In the 1960s and 1970s, exotic parrots were being imported into the U.S. by the hundreds of thousands each year. Among the many birds included within this great forced immigration was the Monk Parakeet. More than 65,000 Monk Parakeets came into the United States during these years, most of them from Argentina, a country whose government regarded them as an agricultural pest and was eager to get them out of the country after the failure of an expensive, cruel, and fraud-ridden lethal eradication program.
Most of the captured and transplanted birds made their way into pet stores, cages, and human homes, where they lived out their lives as companions for humans.
But some — not many — but a few lucky birds escaped from the pet industry supply chain to find freedom in the stone jungles of New York City. The birds we see today in New York City are — in large part — descendants of these original escapees.
Early Reports From NY Ornithologists
New York’s population of wild Monk Parakeets exploded into notoriety on December, 16, 1970 when the New York Times published an article on the bird by John C. Devlin, a noted birding reporter who, with his wife Gail, had written a biography of legendary birder Roger Tory Peterson. ”Because the birds are non-migratory and alien to these northern latitudes,” Devlin wrote, “ornithologists have theorized that the specimens here are escapees from pet shops, homes, ships in the harbor, and particularly from small shipping containers at Kennedy International Airport.”
Devlin’s article cites John Bull, a field researcher at the American Museum of Natural History who had written a widely admired book, Birds of the New York Area (1964). By 1973 Bull had published his own paper, Exotic Birds in New York City, in the Wilson Ornithology Society’s October 1973 Bulletin, in which he discussed the Monk Parakeet’s success in the New York area in detail.
Bull supported the JFK Airport escape theory, writing that “these releases, that is, escaped birds, came from broken crates at Kennedy Airport, accidental releases from pet stores, aviaries, and private owners, as well as intentional releases by persons tired of caring for these parrots.”
Did They All Come From JFK?
I believe the JFK Airport Escape theory is solid, because the early reports from Bull, Devlin, and other contemporaneous bird observers is so consistent. Nothing that has happened in the past 40 years suggests that Bull’s original theory isn’t still valid.
But it’s also true that a lot of Monk Parakeets were being released into the Northeast in the 1970s. And it’s quite possible that not all of them came from Kennedy Airport. Here are some of the things that I have heard:
1. An Argentinian tramp steamer foundered in the narrows of New York Harbor. This story was told to me by someone in Seagate, Brooklyn, a neighborhood near Coney Island, a place where my correspondent claims “parrots have been living for years.” Moments before the water lapped over the cargo deck, a flock of Monk Parakeets was released by a brave crew member. It is not known whether this anonymous hero survived the disaster.
2. The parrots came to Brooklyn via Newark Airport, after temporarily settling in a cemetery somewhere in Southern New Jersey. Half of this group made their way to Brooklyn by island-hopping over Staten Island; the others made their way to Edgewater, New Jersey, where their descendants remain today. This story seems problematic (to my knowledge, Newark Airport never was a destination for international shipments), but it is consistent with early reports from the 1970s citing a “large” (possibly in the thousands) population of wild Monk Parakeets in the Garden State.
3. An aviary at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens was abandoned in the 1940s. Instead of finding another zoo for to house them, the parrots were simply released, with their existence going unreported for about 30 years. (I have not been able to establish whether the Botanical Gardens ever had an aviary.)
4. An elderly lady in Midwood, Brooklyn, who kept two Monk Parakeets as pets, died in the late 1960s. Her adult children, unwilling to look after the birds, opened the window and let them go. Those two birds — like Adam and Eve — begat all the parrots we see in Brooklyn. To me this story seems extremely far-fetched (albeit perhaps satisfying from a Biblical perspective). And yet I also know that the millions of starlings we find in America today are all related to the 100 released in the 1890s by a Shakespeare fanatic who objected to the fact that all of the birds mentioned by Shakespeare, save for the Starling, resided in Central Park. So this explanation is possible, although extremely unlikely, given what else we know about the Monk Parakeet’s origin.
5. A husband and wife who owned a pet store on Flatbush Avenue were going through a messy divorce. After the court awarded the husband title to the animals in the store, the scorned wife snuck into the store and set all the animals free. I have never been able to establish the veracity of this story, although it’s interesting that an almost identical tale, involving a “Ma and Pa” pet store in New Jersey whose owners had a falling out, was cited to me by a New Jersey resident in an attempt to explain the strange appearance of these birds in Edgewater New Jersey, where today a large colony of the parrots exists.
6. In 1985, Hurricane Gloria trapped a large group of parrots in its eyewall and dumped the birds in the New York area. This account seems incredible to me, but one largely unreported phenomena associated with the arrival of Hurricane Irma in 2017 — the fact that storm-chaser Jeff Piotrowski witnessed “thousands of birds” flying in the eye of Irma after its landfall in Florida — suggests that birds may “hitch rides” on hurricanes.
7. In 1990, an Avianca Airlines plane ran out of fuel and crashed in Glen Cove, Long Island. The parrots were the only survivors of this accident. Frankly, I think this story is way off base: Avianca Flight 52 came from Bogata and Medillin, Columbia, not Argentina.
