Who are they?

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The Monk Parakeet, also known as the Quaker Parrot, is an interesting, hardy bird from South America noted for its intelligence, sociability, creative approach to nest-building, and general resourcefulness.

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They were first detected in the wild in New York City in the late 1960s, and continue to be seen around Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and, upon rare occasion, in Manhattan.

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Quaker Parrots (whose official Latin name is Myiopsitta Monachus) are unusual birds. They’re the only kind of parrot that can build free-standing nests almost anywhere –- in cliffs, trees, power transmission poles, steeples, radio towers, and other human-made structures. This gives them a strong advantage in New York’s built-up urban environment.

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For more than 40 years, the birds have survived on New York’s tough streets, weathering tornadoes, hurricanes, and a multitude of predators — both avian and human.

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They are considered by some scientists to be an example of “charismatic megafauna” whose ability to charm humans helps keep them alive. Their appealing qualities were even acknowledged by the eradication teams sent up to kill them in the early 1970s, who agonized about how the public would react to learning of their demise (for this reason they kept the plan secret for as long as possible).

What Do They Sound Like?

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The wild parrots in Brooklyn have a distinctive sound that takes some getting used to.

Detractors have called them “the most raucous of birds” whose calls are akin to “a big fan blade badly needing oil.”

Others find their Stockhausen-like chatter oddly musical. Both camps agree that Myiopsitta Monachus sounds like no other bird in New York.

How Many of them Are In Brooklyn?

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There is no official census of wild parrots in New York City. The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count takes place at a time when the parrots aren’t visible — many of them are “holed up and huddling” in their colonial nests, which may lower counts.

How many wild parrots are there in Brooklyn? My own estimates are about 40 birds at Brooklyn College, 60 at Green-Wood Cemetery, and perhaps another 50 in all of South Brooklyn (including Bay Ridge, Bensenhurst, Bath Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Canarsie).

Whether the population is increasing or decreasing on a borough-wide basis is also hard to know. A long-time resident of Midwood told me that the Brooklyn College parrot colony was very large in the 1980s (up to 200 birds). A few years ago, I counted 75 birds at Green-Wood Cemetery, but there seem fewer today. Populations ebb and flow in Brooklyn, due to the effect of wintertime nest removals (which certainly cause elevated mortality levels among the parrots), poaching, the citywide replacement of natural grass fields with artificial turf, and other factors.

One thing is for certain, however: the population of wild parrots in Brooklyn isn’t expanding quickly, belying the fears of New York State bird management officials in the 1970s who feared that Monk Parakeets were destined to become “the next Starling.”

What Do They Want?

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Like most creatures in New York City, the parrots primarily want to be left alone to enjoy a private “sphere of anarchy” carved into the stone jungle. Myiopsitta Monachus is a “sedentary” bird species, which means that once the parrots locate a neighborhood that meets their needs, they’ll hang around and make the best of it. The birds’ general attitude seems to be “if you think we’re causing a big problem you need to adjust your perspective.”

While such an attitude might seem cavalier, it’s rare to find a living creature in Brooklyn who doesn’t share it.

Are They Dangerous?

The short answer is that these birds are considered “potentially dangerous” in New Jersey but not in New York. Go figure.

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Many have questioned whether the “potentially dangerous” classification is justified. While the birds have occasionally annoyed NJ residents by consuming their ornamental plants, and have caused nuisances for the local utility company, lumping them together with crocodiles, pit vipers and coral snakes seems extreme. 

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While the birds themselves aren’t dangerous, having one in your possession is. Monk Parakeets are illegal to possess in the Garden State. Violating the law means a $5,000 fine. If you’re doing serious research or rehab work, you can get a permit if you can meet NJ Fish and Wildlife’s stringent criteria.

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Wild Monk Parakeets, Edgewater, NJ. Photo by BrooklynParrots.com

Ironically, New Jersey’s tough stance on unauthorized Monk Parakeet possession has discouraged poachers from messing with New Jersey’s wild flocks because they’re scared of the big fines associated with unauthorized possession.

How Is Their Society Structured?

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.

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High-ranked individuals do not win every conflict.

Highlights

  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.
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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.”

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Cognitive complexity results in complex behavior.

The findings in this report are consistent with my own observations of wild Monk Parakeet flocks in Brooklyn. You can read the full study here:  http://aoucospubs.org/doi/abs/10.1642/AUK-14-14.1 (The Auk Ornithological Advances, Volume 131, 2014, pp. 756-775, DOI: 10:1642/AUK-14-14.1)

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How Long Do They Live?

Monk Parakeets (AKA Quaker Parrots) can reportedly live until 40 in captivity. This is about mid-range in lifespan for parrots.

In the “mean streets” of American cities, their lives might well be shorter. Predators take their toll, and so do poachers. Unexpected nest removals in the middle of winter probably can have an impact on longevity. So can toxins in the environment. While gunfire attacks against them are rare, these, sadly, have happened in Brooklyn as well.

Balancing the myriad dangers of urban life is the fact that these parrots seem to lead very healthy lives. They are highly active all day, foraging, building, and flying, Overfeeding and lack of exercise can shorten a captive bird’s life — these parrots do not have this problem. So it is possible that there are still birds in Brooklyn who are the children of the original escapees from JFK Airport in the 1960s.

