How do they survive in NYC?

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Wild parrots must use their wits, fast reflexes, and special skills to stay alive and thrive in New York City.

Predators from the air and ground keep them on their toes. The birds are naturally blessed with a unique portfolio of skills for urban survival: teamwork, communications, tolerance for chilly weather, the ability to improvise housing in unlikely places, and a wide-ranging diet.

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They’re tough birds. Cold doesn’t seem to affect them. They’re also bold to the point of recklessness. I once saw a Monk Parakeet play “chicken” with an American Kestrel.  They’re resilient. They hang on, and they don’t back down.

Among their other advantages:

  1. Dexterity. The parrots’ zygodactyl feet serve both as a foot and a gripping tool for object manipulation. This, plus their strong horn-bill, lets them build scalable nests almost  anywhere.
  2. Wide-ranging diet. Leaf buds, grass, chestnut blossoms, sunflowers, pizza, cheet-os — you name it, and the parrots probably eat it.
  3. Toleration for NY weather. The cold doesn’t bother them, and neither, it seems, does the heat. Even Hurricane Sandy couldn’t put much of a dent in their communal structures. While they might complain from time to time, it’s never about the weather (which makes them very different from most New Yorkers).
  4. Communications.  The flock is instantly made aware of threats and opportunities as soon as they appear. Their coded language seems to be optimized for a quick, effective response. “Alert” or distress calls can be heard from a distance of 100 yards or more.
  5. Mentoring. Unlike many other bird species found in New York City, youngsters stay with their parents for a long time — at least a year. Young parrots are trained about where to find food, how to build structures, and how to avoid predators.
  6. Flight skills. The parrots have flight patterns that twist and turn, rarely following a straight line. These evasive courses let them evade many airborne attacks from more powerful predators (e.g. hawks) who are faster but fly in a much straighter path. The parrots can also “hover” in place, which lets them easily install and maintain the undersides of their nests. Hovering is easy due to the unique scalloped design of their flight feathers.

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Pizza-eating behavior on Bedford Avenue, 2006.

What Do They Eat?

The answer is “lots of different things.” Wild Monk Parakeets are officially classified as “plant generalists,” and have been observed in Brooklyn eating grass, weeds, acorns, pine cones, millet, leaf buds, berries, horse chestnut and pear blossoms, grass, suet, and even pizza.

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During the winter, leaf buds keep them alive when snow covers grass fields. In Chicago, ornithologist Steven Pruitt Jones established the survival value of leaf buds in a 2000 research paper on the diet of the wild Monk Parakeets of Hyde Park, Chicago.

Anecdotal reports suggest that the Brooklyn Parrots send out scouting parties to map the location of bird feeders. Several witnesses have reported the following: one parrot alights out of nowhere, samples the feeder, and disappears, and 20 minutes later a group of parrots appears (hopefully the witness will have located a camera in that time), and proceeds to clean out the entire feeder.

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In many parts of Brooklyn, private houses outnumber apartment-style dwellings where landlords often forbid the placement of bird feeders. Consequently it is possible for a single homeowner who maintains a well-stocked bird feeder on her property to attract the attention of hungry birds in winter.

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Much of the food gathering that happens in Brooklyn happens on the ground in feeding flocks that typically include pigeons, sparrows, and starlings. The parrots are very cautious about going to ground. They typically wait until there are other birds (typically pigeons) on the ground before they decide to join in.

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Pizza-eating behavior, Edgewater, NJ, 2007

Do They Compete With Other Birds For Food?

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Wild Monk Parakeets in Brooklyn are able hunters for food who appear to employ a “scout system” in which one or more patrolling birds, upon spying a bird feeder or fruit tree, will immediately report the coordinates of this target back to the main nest. After a short conference, a large party of parrots will fly to the identified location to make short work of the food supply. This behavior has been reported to me several times by observers surprised that there is one parrot outside their window, followed by 10 or 20 a few minutes later. “They’re like a motorcycle gang,” one observer told me.

