Originally native to subtropical and temperate South America, Monk Parakeets now occur widely as an exotic throughout the United States (including Puerto Rico) – and there are even colonies in parts of Europe. How they got to these far-flung sites appear to be the result of a combination of deliberate releases and accidental escapes, but there are now many well-established feral populations and the species is thriving – much to the delight of some people, and to the irritation of others (eg officials of the US Dept of Agriculture, some Public Utility companys which have torn down nests from utility poles in the past, and a few doomsayers determined that Monks should be sent packing now ‘just in case’ they turn into rampaging invasives on a par with Starlings or Common Mynahs).
In the first of a two-part look at ‘the little green parrots’ I’ll be profiling the Monk Parakeet – their range, their biology, and their history in the US etc – and in the second (posted tomorrow) I have an interview with the indefatigable Steve Baldwin of Brooklyn Parrots who is determined that New Yorkers will come to love their new neighbours as much as he does. NB most of the images used in these two posts are copyright Steve Baldwin and are used with his permission.
The Monk Parakeet Myiopsitta monachus
Not much larger than a Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata at around 11.5 in/29.2 cm – half of which is a long pointed tail! – Monk Parakeets are small, noisy parrots native to South America, occurring in large numbers from central Bolivia to south Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Three or four subspecies are usually recognised based on geographical variation in wing length, bill size, body mass and plumage coloration: M. m. monachus in southeastern Brazil, Uruguay, and northeastern Argentina; M. m. calita in western and southern Argentina; and M. m. cotorra in southeastern Bolivia, Paraguay, northern Argentina, and southern Brazil. A fourth ‘subspecies’, luschi, which is found in the Andean valleys of central Bolivia, was recently elevated to full species status by the International Ornthological Congress and re-named the Cliff Parakeet, though this ‘split’ is not recognised by all authorities. None of the four taxa are considered threatened by the IUCN.
Had they been left in South America, then – like most of the other 300+ parrot species in the world – they’d have remained virtually unknown outside of their native range, but Monks – or Quakers as they’re more usually known in the bird trade – are intelligent, sociable birds that have been exported in huge numbers around the world. One report suggests that over 64,000 were imported in to the US alone between 1968-72, and BirdLife International states on its website that “since 1981 when it was listed on CITES Appendix II, 710,686 wild-caught individuals have been recorded in international trade (UNEP-WCMC CITES Trade Database, January 2005). A fascinating (and almost by definition, academic) study of DNA samples taken from North American Monks strongly suggest that most of the birds now feral across the US are of the nominate monachus subspecies and therefore originally came from eastern Argentina and Uruguay. This is backed up by trapping and export records.
Almost inevitably there have been escapes while birds are in transit (a perhaps apocryphal tale is that the New York birds originated from broken transport crates at JFK airport) or releases by either bored owners or ‘parrot lovers’ who wanted to see the Monk Parakeet breeding locally. Interestingly, unlike the now generally detested North American populations of House Sparrow Passer domesticus and the Starling Sturnus vulgaris (both of which were introduced deliberately – the sparrow in 1850 in Brooklyn, NY to control cankerworms, and the Starling in Central Park, NY in 1890 by a group who planned to introduce every bird species mentioned in Shakespeare!) there was no officially sanctioned release of the Monk Parakeet: nevertheless of at least 74 free-living exotic parrot species known to exist in North America the Monks are by far the most populous and are now firmly established in feral colonies in at least eleven States in the US (particularly New York, New Jersey, and Florida – as many as 18,025 to 32,044 were estimated to be in Fiorida in 2005), and is also thriving in parts of Europe, Bermuda, Israel, and the Canary Islands (they even survived the Canadian winter near Montreal for some years).
Feeding Monk Parakeet, Puerto Rico. Photo from Wikipedia and used under licence
The reasons for their success are many. They are naturally hardy, breeding widely in the Andean foothills where winter temperatures are similar to the northen US, and are ‘plant generalists’ that in both South America and in non-native areas can eat a wide range of plant buds, seeds, fruits, and berries when they’re available (one study suggested that their diet varied seasonally with flowers and buds comprising over 80% of their diet in spring, fruits comprising over 80% of their diet in summer, and seeds comprising 100% of their diet in winter). In North America they now regularly take bird seed from garden birdfeeders, and – according to Steve Baldwin of Brooklyn Parrots – are also apparently not above snacking on the odd bit of pizza when it’s offered to them !
Added to their toughness and catholic tastes in both natural and junk foods is their interesting nesting strategy: Monk Parakeets are the only parrot in the world that build stick nests (often occupied by many pairs) that can reportedly weigh up to a staggering 200kg. In South America nests are usually constructed 10 or more meters above the ground, either against the trunk or out on branches of a variety of trees (in a neat twist on the ‘exotic’ theme introduced eucalyptus trees are apparently popular) with the ‘entrances’ often angled downwards which stops rain or strong winds from penetrating the nesting chambers. Roosting in the centre of these insulated ‘buildings’ undoubtedly help Monk Parakeets survive the winter chill.