While many of the above stories are fanciful, their existence does burnish the Monk Parakeet’s reputation as a bird with an exotic, mysterious past.
Why Was Argentina Trying to Get Rid of Them?
Argentina came to view the bird as a major threat to its agricultural expansion plans in the late 1950s. Consequently, it “declared war” on the species, instituting a program that rewarded farmers for killing them, cutting off their feet, and sending them to a central location. The result was the delivery of 427,206 severed feet to agriculture officials. Source: paper published by the The Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG).
Apparently the program was rife with fraud (many “monk parakeet” feet belonged had belonged to other unfortunate birds). It was also ineffective. Subsequently the focus of the monk parakeet control effort shifted from lethal control to capture-and-export. This decision made economic sense, because cage birds became popular in the U.S. during the 1960s, giving Argentina another valuable commodity to export to the Northern Hemisphere.
By 1967, when the Monk Parakeets were first observed in the New York area, thousands of these parrots were moving through airports across the U.S. While most of them remained in captivity, some small percentage escaped, and these escapees are the ancestors of the parrots we see today in New York City.
Because Argentina is about the same distance from the equator that New York is, with a highly similar climate, the birds felt right at home (although it took them awhile to adjust to the fact that when it’s winter in New York, it’s summer in Buenos Aries).
The escapees were later subjected to an eradication program led by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in the early 1970s. While the architects of this effort judged it “successful” at the time, it’s clear that enough parrots eluded the eradication teams to keep colonies alive in New York City to this day.
Forty — perhaps fifty years after their transplantation from Argentina, few would argue that the wild Monk Parakeets pose an environmental menace of the kind imagined by those in charge of official government response in the 1970s. A nuisance, perhaps, to utility companies, but ranked low in the pantheon of Annoying Urban Birds. (See: Are they Annoying?)
But not “the next starling.”
Why Did New York State Attempt to Eradicate Them?
In February, 1973, representatives from 13 state agencies met to discuss what do about the Monk Parakeets. “The outcome,” wrote William J. Neidermyer and Joseph J. Hickey, in The Monk Parakeet in the United States, 1970-75, America Birds, 1977, was ”an agreement by the participants that a “retrieval” (eradication) program would be attempted.” By the Spring, the program, led by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), a three-year old organization formed pursuant to legislation enacted on the first Earth Day, was gearing up.
To avoid causing an uproar among the general public, the DEC eradication plan was kept secret from the public. Details only surfaced when The New York Times exposed it on April 7th in article by Harold Faber entitled State Moves Against Monk Parakeet. “The tactics of the field agents will include live-trapping, use of steel traps, toxic materials such as cyanide gas, devices to electrocute birds and caponization (capturing male birds in live traps, emasculating them, and setting them free),” wrote Faber.”
From June 1 through August 11, 1973, officials, technicians, and bird control specialists fanned out across New York State in a search and destroy mission targeting the Monk Parakeet. As chronicled in a 1973 post-eradication presentation (The Monk Parakeet in New York, by Douglas P. Kibbe and Noel J. Cutright), by the time the campaign had ended, 75 parrots were either caught or killed, 12 eggs were recovered, and live survivors were sent to a secure research facility constructed in Cornell, New York, for future study.
There was a problem, however. Because DEC officials had been denied timely entry to Rikers Island — where hundreds of parrots were reported to have been roosting, no parrots could be “retrieved” from that island: “When DEC personnel were finally able to obtain permission two weeks ago to visit Rikers Island, a penitentiary in the Hudson River, they were only able to locate one abandoned nest.”
Could the parrots have pulled off the ultimate escape — from New York’s notorious prison island? While there’s no evidence proving that “hundreds of birds” escaped by air, it should be noted that Whitestone, Queens, is only 2 miles away, and a large parrot population has lived there for many years.
It is possible that these are the descendants of the original Rikers Island colony. Whether any of them make forays to Brooklyn is anybody’s guess.
Why Aren’t There Many In Manhattan?
Monk Parakeets have so far failed to establish a foothold in Manhattan due to the aggressive policies of the New York City Parks Department, which evicted them from Central Park years ago.
Numerous subsequent attempts made by the parrots to “retake Manhattan,” have failed due to the lack of suitable electrical infrastructure (in Manhattan, unlike the outer boroughs, most power lines are buried in the ground, not elevated on poles).
Additionally, Manhattan’s skies are increasingly filled with nasty (from a parrot perspective) avian predators, including hawks, falcons, and other meat-eaters who live on top of skyscrapers and under bridges and prey on pigeons and other local prey birds.
Still, I occasionally get reports from people that they’ve seen wild green parrot-like birds, especially on the Upper West Side and in Harlem. A few intrepid parrots have attempted to nest on fire escapes and under air conditioners, but these nests are usually quickly removed by landlords (it is a fire violation to maintain a nest or other obstruction on any fire escape).
Another small group of parrots has been seen in Riverside Park, but the nests they built a few years back were quickly vandalized by locals. (Note: in 2015, the parrots re-appeared, and others have been spotted further north. It is possible that the monks are in the process of an active colonization effort: only time will tell if this effort succeeds).