Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Close Encounters of the Avian Kind

Photo: Monica Perez Nevarez

By Monica Perez Nevarez
Parrot – Human Relations in Brooklyn
Midwood is a traditional neighborhood of cookie-cutter Arts and Crafts Bungalows from the 1920’s that lays just north of Brooklyn College. The streets are clean, but the sidewalks are buckled here and there. The single family houses are well cared for, but they have not been renovated. Wooden picket fences have given way to low chain link fences. Sporadic car traffic is mostly vintage Japanese imports. It’s a mixed neighborhood made up of White, African American and Latino families with humble lawns and generous porches.

The area’s one crowning glory is its abundance of mature trees.

This combination of sturdy trees, grassy lawns and tolerant humans makes Midwood a perfect habitat for a bird species locally known as the ‘Brooklyn Parrots’, which are a singular example of the complexities of human-animal relations.

Monk Parakeets, also known as Quaker Parrots and Grey-headed parakeets, or by their scientific name Myiopsitta monachus, have lived and thrived in the 'wilds' of Brooklyn for over forty years. Yet, the more you read about them, the more they become an enigma.

Pieces of the Parrot Puzzle

How did they get here? How do South American parrots survive northern winters? Why does the government classify them in such a way that leaves them unprotected, and what does that mean for their ongoing survival? Who is fighting for them, and why do they need defending? What do they show us about the relationship humans have with birds in particular and wildlife in general?

To start, their names are a constant source of confusion. Monk parakeet, Quaker parrot, Quaker parakeet and Monk parrot are used interchangeably by different parties. Parakeets are defined as small parrots by the Encarta Dictionary, so in the Monks’ case, both names apply. The usage difference might stem from savvy retailers who know that parrots are more expensive than parakeets.

Their provenance has been shrouded in mystery. None of the multiple academic studies done on Monks pinpoints a singular cause that leads to their introduction into the United States, and many of the stories told in other capital cities where the birds have formed colonies sound eerily similar to one another. Urban legend has now mixed with the very few strands of truth that were left behind 43 years ago in a JFK airport cargo bay, confusing things further. But more on that later.

A smallish, bright green parrot, the Monk Parakeet is smaller than a pigeon and larger than a sparrow; it’s about 11 to 12 inches long. The forehead and breast are a pale grey and the stomach and underparts are light green to yellow. They have blue flight feathers just visible on the underside of their wings, a long tail and a yellowish-orange beak. They are monogamous and they build implausible-looking high-rise nests.

Their native range is southern Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and north-central Argentina. In the United States, they have established New York colonies in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island, and can be found in 17 states across the U.S. Globally, they have colonies in cities in Puerto Rico, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Morroco, Israel, Greece, and Japan; and there are youtube videos of them in the Middle East and Thailand.

Back to Brooklyn

In Midwood, there is an imposing Locust tree that is known to birding aficionados as the ‘Tree of Life.’ Not because of its rarity or age, but rather for what it holds up: a six foot tall twig nest that hangs off the eastern side of its sturdy trunk, about 20 feet off the ground, and houses about 16 chattering Monk parakeets.

Inside the massive twig structure are eight individual nests, stacked asymmetrically like a double helix. Peeking from two openings, on a crisp spring morning, are two pairs of Monks, chattering away in their respective homes, repositioning twigs, preparing their nest for their first clutch of eggs. Below them, a group of ‘Parrot Safari’-goers click away with their cameras.

A Parrot Safari came to Brooklyn

The Parrot Safari is the brainchild of Steve Baldwin, a man of many passions and abilities. A writer, multimedia producer, and musician, he’s a Project Manager for the online business directory powerprofile.com. He excels at organizing his life so he has enough time for all his varied interests. On this day, as he has for the previous six years, the tall and lanky 51 year old is the Parrot Safari producer and tour guide.

"Frankly, I think these birds deserve to be proclaimed the National Parrot of the USA", Baldwin gushes on his webpage (www.brooklynparrots.com). "They have all of the great qualities we associate with the American character: they're industrious, loyal to each other, they're amazing little engineers, they coexist well with other native birds, and they just won't give up, even when the deck is stacked against them."

He has put Brooklyn’s Monk Parakeets on the Social Media map with a Facebook page (Brooklyn Parrots) and a twitter feed (@brooklynparrots), which keep his avid followers updated on everything Monk. In fact, every member of today’s safari came from an internet source, because Baldwin does not advertise his free tours (the first Saturday of every month, spring through fall) anywhere else.

A graduate of Fordham University, Baldwin is a member of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and since 2005 has been photographing and videotaping the wild parrots of Brooklyn and New Jersey. He has written two books: in 1999 he wrote Netslaves and in 2003 he followed up with Netslaves II. His 2005 book, Tango in America, co-authored with Monk activist Alison Evans-Fragale, features a Monk Parakeet as its heroine.

In the book’s Amazon.com reviewer’s page Baldwin writes that “after I discovered that there were wild parrots flying free in many urban areas of the United States and [I had] spent time studying their habits in the wild, my imagination was engaged by their story. Derided as ‘illegal avian invaders,’ hounded by utility companies and Fish and Wildlife services, and referred to in ornithological literature as ‘the world's most persecuted parrot,’ these charming, social birds captured my heart, and I wanted to share some of the joy I felt with [others].”

From Argentina to New York

There are a lot of theories about how Monk Parakeets came to colonize the US, ranging from daring escapes from sinking ships or overturned trucks to accidents in the cargo section of airports. But according to Baldwin, “the theory that has the greatest credence among ornithologists is that a shipment of parrots destined for sale at New York area pet shops was accidentally released at Kennedy Airport in the late 1960's.” On this particular day, a woman participating in the safari would prove the rule of six degrees of separation - only better.

