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Parrots in the American Landscape

Parrots in the American Landscape
Photos and Article by Jon Friedman
I can imagine, if I were a much younger man, perhaps starting out on a career path and being just as fascinated and concerned about bird life as I am today, that I could be involved with studying wild parrot flocks in urban and suburban areas. Of course, this phenomenon of experiencing wild parrots simply did not exist in my youth. However, the thought of being a pioneer in this field is interesting and intriguing. Why I find it interesting is the subject of this article, and why I find it intriguing is, as a birdwatcher, our only parrot species native to the U.S. have become extinct or extirpated. The Carolina Parakeet (an eastern species) was quite widespread before its extinction many years ago, and the Thick-billed Parrots of Arizona disappeared from our landscape in the 1990’s. Their severely dwindling numbers can only be found in remote parts of Mexico. Most birdwatchers do not, should not, or would not list pet escapees on their life lists of native birds observed. However, I am very interested in this unusual occurrence of experiencing psittacines (the entire parrot family) wherever they are encountered in the American landscape, or cityscape.
Early Interest in Parrots
My interest in birds began early (see the article “Becoming a Birder” in our website archive of articles). Parrots became a focus of interest when I was especially young, between the ages of five and eight. During those years, I would visit my maternal grandfather and he would take me to his reading room with large, comfortable overstuffed leather chairs and read to me. I remember sitting in his lap and following his finger as he spoke the written words. Moreover, while I cannot accurately remember what books were read, I vividly remember the large porcelain reading lamp on the table next to our seat. The porcelain lamp itself was in the form of a mated pair of parrots preening each other on a branch and the lampshade featured parrots 360 degrees around. I remember when I grew bored with the reading I would look at the parrot figures and imagine what it would be like to live like a parrot. I loved my reading times with my grandfather, although he was probably unaware of my preoccupation with what he would consider “non-educational” or “inconsequential.” Nevertheless, this is when my interest in parrots began.
Continued Interest in Birds
In my adult years, there were usually birds in the house. It began with a pair of Zebra Finches I brought home one Valentine’s Day. They quickly began breeding and multiplying. Then I brought home a pair of Australian Budgerigars. Within a few short years, I had a houseful of birdcages and built two large outdoor aviaries to house the eighty-eight birds that had become
my flock. One sad day, I returned home to find both aviaries completely open and about half of the birds gone. Many stayed inside their shelter, as it was the only home they knew. About half of the others that left were seen in the trees of our yard and the neighbors’ yards. I had bird nets and was able to capture some of the flock, but many flew away never to be seen again. I wondered and worried what would become of them. I decided not to “collect” birds any more from that time on. Over the next year, I found new owners for the remaining birds and they were adopted into good homes. 
Sinbad Arrives
Shortly after Shani and I began our Wild Bird Store business, over 25 years ago, a customer pleaded with me to adopt two birds she inherited when her ninety-something year-old mother passed away leaving two parrots, one that she had owned for about forty-five years. This woman’s daughter did not have any experience with parrots and, consequently, they were on death’s doorstep when I rescued them. Elliott was a cockatiel, and Sinbad was a larger Bluefronted Amazon parrot. Elliott died the night I took him home, and Sinbad was in bad shape. He was malnourished, grossly underweight, feathers completely dull or absent, and almost comatose. The avian vet kept him for the next several days, fed him intravenously, gave him needed vitamins and supplements, and informed me that Sinbad was a bronco (taken from the wild, not captive bred) about ninety to one hundred years earlier. He could age the bird to within about a ten-year period by examining the condition of the skin on his legs and the tiny cracks and marks on his beak. I was stunned and amazed. I had no idea, at that time, how long birds can live in the wild and even longer in captivity (with good diet and living conditions).
SoHo and LiLo
Sinbad became bonded with Shani and he was “her bird” until her passing. She was the only one he would allow to change his food and water bowls or to actually pick him up and handle him. In subsequent years, he has bonded to me and allows me all those “special privileges.”  While he was bonded to Shani, I acquired SoHo, a Quaker or Monk parrot (actually a large Parakeet) and LiLo, a White-fronted Amazon Parrot, slightly smaller than Sinbad. I studied up on these species and became quite knowledgeable about them. Nowadays, I only have Sinbad. Nevertheless, my interest in Amazons has not waned. 
Wild Parrots at the Backyard Feeders
Over the years in business, I have had numerous phone calls and in-person visits from customers who have noticed small flocks of escaped pet birds that managed to figure out how to survive in the “wild.” Folks have noticed exotic finches, canaries, parakeets, cockatiels and lovebirds suddenly appearing at their backyard feeders. They would ask what these unusual birds were, having never seen them before at their feeding stations. I was able to correctly identify them after getting good descriptions of their size, shape, bills, plumage colorations, and behavior. Most often, these sightings were unique to a particular day or lasted only a short while – a few days or a few weeks, at most. However, it was always a surprise and entertaining to notice new species at the feeders or birdbaths. We still have a few photos from customers who have had these experiences in their yards.
