2006-01-13 / Columnists

On The Bayfront

By Elisa Hinken

Did you know there are parrots living in the wild in Brooklyn and surrounding areas? Did you ever look up in the trees and see a parrot or parakeet and wonder if it was someone’s pet that was lost? Living near Kennedy Airport and Jamaica Bay, I’ve seen lots of birds. I have also seen, on occasion, a parrot or parakeet flying around too. Since it is known that these species are not indigenous to the region, it does create a mystique. So, now I ask you: What are wild parrots Doing in Brooklyn? There is much mystery surrounding the appearance of these remarkable birds in Brooklyn, but it can safely be said that they did not fly up here from Argentina on their own. Thanks to Steve Baldwin and his website www.brooklynparrots. com, he assists us with some background information.

The theory that has the greatest credence is that a shipment of birds destined for sale at New York area pet shops was accidentally released at Kennedy Airport in the late 1960’s (1967 or 1968). Although the parrots did not turn up immediately at Brooklyn College (the earliest reported sighting was in the early 1970’s), it is likely that the birds survived in the parklands surrounding the airport, and made their way in due course to the campus, where we find them today. There are other theories: that a pet store on Flatbush Avenue went out of business and released them, that a truck overturned on a highway, but the JFK airport escape theory is the one that I believe is most reliable.

More than 60,000 wild parrots of this type (Myopsitta Monachus) were shipped from South America to the U.S.A. in this period. Why so many? Well, the Argentinians had just spent 10 years trying to wipe these parrots out. In fact, a government-sponsored program managed to kill more than 400,000 of them in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. But in the mid 1960’s, someone had a bright idea: instead of killing them, why not ship them to the U.S.A. and make a few extra dollars? And thus did the great influx begin.

After the escaped birds that came to Brooklyn College in the 1970’s established themselves, they soon began expanding their domain. Over the years, “satellite” colonies appeared in Greenwood Cemetery, Marine Park, Bensonhurst, and Bay Ridge. The parrots even tried to establish a foothold in Manhattan’s Central Park, but were driven off, not by high real estate prices, but by a hostile Parks Department which feared, wrongly in my opinion, that the parrots would crowd out local and migratory birds which use the Park.

Today, Monk (or Quaker) parakeets comprise the largest group of the nine species of parrots known to live in the wild in the United States. But their success in establishing an ecological niche for themselves didn’t come easily. In the early 1970’s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, fearful that the monk parakeets were agricultural pests, attempted to eradicate them, and was successful in reducing their numbers by about 40 percent nationally. In California, their colonies were completely wiped out. Even today, these intelligent, non-aggressive birds, which no self-respecting scientist has ever claimed have caused any significant crop damage in the U.S., are regarded with extreme hostility in many states. In New Jersey and Connecticut, they are classified as a “potentially dangerous species.” In Pennsylvania, they are reportedly euthanized on the spot whenever power companies find them nesting on transmission lines. In Florida, both the state Department of Transportation and the Florida Power & Light utility company do the same thing. On December 19, 2005, FPL merged with Constellation Energy Group, making it one of the largest energy companies in America, a worrisome development, given that Florida Power & Light has for years maintained secret gas chambers where captured parrots are killed en masse. If you inspect FPL’s Web site, you’ll be able to read one of the great lies told about these wild parrots: that they’re multiplying so quickly that in the U.S.A. they’re about to become a plague. In fact, the population of wild monk parakeets has stabilized, and they seldom travel very far from their base nesting locations, which are situated in suburban neighborhoods, not among wild crops.

Can Parrot and Man Coexist ? Power companies such as FPL and Connecticut’s United Illuminating Company rationalize these cruel actions because their managements believe that they have no choice. They argue that humanity’s need for electrical power trumps any interests that a “lesser species” such as a wild bird might have. In my view, they are missing the point, which is that it’s possible to work out a way to better accommodate the interests of both species, but only if some thoughtful research is directed towards a solution.

Britain, for example, where many wild parrots now live, new techniques have been developed to insulate utility wires to thwart any short circuits or voltage drops caused by nesting parrots. In Florida, alternative nest platforms (similar to those we have erected for ospreys) have been designed that have proved successful in luring wild Quaker parrots away from electrical power infrastructure. In Texas, utility workers will trim back nests without destroying them, which is both humane and more likely to keep the birds from “hedging their evolutionary bets” by building redundant housing and having a second brood of young, which is what these birds do when their nests are disturbed by man.

In New York, Con Edison, whose wild parrot control policy is comparatively moderate, has expressed a willingness to consider new ideas from private citizens and avicultural experts that might provide a better solution for accommodating the competing interests of humans and avians. It is my hope that such research might continue - and not be blocked (as it is in New Jersey) by the fact that the monk parakeet continues to be classified as a “potentially dangerous species,” a designation that makes it impossible to fund research on solutions.

The fact that North America has a new parrot on its shores is in my view a blessing, especially because our countrymen wiped out our only native parrot - the Carolina Parakeet - nearly a hundred years ago.

Nature has given us the rarest of gifts: a second chance.

Let’s not blow it!

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