Pests or Pets?

The Battle to Save Monk Parakeets Heats Up

Take a walk through the dense thickets that rim the teeming marshlands along the Connecticut coast, and you may feel like you are exploring a wild South American jungle. That’s because you may hear the loud squawking and shrieking of an import from the Southern Hemisphere, Myiopsitta monachus, known as monk or Quaker parakeets.

© A.J. Hand

Mostly green with yellow bellies and bright blue feathers in their wings and tail, these birds are believed to have first appeared in U.S. skies in the 1960s. Their native homeland ranged from central Bolivia to southern Brazil, Uruguay and southern and central Argentina. Today, these birds can be found in more than a dozen states, including Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Illinois, Oregon, California and much of the Northeast.

According to biologist Stephen Pruett-Jones of the University of Chicago, who has been studying monk parakeets at Illinois" Hyde Park for more than a decade, there may be as many as 200,000 of these birds nationwide.

There are various explanations as to how the monk parakeets got here. Some believe people bought these birds as pets in the 1960s and later released them because they tired of their constant squawking, which can be ear splitting. Others believe that a crate carrying these exotic birds broke open at New York’s JFK airport, releasing pioneer individuals. In any case, a few states, including California, now have laws outlawing ownership of monk parakeets as pets.

As to how a tropical bird can survive and breed in the harsh climates of the Midwest and Northeast, ornithologists explain that even in its native habitats the animal often traditionally makes its home in mountainous regions. Another explanation is suggested in a 1995 Birder’s Digest article entitled "Monk Parakeets, Why Here?" The article points out that the intelligent birds weave dense, intricate nests from branches, which form chambers that give surprisingly good protection from blustery weather.

In much of their native range, monk parakeets are maligned by farmers, who claim they damage their crops. In Florida, longan tree growers complain that the recent arrivals threaten their orchards, which yield a profitable fruit related to the lychee and originally imported from Southeast Asia. However, parakeet supporters say there is little reliable evidence directly linking the birds with measurable crop damage.

Priscilla Feral, president of the Darien, Connecticut-based group Friends of Animals, adds, "As a solution, Florida longan growers can use nets to protect trees, or they can remove parakeet nests in late March, before eggs have been laid but after the cold of winter."

In fact, it is actually the impressive communal nests of the bird (one in Connecticut was measured at five feet by nine feet) that have recently landed monk parakeets in the greatest danger. Utilities charge that the large nests damage power lines and transformers, interrupting service and causing fires. In several states, including Illinois and Florida, power companies have therefore justified removing nests and killing the birds.

In southern Connecticut, sparks flew between United Illuminating (UI) and local activists after the former launched a $125,000 effort to destroy monk parakeet nests it found on its lines. The company also began capturing the birds, which it turned over to the Department of Agriculture for asphyxiation with carbon dioxide.

"We are very concerned and respectful of everyone’s opinions and beliefs, but we also have to be concerned with public health and safety and UI’s ability to provide reliable electricity," explained UI spokesperson Albert Carbone. A Florida utility reports that deterrence efforts, using repellents, noisemakers and other techniques, have proven ineffective at preventing monk parakeets from nesting in company equipment.

According to Feral of Friends of Animals, "This $125,000 killing project is senseless, immoral and unwarranted." Feral adds, "The reputation of these parakeets has been over exaggerated: they do not have nests as huge as some claim they are, there have been no fires that have been definitively attributed to these birds, and their nests help support about 70 other bird species." She says power companies in New York, reacting to public outcry, have had some success in deterring the birds from nesting in power lines by systematically trimming, and in some cases removing, nests.

Feral also adds that some Connecticut residents have begun providing alternative nesting platforms. Some hope the birds will eventually stop nesting in power lines. Further, responding to another common charge against monk parakeets, Feral says, "There is no evidence that someone has caught a disease transmitted by these birds."

In December, United Illuminating agreed to temporarily cease killing monk parakeets, although the company said it would still remove nests from its lines. Activists in Connecticut and New Jersey are now lobbying to have the bird removed from their respective state invasive species lists, which would pave the way to greater protections and a ban on the killing.

Feral concludes, "The species that needs to change their attitude is Homo sapiens, who is always looking to blame someone or something else for any wrong. In this case, that means helpless, beautiful birds who have not done anything devastatingly wrong as compared to any other living species."