The Blue Budgie
When we lived in the Tucson Mountains, we had a very large feeding station with many feeders spread about and, of course, many birds that visited daily. The common house finches were the most numerous and it was a delight to discover a bright blue budgie among their flock one day. At first, it appeared not to know how to feed at the feeders as the finches did. It also seemed to me tentative in all its behavior. I realized this was a young bird and a recent escapee that was inexperienced on being “on its own” in the wild. However, each day it returned with the flock of finches and, day by day, seemed more assured about to handle itself within the flock. After only a few days, it appeared to me that this little blue budgie was assuming the leadership role within the flock. I began paying particular attention to him from that point. It was clear to me that he adapted well to the wild once he found a flock to belong to. He now knew how to find food, water, shade, wind protection, and how to identify and avoid predators, etc. In short, I noticed he became the leader of the flock. When arriving or departing, he always was front and center. I noticed the other finches gave way to him at the feeders and the baths. He seemed to sound the first alarm call whenever predators were nearby, even before the Verdin’s alarm calls. I was somewhat amazed with the ease and quickness this particular bird exhibited in learning his way in the natural world. I was graced with over three years of watching this little blue bird rule his roost. Then one day, as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone. I could tell he was a young bird when he made his initial appearance and I knew it would not live as long a life in the wild as it would have in captivity. It was very unusual for this little budgie to last as long as it did in the wild, but I was sad to think a predator got it. This situation is not very uncommon, as most exotic escapees are more brilliantly colored than most native wild birds, stand out in their environment, and therefore become more predator-prone as a result. I assumed this is what happened in this case. 
Wild Quakers
Once I got SoHo, my Quaker, I began researching this species and quickly found out they are an extremely hardy and adaptable species. While native to Brazil and Northern Argentina, they have established themselves around the globe. They seem to quickly find other escapee Quakers and form colonies. In North America, they can be found in almost every large city. Once in the “natural world”, they resume life as they would have had they been born in the wild. Being colonial nesters, their nests could hold more than two hundred birds each. Quaker nests are very large, composed of large twigs and small branches interwoven very tightly and weighing hundreds of pounds, some even estimated at over a ton! They create cavities for each mated pair to live in. Each cavity has a tube-type entrance that leads to a large cavity, which is connected to a slightly smaller rear cavity. Therefore, these birds enjoy living in two room apartments!
In their native lands, they can be crop pests, but because of their amazing abilities to adapt to new foods, regions, climates, etc.,they have established themselves in colonies from Miami to Boston, Chicago to Seattle, and San Diego to New York. In the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, Mayor Washington lived across the street from the park. He enjoyed joining the neighborhood children and residents who enjoyed feeding and watching these small, mostly green with some gray, parrots. One day he became alarmed, as did the others, when the fire department showed up with chain saws to dismantle a large Quaker nest sitting atop the crossbeams of a telephone pole. The neighborhood residents protested this action by the fire department and Mayor Washington led the effort to enact a law that makes it illegal to disturb these birds. Consequently, they have proliferated as never before, which has its pros and cons. One main objection property owners have is that they cannot legally get rid of their nests. These birds, like most Psittacines, are among the smartest of all birds and have learned how to survive even in the “Windy City’s” extremely cold climate. They find sturdy structures, like fire escapes, to center their nests around on the leeward side of buildings for added protection from the elements. However, their nests themselves, so solidly built and dense, provide most of the protection needed to get through the worst winds and cold. Because of Mayor Washington’s pioneering law, many other cities have similar laws to protect their wild parrots. Chicagoans will be able to enjoy feeding and watching these special birds for years to come.
Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Several years back, an independent movie became popular around the country, particularly with birders. “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” still available on Netflix or at Casa Video, documented the beginning and early years of a mixed species flock of parrots in that neighborhood of San Francisco. A homeless man with a big heart and love of these birds began feeding them with the help of free seeds from the owner of a local pet store. As the flock grew, so did the public’s knowledge grow about this seemingly unique phenomenon. Donations arrived daily in the form of seeds and the owners of the empty home this man was squatting in gave him permission to legally stay and continue “taking care” of the flock. This particularly warm and touching film illustrates what is happening in cities around the country, an activity that goes
largely unnoticed except for the local residents who adopt these birds and become their protectors.
Recent Trip to California
While many species of exotic parrots are thriving in many cities coast-to-coast, in single-species and mixed-species flocks, I wanted to write about a very recent experience I had with a flock of parrots in Southern California. Last month, my girlfriend Marilyn and I spent several days in Southern California. One of the reasons we took the trip was for me to meet her family and see a cousin of mine in San Diego. I met and was warmly received by two of her sisters, Patty (and her significant other Stewart), Judie, and her cousin Byron. Where they live and work is spread out throughout the region but we were able to get together as a group in Encinitas. We also spent time in La Jolla, El Cajon and San Diego proper. 
I did not expect we would be devoting any serious time to watching birds, although birds were everywhere, as one would expect. We enjoyed watching various gulls, Royal Terns, Semipalmated Plovers, American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, Great Egrets, Tree Swallows, and a host of other species one could expect in their usual habitats. 
