require a lot more care and attention than a casual pet owner can afford.

A lover of parrots, Wendy has dedicated herself to their care and to FLOPRS’ cause — to ban the importing of wild-caught exotic birds and to spread the message of the cruelty of keeping wild birds in captivity.

World Parrot Refuge has won many supporters — locally and across the province — and has become a tourist attraction with a strong message to share.

To help their cause or to find out more about World Parrot Refuge and FLOPRS, check out their website at

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

UI, monk parakeets get along uneasily

A monk parakeet pair sits in a tree near the home of Jim and Julie Cook in West Haven.

Jim and Julie Cook built a platform in West Haven to house displaced parakeets. Connecticut's monk parakeets have recovered from last year's eradication program and have settled into a tense, if nonviolent, relationship with The United Illuminating Co.
The green birds that are native to South America and have colonized Connecticut's coast since the early 1970s are showing at least partial interest in man-made nesting platforms erected over the last year.
And while it seems unlikely that a law to protect the birds — proposed in the General Assembly, where it failed last May — will be revived, the Darien-based Friends of Animals has a lawsuit pending against UI to permanently stop the tactics that slaughtered 179 birds last year.
Two months ago, UI crews tore down 76 nests in utility poles in West Haven, Milford and Stratford.
Unlike last year, there were no U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel working with UI to kill birds on the spot. The parrots immediately went back to building nests in about a third of the utility poles. Most of the parrots, however, built nests in trees, not poles.
There are about 1,500 monk parakeets in the state, officials said.
"They're doing fine," said Julie Cook, of Ocean Avenue in West Haven, who was the first to allow the erection of a nesting platform for parrots left homeless by last year's capture-and-kill program.
The platform has been up for about a year and parrots have come and gone and come back, she said, adding that starlings and sparrows have also found room in the platform, which stands about 12 feet above her sidewalk.
Cook's stretch of Ocean Avenue has nests in trees and utility poles. Those bird colonies are among the region's most aggressive as they reclaim their homes.
Since the October destruction, she said, the birds are re-creating their homes one twig at a time.
"Some of these nests are being rebuilt very fast," said Cook, who a year ago was arrested by local police after a confrontation with USDA crews. The charges were dropped.
Michelle Slowik, who lives with her husband and young son on Crown Street in Stratford's Lordship section, said last week that she's witnessed the same transient occupancy in the nesting platform erected in her backyard last year.
"They are kind of 'on-and-off' birds," Slowik said. "Some days we don't see them at all." After putting up the platform last Christmas Eve, at the end of UI's parrot roundup, it took until April for the birds to begin nesting there. On a side of the platform opposite the birds, a young family of squirrels lived.
"The parrots are always at my birdfeeder," said Slowik, noting they eat apples, bananas, sunflower seeds, corn on the cob and safflower seeds, but don't seem to like bread.
The neighborhood's parrot colonies add a welcome bit of local color.
"I was outside the night they came and killed them," Slowik said. "I think people have an attitude that if it's bothering you, get rid of it or kill it."
Dwight Smith, chairman of the biology department at Southern Connecticut State University, who with his students has studied the parrot colonies for more than a decade, said last week that pairs of parrots that survived last year's fatal roundups re-nested and have had a full reproduction cycle during the summer.
"They're bouncing back," he said. Two of the 14 documented nesting-platform alternatives in southwestern Connecticut have been colonized, he said.
"Other surviving birds that immediately re-nested in trees and power poles were also successful," Smith said. "I can say that if they're left alone, they will recover fully.
"If UI dismantles nests at an appropriate time, neither UI nor animal enthusiasts will have confrontation issues."
He hopes the utility will consider the construction of artificial nesting platforms, "but so far, in four years I've tried to work with UI, no one has contacted me."
Albert Carbone, spokesman for UI, said last week that the utility remains committed to nonlethal remedies.
After crews cleared nests from 76 poles in October, birds renewed construction on 26 of the poles. Carbone said UI does not believe the birds readily take to the manmade nests.
"Monk parakeets are not platform birds," Carbone said. During last year's roundup, more than 100 nests were targeted from West Haven to Fairfield.
"Many of the birds were right at the same place in the immediate days afterwards," Carbone said of the recent nest-clearing effort. "We've been monitoring the nest rebuilds to see how many come back and see how big they grow."
A pretrial conference in state Superior Court is scheduled for April and a trial date set for mid-October of next year in the Friends of Animals case against UI.
"Obviously, with the court case ongoing, UI has acted within the guidelines of the law and will continue to do so," Carbone said. "In prior court conferences we said we have no plans to capture birds."
Priscilla Feral, president of the Friends of Animals, said last week that with the trial so far away and the discovery period of the case just ahead, she believes the utility might have some interest in settling the issue to avoid a public airing of the planning that led to the 2005 killings.
"We've heard that UI is intent on avoiding the kind of public-relations fiasco of last winter," Feral said.
"What we really need to do is go forward with a statutory change in the Legislature to get protection for the parrots as wild birds," Feral said. "I don't think we want to leave it up to UI on whether they'll get clobbered again. There is still keen interest in a remedy and I think it's going to come through the Legislature rather than the goodwill of the utility company that's intent on posturing who won and who lost."
Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Environment Committee, said last week that as long as the parrots aren't being captured and killed, he doubts there's a chance for another bill to protect the birds.
"I don't know if anything is going to be done this year," Roy said. "I think we will hear from the animal-rights people, but I don't know if we have to do anything at this point as long as UI does not capture them and turn them over to the feds for euthanizing and use for experiments."
In May, the bill to protect the birds died on the House calendar because, Roy said, there wasn't enough support in the Democratic majority. "I think what we did do is raise the consciousness of all involved," he said. "UI took steps to mitigate the large number of deaths of the birds."
He said that if the capture and killings were to resume, then he'd push for a new law. "I'd be more than happy to submit a bill and commit to telling everyone this should stop, but since UI responded with a program that's not killing them, let's see how this program is working," he said.
Roy said UI suffered from bad public relations. "This year, I think they want to avoid the sideshow," he said.
Cook and other bird lovers say that it was years of deferred maintenance that led to UI's controversial solution of 2005. But, she said, there should be a way for bird lovers to enjoy the tropical touch of the squawking flights of parrots and for UI to deliver power to customers.
"As long as they maintain their poles, there should be a balance," Cook said. "By clearing away the nests in November, their young bird can fly away and then they all come back and build fast, because they need shelter for the winter."
"We're very lucky that we can get to enjoy them," Slowik said. Ken Dixon, who covers the Capitol, can be reached at (860) 549-4670.