Are They Annoying?

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The parrots found in Brooklyn are not silent, and while they’ve been called “the most raucous of birds” by detractors,  Myiopsitta Monachus has actually been rated lower on the national urban annoyance spectrum than pigeons, sparrows, starlings, and even wading birds and waxwings.

In March, 1988, William D. Fitzwater, Secretary of the National Animal Damage Control Association, stood before the Thirteenth Vertebrate Pest Conference to report on the state of urban bird pestilence in the U.S.A. Included within his report — titled Solutions To Urban Bird Problems — was the result of a survey conducted among a wide range of U.S. agencies involved with wild animal control, including the USDA, local health and animal control departments, state wildlife agencies, and police, sanitation, and fire departments.

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Pigeons — the traditional bane of landlords — unsurprisingly won the top pestilential spot, followed by the starling and sparrow. Monk parakeets — despite their reputation for destructive havoc and “raucous” vocal qualities — ranked near the bottom. The survey results are national, so the results might seem odd to those of us in Brooklyn, where waxwings and woodpeckers are so rare that any appearance would be greeted with applause, not opposition.

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Still, Fitzwater doesn’t have anything positive about the Monk Parakeet, noting that it is “among the most raucous” of birds, a destroyer of decorative plants, a consumer of crops, and a possible carrier of Newcastle disease. He further relates the story of a homeowner who interceded on behalf of the parrots, only to later beg that they be removed when their high-decibel squawking drove him to absolute distraction.

“Annoyance” is, of course, a subjective quality located in the sensibilities of the beholder. And yes, there are some in Brooklynites who grate their teeth and cover their heads with pillows when a Monk Parakeet squawks, especially in the morning.”It sounds a little like finger nails on chalk board, ” one resident reported.

Others, however, find the Brooklyn Parrots less annoying than car stereos, garbage trucks, fire engines, and other routine sources of normal Brooklyn street noise. Many see nothing wrong with “raucous” speech generally, considering it a refreshing, even cherished aspect of life in the big city.

Are They Endangered?

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No. In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the Monk Parakeet on its Red List, signifying that it is in no danger of extinction. (Interestingly, Homo Sapiens (human beings) also finds itself on the Red List).

Among the factors leading the IUCN to list Monk Parakeets on the Red List are the bird’s wide range and ability to keep its population growing, despite the fact that, according to IUCN, 710,686 of them were captured and sent into the pet trade.

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IUCN includes a list of nations into which the Monk Parakeet has been introduced. They include:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bermuda
  • The Cayman Islands
  • Chile
  • The Czech Republic
  • France
  • Germany
  • Guadeloupe
  • Japan
  • Puerto Rico
  • Slovakia
  • Spain
  • The United States
  • The Virgin Islands

(As of October, 2017, the viability of a number of these populations, especially on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, remains open to question, given the severe violence of recent hurricanes there).

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There have been numerous reports in the international media about a controversial colony of Monk Parakeets that has become established in London’s East End. I have also received anecdotal reports from Israel, Italy, and Canada, although it is not known whether the parrots have successfully established themselves in any of these nations.

What Are They Saying To Each Other?

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When you’re first exposed to these parrots, all you hear is a  “yakety yakety yaking” without any apparent meaning.

But then all of a sudden one of the birds says something, and the flock goes quiet. A few minutes will pass, and you might see what caused the birds to become silent — most likely a predator setting up an attack.  If and when the predator leaves, another call will sound that functions as an “all clear — resume normal activities” signal.

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When these birds are kept in captivity, they quickly learn the human language, and can speak in context. In the wild, they speak their own language, for which there is no known translation book.

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I’d expect that they’ve developed calls for these following common situations:

  1.  Incoming predator, plus directional cue (east/west, up/down)
  2.  Outgoing predator, plus directional cue
  3. General alarm (no predator seen but take evasive action anyway)
  4. All clear signal
  5. Opportunity! (food, twigs, )
  6. Named greetings (“hello og/goodbye og”)
  7. Contentedness/”all’s well”
  8. Annoyance
  9. Warning – don’t do that!
  10. Retreat!

Are They Aggressive?

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Contrary to their repute as bullying harassers of local indigenous wildlife (early U.S. reports played up an alleged fatal attack on a robin in New Jersey that may have never happened), the parrots generally get along well with other urban birds found in New York City, including pigeons, sparrows, and starlings.

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However there’s no doubt that these parrots like to fight — at least among themselves. I’ve witnessed many verbal disputes that seem to break out spontaneously in Brooklyn parrot flocks, and sometimes these disputes escalate into out-and-out brawls, complete with beak-to-beak confrontations, tail-feather pulling, and other physical behavior. I’ve never actually seen any blood drawn, however.

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Disputes, feuds, and brawls seem to break out most often during mating season, when hormones are raging and spousal concerns over fidelity issues rise to the forefront. There’s a kind of madness that breaks out among the parrots in March, and it continues for about a month. By June things have generally calmed down and individual flock members seem to get along much more harmoniously.