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Pizza-eating behavior (New Jersey)

Monk Parakeets have also been observed “hogging” feeders at several locations in Brooklyn, but the only displaced birds observed were starlings, pigeons, and sparrows. I have never seen a songbird intimidated by a parrot at a feeding station (but there are very few songbirds in Brooklyn to begin with).

When food is scattered on the ground where Monk Parakeets are present, it is typical that other urban birds, including pigeons, sparrows, and starlings, will come to the food first, because the Monk Parakeets seem to use these birds to test the safety of the feeding grounds. Only when it appears that no predators are setting up an attack do the Monks join the group, and even then, they remain highly vigilant. On these occasions I’ve never seen the Monk Parakeets harass the birds they are feeding with.

So do they compete for food? Certainly. Do they prevent the other birds we typically find in Brooklyn from getting enough? In find this unlikely. To my knowledge, New York has suffered no shortage of pigeons, sparrows, and starlings in the more than 40 years since the Monk Parakeets arrived here.

Who Must They Avoid?

Hawks

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Hawks are magnificent predators and I wouldn’t have become involved with the Brooklyn Parrots had it not been for Pale Male and Lola, the noble hawks of Central Park. (Back in 2004, when their nests were removed by the co-op board of 345 5th Avenue, many people vigorously protested the removal, myself included, and the nesting platform was ultimately restored.)

At the same time, however, it’s clear from a parrot perspective that hawks are a disaster, and I continue to be amazed that certain parrot populations — including the one at Green-Wood Cemetery — are located so near major hawk hot spots (Red Tailed hawks actively nest in the cemetery and can often be seen soaring overhead).

I’ve heard many stories about hawks attempting to attack parrots in Brooklyn but I’ve never actually seen a successful attack. I’ve seen the hawks try — but the parrots are so well drilled at hawk evasion tactics that they’ve always been able to elude them. Still, the hawk factor is probably responsible for parrot nests that unexpectedly go silent or become abandoned. Hawks are especially dangerous to the parrots during the cold weather months, when it’s much harder for the parrots to conceal themselves in the tree canopy. During this time, the parrots stick close together for better protection, with several “sentinel” members of the flock keeping a vigilant eye on the sky overhead to sound the earliest possible alarm.

Kestrels and Falcons

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According to official NYC sources there are about 30 Falcons, and about 75 Kestrels, currently active in New York City. While that’s good news for these stylish, rapacious birds, they’d love to add Monk Parakeets to their diet of sparrows, pigeons, starlings, and other urban birds.

I’ve personally witnessed several close calls between Kestrel/Falcon and parrot in Brooklyn and in The Bronx. These contests were thoroughly nerve-wracking; I can only guess how they must have felt to the parrots who were the target of them. Only the fast reactions and group coherency of the parrot flock kept Myiopsitta Monachus off the “specials” menu for that day.

Fatal strikes by Falcons against Monk Parakeets have been reported in both Brooklyn and New Jersey.

Crows

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Urban crows are wily, intelligent, often work in teams, and when of them shows up in proximity to a wild parrot colony, bedlam unfailingly breaks loose. Crows don’t pose the kind of direct deadly threat made by meat-eaters like Hawks, Kestrels, and Falcons, but because they like to rob eggs, they endanger the parrots’ continuing ability to project their genes across the city. Brooklyn Crows are loud and aggressive. A couple of them will often fly right to the top of a parrot nest and crow loudly. While some parrots are often seen evacuating the nest at this point, I think that it’s likely that any female birds sitting on eggs don’t abandon their positions, which are pretty well protected given that the nests of Monk Parakeets are situated on the bottom of the nest, where it’s harder for crows to enter to do their plunder.

Poachers

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Poaching, plus habitat destruction, is why so many parrots are disappearing across the world. Wild Monk Parakeets enjoy no protection against poaching in New York State. In late 2005, the colony of wild Monk Parakeets in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, began to disappear. At the same time the “word on the streets” was that there was a poacher operating out of a van on Campus Road. Once his activities were observed by a local citizen, he was turned over to police and the six birds he had trapped were freed.

