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.
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!