CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coming up: Some big lessons from some small fossils. But first, during winter New England bird watchers find chickadees, cardinals, and juncos at their back yard feeders. Now there's one more to add to that list: monk parakeets. These members of the parrot family are native to the mountains of Argentina and Bolivia. And now some transplants from South America have taken up year-round residence in southern New England and other parts of the U.S. From Connecticut, WNPR's Diane Orson has this report.
LIVING: The best reason to be a biologist is cool toys. A telescope, and I have binoculars in the bag, and...
ORSON: Stephen Living spends his days driving up and down Connecticut's coastline looking for lime green parrots.
(Trunk door opens)
LIVING: So you can see the trunk of a monk parakeet researcher's car, full of twigs and various other debris, which I've collected from underneath their nests.
ORSON: Living is researching Connecticut's wild monk parakeets at Southern Connecticut State University. He studies where the birds nest, the materials they build with, what they eat, and how they interact with other birds.
ORSON: In a suburban neighborhood in the town of Milford along Connecticut's shoreline, there is a dense concentration of monk parakeets nesting in four evergreen trees, just a few feet from several beachfront homes.
LIVING: I believe I counted about 25 nests at this site. And numbers, I guessed at least 100 birds in this one location.
ORSON: Monk parakeets, also known as Quaker parakeets, are native to South America. About twelve inches long, they look as if they're wearing a bright green cloak over their gray chest. The birds were imported to the U.S. in the 1960s as exotic pets. Over time, some accidentally escaped or were intentionally released from pet shops and homes. In the 1970s an entire flock flew away after a shipping crate opened at New York's Kennedy Airport. There are now monk parakeet colonies in Connecticut, New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois, and Oregon. And when the birds take roost in an area, they build a home that's uniquely their own. Again, Stephen Living.
LIVING: This nest, I've estimated that it's probably a good eight feet on its longest axis by probably four or five feet across on its shortest axis. And these nests can weigh hundreds of pounds.
ORSON: The nests are unusual in the parrot world. Huge, complex structures made from twigs and sticks, almost like enormous parrot condo complexes. Monk parakeets like to build their nests on utility poles. Transformers may help heat the nests in winter. Some birds chew on the insulation, which has on occasion crossed wires and even caused power outages. And monk parakeets live in their nests year-round. Unlike many exotics they arrived in the U.S. pre-adapted to extremely cold temperatures, since they're used to live high in the Patagonia Andes. Not only do they survive Connecticut's winters, they're flourishing.
ORSON: These birds are not the melodious type. In fact, they squawk continually from dawn to dusk. The birds' neighbors seem to either love them or passionately dislike them.
WOMAN 1: They're very loud, and I think they're very messy with the twigs from the nests.
WOMAN 2: They're cool to look at, and they come down, they feed on the yard. But they take getting used to.
WOMAN 3: I find it sort of interesting that people are coming to look at them with binoculars and saying oh, aren't they great. And then I want to say, hey, five o'clock in the morning they're not so great. (Laughs)
WOMAN 4: I don't put food out for them because I figure they are survivors, and they need to fend for themselves.
ORSON: The variety of foods they eat may turn out to be a key to their success. In their native habitat, monk parakeets are considered agricultural pests. Flocks swoop into cornfields and decimate crops. Jenny Dickson is a wildlife biologist with Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection. She says it's unclear the monk parakeet population is doing damage in the U.S. Most states are taking a wait and see approach.
DICKSON: What we generally have viewed as our policy right now is, if the birds are causing a problem that poses a public health or safety risk, then something can be done to control them. If it's just a nuisance from noise or droppings or something like that, that probably isn't going to fit that category.
ORSON: Experts estimate that the United States is home to thousands of wild monk parakeets. DEP biologist Dickson says many states tried at some point to eradicate their monk parakeet populations.
DICKSON: Connecticut did some eradication efforts but not a lot. And a lot of that was done initially with the thought that they could keep the birds from becoming established, or their populations from expanding. Those didn't go very well, so the birds are here to stay in a lot of different states.
ORSON: The 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act strictly regulates the importation of birds from other continents. But officials say that as global trade has increased, more and more alien species, both plants and animals, have been introduced to the United States. Ornithologist Noble Proctor is credited with sighting Connecticut's first free-flying monk parakeets in the 1970s. He says there is a big difference between alien species arriving on their own to new continents and those introduced accidentally or intentionally by humans. Procter says birds move naturally when there is an open niche.
PROCTOR: This is just a normality of expansion of range. The whole dynamics of migration. When somebody intercedes and actually physically brings it in, gets bored with it, and released, bad. Not only for birds but for plants.
ORSON: Proctor says that without a niche monk parakeets are bound to impact something. The food chain, for example. But ornithologist Mark Spreyer disagrees. He's written about monk parakeets for the Birds of North America series. Spreyer says that non-native species can create a new niche for themselves in the urban ecosystem.
SPREYER: People get very alarmed about exotics, but most exotics that come over don't survive. And those that do survive don't invade native ecosystems. Most of the birds, you know, you talk about house sparrows, starlings, monk parakeets, in the eastern United States house finches, they all show up right around suburbs and cities. And I think there is a community there where they have a role.
ORSON: Connecticut's monk parakeet population is expanding. Until recently the colonies stayed strictly along the coastline, but now are moving inland, closer to farms. Connecticut may soon need to develop new management plans, but more information about the birds is needed first. So research biologists will spend the next two years trying to discover as much as they can about the state's newest wild bird. For Living on Earth I'm Diane Orson in Milford, Connecticut.
(Bird calls up and under)
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