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.

1967: The Great Escape
The theory 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). This incident was referred to as early as 1971 in an article by ornithologist John Bull.

Much confusion remains about what actually happened at the airport. At least one source in Brooklyn has informed me that many shipments coming into the airport were opened by unauthorized people during the 1960’s: Martin Scorsese’s classic film, Goodfellas, based on the memoir of Nicholas Pileggi, depicts the common practice of “crews” opening crates in order to pilfer their contents. My informant speculates that a large crate bearing an indecipherable Argentinian waybill may have been opened in this fashion. But instead of finding bottles of fine Argentinian wine, the crate opener was surprised when an unruly crowd of fully-flighted Quaker Parrots burst into the air, circled the airport, screaming, and disappeared over the horizon.

Although the escaped 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, that an Argentinean tramp steamer founded in New York Harbor, 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. during the 1960s and early 1970s. 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 1950s and early 1960s. 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.

The 1970s: Showdown at Rikers Island
After the escaped birds established themselves at Brooklyn College, they soon began expanding their domain. Over the years, “satellite” colonies appeared in Greenwood Cemetery, Marine Park, Bensenhurst, 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.

In 1973, the Federal Government became aware of the parrots’ existence in the New York area, and sent out SWAT-style eradication teams which captured many birds and shot those unwilling to surrender. Captured parrots were sent to an ultra-secure location in upstate New York, where they were kept under close observation.

One fateful morning in August, the Federal eradication teams, having achieved most of their parrot suppression efforts, approached one of the last remaining parrot strongholds, a nest complex on Rikers Island, Queens. After loading their guns and preparing their nets, a forward observation team reported disturbing news: the parrots had withdrawn and evidently disappeared into the fog. After a thorough but fruitless search of the area, the eradication teams disbanded and returned to Washington.

It will never be known whether the Rikers Island Parrots were “tipped off” by “someone on the inside” that the Feds were gunning for them. But it is likely that many of the birds we find today in Queens, the Bronx, and elsewhere are directly related to the survivors of the Great Rikers Island Monk Parrot Standoff.

Illegal Avians?
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. For this reason, they are often referred to as “the world’s most persecuted parrot.”

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 stateDepartment of Transportation and the Florida Power & Light utility company do the same thing.  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 their eradictions 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 accomodate the interests of both species, but only if some thoughtful research is directed towards a solution. In 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 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 accomodating 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!

Family Reunited with Parrot in Queens

shortycloseup100-791900Nice story on NY1’s site this week featuring Barry Schwartz, who’s something of a hero to the wild flocks of Quaker Parrots we find in New York City. In this instance, it appears that the errant parrot, who flew away in October, was found by a third party and donated to Barry’s Feathered Friends Sanctuary & Rescue. Once the original owners found out about this, they contacted Barry and the parrot went home.

Brooklyn Parrots eBook


If you’d like to support my continuing efforts to give tours for the public, I invite you to check out my new e-book, The Brooklyn Parrots FAQ — a compilation of facts, observations, myths, stories, lore and my own photos of Brooklyn’s famous “boids.”  The book is organized in an easy to read Q&A format (because some of the most interesting exchanges on my tours happen when people ask questions about the parrots).

While it might seem wacky that it took me almost 10 years to finish this thing, it took me a long time for me to take enough photos (more than 100 are included) and gather data to develop the material. I also had to compile almost 10 years of email messages containing crucial but forgotten info on the parrots’ journey in Brooklyn. It was a lot of work but I hope you like the results.

As you might know, my intention is never to charge a penny for a wild parrot safari in Brooklyn. It’s not that I don’t approve of paid tours of New York — I just don’t want there to be any financial barrier to enjoying these wonderful wild birds. So these tours are now and will always be free — just like the parrots!

You can download this ebook directly to your PC, iPad, or mobile device by following this link:


Willie the Hero Quaker Parrot Gets More Props From the NY Post

shortycloseup100-791900The New York Post ran a nice story last week entitled “Hero Pets Who Saved Human Children,” in which Willie the Quaker Parrot got some well-earned props for saving a 2-year old from choking on a Pop-Tart back in 2006.

Willie’s fast and life-saving response to a crisis has done a lot to improve the image of Quaker Parrots, which in the past haven’t always been portrayed in a positive light due to their penchant for annoying utility companies.  It’s nice to see the species (which the Post correctly notes is “a particularly intelligent and chatty breed that loves to clown around”) get a bit of praise.

The complex social world of Monk Parakeets

Wild Monk Parakeet Aggression in Brooklyn.

A new study by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis sheds light on the complex social world of Monk Parakeets.

The study was based on observations of 29,776 Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta Monachus) flocks. It is the first study to attempt to quantify complex parrot behavior using social network analysis.

High-ranked individuals do not win every conflict.


  1. Pairs are the fundamental structural unit in monk parakeet social life. However “additional tiers of social structure, akin to social levels documented in elephants, sea lions, and dolphins, may also be present.”
  2. Monk parakeet life is structured by aggression. The researchers noted about 4,400 aggressive events in two captive flocks studied, ” although the severity of aggression was relatively low and observed injuries rare in each group.”
  3. Dominance hierarchies exist but these hierarchies are relatively flat. While there are always “winners” and “losers” in every social conflict, “winning” individuals don’t always win (and “losers” don’t always lose).
  4. “Fission and fusion” (flocks splitting up and rejoining) is common.
  5. There appears to be no vocal sharing of foraging information among disparate flocks.
Monk parakeet flocks exhibit a high level of both fission and fusion.

The study was carried out by E.A. Hobson, M. L. Avery, and T.F. Wright. It is important because “understanding the social systems of parrots is critical to understanding social processes such as vocal learning and the spread of behaviors. Many parrot species are now threatened or endangered, and increased understanding of how they structure their social interactions could improve our ability to manage these populations.”

Cognitive complexity results in complex behavior.

The findings in this report are consistent with my own observations of wild Monk Parakeet flocks in Brooklyn. I am grateful to have been invited to share photos with the researchers.

You can read the full study here:


The Auk Ornithological Advances, Volume 131, 2014, pp. 756-775

DOI: 10:1642/AUK-14-14.1