Shortly afterward, I began to receive more reports, this time of nocturnal poaching in Brooklyn. The trappers operated at night, arriving at about 2:00 AM, travelling on bicycles so that sleeping residents did not hear their approach. They parked their bikes and the leader climbed up the Con Ed power pole until he was within arms’ reach of the wild parrot nests. He threw a net over the nest, captured birds, and handed down his quarry to a second man, who placed the birds in a carrier. Then they sped off to another location. Very professional.

I was told that the poaching ring fed captured wild birds into a breeding operation in a local pet store. Captured wild birds in good health would fetch $25 per bird.

The poaching ring was ultimately disrupted not in Brooklyn, but in New Jersey. In early 2006, two men were picked up in Edgewater, New Jersey, where possessing a Monk Parakeet without a research permit is a $5,000 violation. The two men were released, as were the six seized Monk Parakeets in the file cabinet where they kept them, with a demand to pay $30,000 to the State of New Jersey. Since then, there have been no reported incidents, but poaching remains a concern in many parts of New York City where the parrots are exposed, which is a lot of places.

Machines

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I’ve seen many close calls between wild Monk Parakeets and speeding automobiles on the streets of Brooklyn. Monk Parakeets fly fast, and they rarely make “a beeline” for any destination; instead, they weave and bob in evasively, often very close to the ground. I’ve seen several collisions between parrot and car, and it’s often very difficult to know whether the car hit the parrot, the parrot hit the car, or even to know who was travelling faster. Fortunately none of these collisions has been fatal. Still, automobiles are a big hazard in Brooklyn and elsewhere in New York City, and until such time that everybody rides bicycles in this city, or self-driving cars are programmed to slow down in a wild parrot zone, this situation is likely to continue.

Who Are Their Pals?

The Brooklyn Parrots are generally friendly with the other common birds found in New York, including pigeons, sparrows, and starlings. These birds, like the Monk Parakeet, were introduced to New York City; like all prey birds, they share  the common fear of being eaten by someone higher on the urban food chain.

Here’s how the wild parrots interact with their local bird buds:

Pigeons

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The parrots tolerate the presence of New York pigeons, all of whom seem to share a universally gentle disposition. The parrots feed with the pigeons, and I’ve never seen any parrot bully one.

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The parrots watch the pigeons carefully, and if pigeons flock toward a food source, will wait until it’s clear that the pigeons aren’t being stalked by a predator. Then and only then will they join in. While I don’t know this for sure, it also seems that the pigeons listen to the parrots, and when a general alarm (“ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK”) is sounded, all of the birds seem to react as one unit.

Sparrows

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I’ve never observed bullying behavior on the part of the parrots towards their drab but animated neighbors. Each species seems to completely ignore each other.  There have been instances when sparrows have been observed hanging around parrot nests in Bay Ridge, and it’s possible that the parrots allow the sparrows to move into underutilized housing units.

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The parrots and sparrows have also been observed to bathe together on occasion. But otherwise, these two species seem to seek absolutely nothing from each other.

 Starlings

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The starlings are definitely among the most despised urban bird. Their bad reputation in the U.S.– especially their aggressive behavior toward indigenous birds and their talent for reproducing exponentially —  certainly contributed to the government’s draconian approach to the Monk Parakeet when it first appeared in New York in the late 1960s. But the Monk Parakeets don’t seem to hold much of a grudge for these “dumpster divers,” and they’re often found together in feeding flocks.

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The parrots, who are quite fastidious, have occasionally been seen bathing with starlings. In the Bronx, starlings have also been allowed to set up colonies within certain Monk Parakeet nests.

Mockingbirds

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Mockingbird chasing hawk over Brooklyn

Brooklyn Mockingbirds are loquacious, aggressive, numerous and pretty much unstoppable. While I’ve never actually seen the Brooklyn Parrots in proximity with mockingbirds, Mockingbirds have been observed providing air cover for the parrots by taking on and driving off Hawks.

