Monk parakeets are here to stay in many areas of the United States. Even a coordinated campaign would probably fail to eradicate them altogether, given their large numbers, fast, powerful flight, intelligence, and adaptability in nesting and feeding, not to mention the problems associated with removing them from urban environments. Should the state even try at this point? Are Monk Parakeets even a threat?
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Monk Parakeets II: Problem or Not?
One characteristic of monk parakeets has already caused frustration among people, and considerable destruction: their attraction to utility poles as a nesting substrate. Electrical utilities in Florida, Texas, and Chicago refer to them as "feathered rats", and have taken to removing nests from their poles. In some cases the heavy bulk of sticks have caused the transformers to overheat and catch on fire. The removal is usually met by an outraged public...in Chicago the electrical company knocked down a nest containing several eggs and nestlings a few years ago. This "strategy" of nest removal is a PR nightmare, and ultimately ineffective. After three different nest removals in Chicago, I witnessed the birds immediately rebuilding the nests after the workers left. Are monk parakeets an agricultural threat? Data from their native range are hard to come by, and what has been published is often in Portuguese. No estimates of actual crop damage by monk parakeets are available. Typically, they are blaimed for much more damage than they cause because they are much more visible than an insect or a fungus. One Brazilian study found moderate percentages of corn and wheat in the crops of monk parakeets, but the sample size was small. This method can also be biased by the timing and location of sample collection. In the United States, a master's student studying monk parakeets in Florida told me a few years ago that she had observed monk parakeets and other naturalized parrot species feeding in groves of exotic fruit species (e.g. mango, lychee, longan). However, I don't think she was ever able to quantify the damage. No reports exist of monk parakeets feeding in other agricultural crops (e.g. the extensive grain fields surrounding the Chicago area). I suspect that monk parakeets will become a minor problem in Texas and Florida fruit orchards, but in harsher environments like Chicago or New York they will be unable to spread to agricultural areas. I found in my study that monk parakeets almost exclusively eat bird seed from backyard bird feeders during the winter months. They might be unable to spread without supplemental feeding by urban and suburban residents. Do monk parakeets compete with native species? An interesting question, but it can't really be answered yet. Their numbers are not that large, they don't nest in cavities like many parrots, and they occur mostly in disturbed environments. Monk parakeets might outcompete some species at bird feeders in Chicago (such as Cardinals). Some people (mostly non-scientists) have argued that the monk parakeet could fill the niche of the long-extinct Carolina parakeet, but that assertion seems fanciful at best. Overall, monk parakeet populations don't offer much cause for concern yet, but close monitoring is needed in Florida and Texas. Could control measures be taken against these local oddities even if the authorities desired it? Maybe at their first appearance, but favorable public opinion is now entrenched in favor of the birds in many places. When federal authorities threatened to wipe out the Hyde Park, Chicago, population in the 1980's (shortly after Mayor Harold Washington's death...he was a big supporter), a Hyde Park lawyer formed the Harold Washington Memorial Parakeet Defense Fund and thwarted the authorities. When the oldest monk parakeet nesting tree cracked and fell a few weeks ago in Hyde Park, the authorities actually helped transport young parakeets to a nearby tree! Many people in the neighborhood have adopted fallen parakeet chicks as pets over the years...those parakeets are untouchable at this point (except for those on the utility poles, but I hear they have been slowly moving to the trees as their nests are continually destroyed). For an independent example of people falling in love with an introduced parrot species, check out this website, book, and documentary film about a man who looks after the Red-headed Conures breeding in San Francisco! This story (and others like it) is ultimately more about the satisfaction that humans derive from animals, rather than about the animals themselves or the environment. I'm sure these parrots would have been just fine without someone feeding and taming them. Let's hope these birds don't become a pest in California, because they certainly aren't going anywhere.