Nesting Monk Parakeets. Photo copyright Steve Baldwin
Unfortunately nesting Monk Parakeets in North America seem drawn to utility poles and telecomms towers – perhaps because in the wild they would normally choose nesting sites in isolated trees rather than in dense woodland and these man-made structures are the closest they can find (another theory is that there is some heat transfer into the nest from the ‘wires’). Whatever the reason, some utility companys have reacted strongly to the parrots sharing their poles and – citing the possibility of fires and of power outages due to short-circuits (not to mention the potential distress caused to plump couch potatoes everywhere as their TV reception is messed with) – have torn down nests. Some have gone further than that and, famously, Connecticut’s United Illuminating Co. caught and gassed more than a hundred Monks in Nov 2005 causing outrage all across America (have a look at http://www.websitetoolbox.com/tool/post/luciedove/vpost?id=762624 for example). How many fires have been caused by Monk Parakeets? No figures are available that I can find, but I’m personally willing to bet it’s far less than the number caused by people smoking in bed, burning dinner, or clearing their backyard of weeds.
It’s not just utility companys that have it in for Monk Parakeets – the US Dept of Agriculture doesn’t like them either, fearing that once Monks become established across the nation they will form huge swarms that will devestate the grain fields of North America. Is that likely? Monk Parakeets have been considered ‘agricultural pests’ in parts of South America since the time of the Incas, but even a generally precautionary (and widely-quoted) December 2000 article on the “Institute for Biological Invasions” website (at http://invasions.bio.utk.edu/invaders/monk.html) says that:
“But while parrots possess some of the morphological and behavioral adaptations characteristic of avian pest species (e.g., generalist feeding strategies), most parrots do not fit the overall profile of pest species, and the damage to agricultural crops tends to be exaggerated by farmers worldwide. Moreover, such damage is usually related to, or entirely explained by, poor agricultural practices of humans, rather than aggressive foraging by monk parakeets, and motivation for eliminating the birds is often political. Clearly, conflicts between native monk parakeets and humans will continue to escalate as humans continue to expand into forested habitats and bring agriculture along…”
Another perceived problem that’s sometimes mentioned is the possible spread of seeds from exotic plants by feral Monk Parakeets. Quoted in an article in a local South Florida newspaper, though, Mike Avery, a project leader with the National Wildlife Research Center’s Florida field office in Gainesville, disagreed saying that, “So far, that has not materialized. There’s been some damage to tropical fruit in Southwest Florida, but it’s really not widespread. They feed mostly on food provided by people on backyard bird feeders. That seems to be the pattern. They’re being subsidized by residents who like to see them in their yards.”
Photo copyright Alan Zale (for the New York Times)
Could Monk Parakeets suddenly explode out of the urban settings most of them are found in though? Dire warnings of exponential population explosions made in the late 1970s and early 1980s don’t seem to have been borne out. The Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 prohibits the importation of Monk Parakeets into the United States, reducing the chances of future introductions of wild-caught individuals. Domestically-bred birds are still widely traded and though some states ban the possession of Monks entirely this has to be the most likely source of introductions into states not currently reporting self-sustaining breeding populations. However if the numbers in areas like Brooklyn, where there’s an abundance of nesting sites and both natural and provided food, hasn’t exploded in the thirty years they’ve been there, why should they suddenly move en-masse into the grain belt, learn to nest on the ground (most of the trees were removed decades ago) and become the ‘agricultural pests’ that some officials lie awake in bed thinking about?
Before the gassing and nest teardowns begin again, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Monk Parakeet didn’t ask to be transported thousands of miles deep into a foreign country and if we hadn’t removed forests, introduced exotic plants, built towers, and generally created a place that they find to their liking there would be no ‘problem’ in the first place. There are only so many Monk Parakeets (and other parrot species) in eg Florida because we have fundamentally altered the environment (especially along the coastline) by settling the state in huge numbers ourselves, removing native vegetation, planting thousands of species of fruit- and nectar-bearing ornamental plants, and creating the perfect habitat for the survival and proliferation of many essentially tropical birds.
Monk Parakeets. Photo copyright Steve Baldwin
Besides, many city people benefit psychologically from having Monk Parakeets flying around suburbs where most of the native species have already been driven out by housing developments and the hordes of predatory non-native mammals like cats and rats that we brought with us. Monk Parakeets are undoubtedly beautiful, adaptable, and tough little birds and – so far – the ‘evidence’ that they are harmful to native species is anecdotal rather than proven, and surprisingly in at least one case they’ve been found to do less damage than another common exotic. An article at http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Monk-Parakeet includes a reference to a small flock of Monks nesting within Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York:
While the grounds crew initially tried to destroy the unsightly nests at the entrance gate, they no longer do so, because the presence of the parrots has reduced the number of pigeons nesting within it. The management’s decision was based on a comparative chemical analysis of pigeon feces (which destroy brownstone structures) and Monk Parakeet feces (which have no ill effect). Oddly then, the Monk Parakeets are in effect preserving this historic structure.
Rather than kill them now because of what Monks might do should they ever become as numerous as eg Starlings, we ought instead to look at what we know now (after decades of Monk Parakeets living wild in the US), reflect more on why they’re here and – in my non-scientific opinion anyway – learn to ‘live and let live’. It’s irresponsible traders and irresponsible owners we ought to be focussing our ‘control’ efforts on. As a concise statement on the Avian Welfare Coalition website puts it:
It is significant to note that non-native animal species existing in the US and in other parts of the world have consistently been introduced through intentional or inadvertent release. Subjecting these animals to inhumane, lethal eradication in misguided attempts to control populations, is equally irresponsible and reprehensible. Rather, AWC supports regulation and legislation that targets the individuals, industries, and trade contributing to the introduction of non-native species.