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Why Do They Build Those Crazy “Apartment”-Style Nests?

Monk Parakeets appear to be born with a powerful weaving instinct. This instinct expresses itself even with birds born in captivity: give them something to weave, and they’ll create a masterpiece.

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Monk Parakeets are also capable of very precise work. Their small zygodactyl feet (2 toes front, 2 toes rear) lets them grip objects, cut them precisely, and move them into place.

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These structures are built to last. Several years ago, a storm blew down a Monk Parakeet nest from a high tree. The nest was completely intact where it had fallen, and no birds had been injured. It was as if a giant Brillo pad had landed.

Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York in 2012, had no effect on the parrots, nor did a Tornado which blew through Bay Ridge in 2007.

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These parrots work very hard — from sun up to sunset if the need calls, building structures meant to be enduring.

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Nest-building and maintenance appears to be a family activity and young birds are encouraged to join in the construction tasks as early as possible. It is possible to gauge the age of a youngster on the basis of how well the young bird can sever twigs, move them into position, and weave the new material together with the old.

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“Starter nests” large enough for one pair can be built in as little as two weeks. Larger nests represent years and years of hard work. Some can get as large as compact automobiles if the nesting substructure permits the load.

Why Electrical Equipment?

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Wild Monk Parakeets in the Northeast frequently build their colonial nests near or on electrical equipment.

Why? Because they like their nests to be toasty warm. Additionally, the steel bracketing fixtures used to support electrical lines serve as anchor points to insert twigs used to support nests.

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Many line poles in Brooklyn and Queens have transformers on them with small fans that blow downward. Starting a nest directly below the cooling duct guarantees electrical heat. But doing so may pose a problem to the proper operation of the duct over time. Nests can also pose to work crews maintaining power and communications lines. Removals are done by the utility company owning the piece of electrical equipment in question. Usually this is Con Ed but may be Verizon or another line maintaining company.

Monk parakeets do not always build their nests near live electrical lines. Nests can be built in trees or on structures with plenty of nooks and crannies (such as Green-Wood Cemetery’s main brownstone gate).

In cases where nest removals are necessary, the harm to the birds can be minimized if nest removal best practices are observed.

This means:

1. Timing the removal so that no young are in the nest.
2. Timing the removal so that the birds do not freeze to death.

In New York City, the best removal windows are in March (before breeding season begins) and in September (after birds have fledged but with enough time for the parrots to build nests on alternative platforms, if available).

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PSE&G, in New Jersey, has worked extensively with specialists and community groups in an effort to make any parrot nest removals as humane as possible. They have also contributed to research into alternative nest platforms, also known as “monk bunkers,” developed by Foster Parrots.

Are They Protected in New York State?

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No. Wild Monk Parakeets have no protection in New York State. According to the State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (the same agency that spearheaded the original eradication effort against the parrots in 1973), Monk Parakeets can be “taken” (a bureaucratic euphemism for “killed”) at any time:

“In New York State, nearly all species of wildlife are protected. Most species, including endangered species, songbirds, hawks and owls are fully protected and may not be taken. The few unprotected species include porcupine, red squirrel, woodchuck, English sparrow, starling, rock pigeon, and monk parakeet. ” (italics added) Source: http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/27801.html

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Recently, State Senator Joseph Addabo, Jr., of New York’s 15th Senate District, introduced legislation intended to correct this situation. Bill S1933 (The Monk Parakeet Protection Act) seeks to protect the parrots from “poaching” (illegal hunting, killing or capturing of animals) and less than humane regard for wild Myiopsitta Monachus parrots (Monk parakeet) nesting sites.”

“Quaker parakeets are not harmful to the environment, nor displaced or been a threat to any native species, and have not been proven to cause damage to any public utilities. Although they are considered pests by some because of the nature of their nest building, they are trapped and euthanized as pests by exterminators which will be addressed should this legislation become law.”

On January 8, 2014, Bill S1933 was referred to the Environmental Conservation Committee for further action.