Dawn Surprise in El Cajon
The real surprise, from a birding perspective, came the first morning we spent in El Cajon. Marilyn woke me up just after sunrise and hurried me out of the house while still in my pajamas. The entire neighborhood was experiencing the really loud, raucous calls of an extremely large flock of Amazon Parrots. They were everywhere. Above on the power lines. On rooftops. In the trees. Many were circling above, reminding me of an M.C. Escher print. I was amazed that the loudness of birds did not awaken me. It was what could be variously described as a din, a cacophony, a ruckus, an uproar, a clamor, or a blare. None of these descriptive words can accurately depict the loudness of these birds. I had never heard anything like it.
Parrots Everywhere
The sight of this many parrots was as impressive as the totality of the sounds they made. They were literally everywhere one could look, in every direction. We seemed to be in the middle of a storm of parrots. They were swirling and swooping in the air overhead. They were on rooftops, they were on the multitude of power lines, and they were weighing down the branches of the tallest neighborhood trees and, in the backyard of Stewart’s house, they occupied the fences and settled into the orange trees. They were everywhere overhead. 
I was surprised that I could get within several feet of them in the shorter orange trees. The ground below the trees was littered with oranges that the birds bit into and dropped. After about an hour, the entire flock lifted up and flew off. I tried to count the number of birds I was able to see and realized it was a nearly impossible task. They were constantly moving. The mated pairs that sat together on the power lines proved to be the easiest to count and I estimated several hundred, at least. Later, I found out that this local flock had more than five hundred birds. But, where did they fly off to? It was anybody’s guess where they went next. 
Neighborhood Parrots
I told Marilyn it would be an interesting project to follow these birds for at least a full day, if not a week or a month, to understand their habits and territory. Where can so many parrots go to forage every day?  Where do they roost at night? How do they occupy all the daylight hours? I also realized that even as loud as they were, the neighborhood still welcomes them. Stewart told me he has been watching this flock for almost fifteen years. He explained that he has watched the flock grow. He did not know of any organized resistance to these birds in his neighborhood. Most folks simply accept the fact that these birds are there and they either co-exist or welcome them.
Amazons Everywhere!
When I first saw them, I recognized them as Amazon Parrots. In the Western Hemisphere, there are thirty different species within the Amazon family. Two of the species, however, are listed as hypothetical extinct species. They are the Guadeloupe and Martinique Amazons. Most of the males had red foreheads and/or heads, so I knew they were Red-spectacled, White-fronted, Redcrowned, Red-lored, Red-browed, Red-tailed, or Vinaceous Amazons. All Amazons are predominately green with smaller amounts of vivid coloration on their heads, wings and/or tails. Later, after doing some research, I discovered that the majority of these birds were assumed to be Red-crowned and Red-spectacled Amazons. However, I did notice quite a few Lilac-crowned and, what I thought were White-fronted, Amazons mixed into the overall flock.
Not Good Pets, For the Most Part
A local El Cajon avian rehabilitator who specialized in raptors became fascinated with these parrots and opened a rehab center dedicated to the Amazons of the area. It is a well-equipped facility and she usually has about one hundred parrots there at any given time. I watched a video of her describing what it is like to have these birds in her care. She explained that the flock, in all likelihood, began with pet birds that escaped their owners’ homes and met up in the wild. Some of the Amazon species are known for making good pets, but only certain species, and only if they are obtained young enough and from reliable bird breeders. Once they have learned to survive, and thrive, in the wild, they really are wild birds. Wild Amazons never make good pets. They are loud (as many parrots are), very messy, can exhibit very aggressive behavior when humans get too close or try to handle them. In Mexico, I have seen folks who have caught these types of parrots and tried to make them into pet birds. Many of those owners are missing digits or entire fingers. The rehabber in the video showed the camera her arms and hands, which were covered with bite marks and scars. 
It is a major commitment to own any members of the parrot family. They are all long-lived, noisy, messy and can be quite intimidating to those unfamiliar with them. We once had a Yellow-naped Amazon named Lucy that attracted the attention and interest of one of our
neighbors, a woman named Suzanne. We reminded her daily not to put her fingers into the cage, not to try to handle the bird because the bird did not know her well enough to trust her. For months, every day, she would visit Lucy. We grew tired of telling her every day not to come into physical contact with the bird. One day, Suzanne let out a blood-curdling yell and we raced to the birdcage. Blood was all over. She needed to be stitched up and required several months of physical therapy as the bird bit through a tendon and caused loss of feeling due to the nerve damage she suffered. Under threat of a lawsuit, we had to give Lucy up to a local breeder.
What to do, Making a Decision
So, the moral to this story is to enjoy birds where you find them in nature. Don’t obtain a bird as a pet unless you do your homework and fully understand the time and commitment involved, the expense of their care and feeding, the fact that they will often outlive their owners (so have a plan in place with someone who can continue their care in such an instance). Most importantly, realize that birds really shouldn’t be captive bred and are deserving to live a full life in their natural wild habitat. Birds need to be free to fly, to migrate, to forage natural and wild foods, to mate, propagate and teach their offspring everything they know. Caged birds are rarely happy birds.
And, I hope everyone who reads this article can see the movie about the Telegraph Hill parrots, or better yet, experience the thrill of observing an unexpected flock of parrots in your life travels.

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