Janet Height, an energetic ash blond, offered a personal account of what happened to a particular shipment of parrots as the group walked through Midwood. “I live in Manhattan now but I grew up in Brooklyn. I’m a bird person, so I’ve always wanted to come out here. I have parakeets and I have a Mexican Yellowhead, whom I adopted 25 years ago. She’s 43. Her name is Allie.”

“Allie is one of the original parrots that escaped from JFK airport [in 1968]. My grandfather worked in the Pan Am cargo building in the late sixties as a guard. One night, a bunch of parrots chewed their way out of their wooden crates, and Allie was a baby, and she had broken her wing, so she couldn’t escape. My grandfather found her and took her and gave her to our neighbors. Eighteen years later, when they could not take care of her anymore, I adopted her. She’s been my baby ever since.”

After weeks of trying to find some tangible evidence as to what really happened so many years ago, actually speaking to a woman that had a bird from an original flock of escapees was nothing short of miraculous.

Janet went on with her story. “I can’t believe the exporters put wood-chewers into wooden crates” she said, “so I am sure these escapes happened often, more often than anybody let on. You know, they’d just crowd birds into these boxes and ship them. There’s just no end to how cruel people can be to animals.” The surprised group of safari goers nodded in agreement as they walked alongside. She seemed to think it was possible that birds kept escaping for as long as they were being imported.

Baldwin added that “more than 60,000 wild Monk Parakeets were shipped from South America during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Argentinean government spent 10 years trying to wipe out what they considered to be a pest species in their country. Over 400,000 of them were killed in a government-sponsored extermination program.” Then someone apparently decided exporting them was a more lucrative way of getting rid of them.

Back in the late 1960’s there was very little mention of habitat loss in the Amazon backcountry and its consequences for wild parrot colonies. The Monk Parakeet’s natural habitat is lowland mountain forests and their encircling grassland savannahs. Clear cutting for the now famous Argentinean beef industry stripped the ecosystem in which Monk parakeets lived of all their normal sources of food. But because they are territorial (once they colonize a place, they usually keep close to that geographical area), they become very adept at eating whatever replaces their food source, much to the chagrin of South American farmers and ranchers.

Planting a field (with seeds!) thus became a battleground between hungry birds and business-minded farmers. This is how many wild parrots have become pest species in South America, through loss of habitat.

What Baldwin did not tell the group was that the Monk Parakeets had been subjected to a similar extermination program in the early ‘70’s across the US, when there were only several hundred escaped parrots in the country. All the Monk Parakeets in California were killed, and 50% of the population in the rest of the continent was wiped out by concerted government efforts fighting fears that the parrots would become a pest here too.

But in a surprising twist of fate, the Monks never did become a generalized pest species, they never destroyed wild habitat, and never competed with endemic species. Instead, they became celebrities.

The Famous Brooklyn Parrots

In the four decades since the extermination attempt, the Monk survivors have thrived; it is estimated there are 3,000 to 5,000 Monk Parakeets throughout the U.S. today, with several hundred living in Brooklyn. They have become local superstars, as I learned on the subway ride over to see them one morning.

Sitting in the number 2 train, on the first warm Saturday in spring after a brutal New York winter, I saw the car become a little emptier with every stop on its way to Flatbush. Subway station names flashed by the rectangular windows, bracketed by sooty darkness and shrieking gears; Church Avenue, Beverly Road, Newkirk Avenue.

The words “Are you going to see the parrots?” were barely audible as Mayra Mejia, 22, with a big smile and long black hair almost touching her designer jeans, sat across the aisle from me in the otherwise vacant car.

“Yes, I am,” I said, “how’d you know?”

“The binoculars,” she answered, pointing to the protruding gear in my open backpack. “I’ve lived in Flatbush all of my life,” Mejia said, “and they have been here ever since I can remember. Pretty wild to see parrots in the city, right?” I was about to respond when the train screeched to a halt in Flatbush station.

As we walked out, I asked her how she felt about the parrots. “I like them,” she said, “but I don’t know if everyone loves them; no one ever hurts them, because they’re a big attraction. People come to see them from all over the place. But,” she grinned, “they squawk a lot. You hear them before you see them. Otherwise they’re beautiful.”

And with that, Ms. Mejia managed to sum up the fragile détente that exists between the Monk Parakeets and Brooklynites, which, writ large, echoes the nicer permutations of relationships these birds have with humans.

The Parrot Safari Experience

At the start of the tour, Steve Baldwin walked the group around the periphery of Brooklyn College along Campus Road hoping to find Monks in several places he knew there were nests and feeding areas.

Before long, Baldwin stopped short and asked the group to listen. Sure enough, there was squawking coming from the college’s outdoor track area, where half a dozen parakeets were noisily sunning themselves on a chain link fence. As if on cue, they flew down to the grass to feed just as the group arrived.

Baldwin smiled and said “Look, they are posing as if for the paparazzi.”  “Seriously, they are flying down to get their favorite food, grass. They have a diverse diet, which is what has helped them survive up in these latitudes. They like grass seed, dandelion buds, leaf buds, mulberries and holly berries. They also send out scouting parties to find human-provided bird feeders and hit those hard during winter months. They also eat fruit, horse chestnuts, and acorns. I’ve even seen one eating a small piece of pizza! The fact that their diet is so broad is one of the secrets of their success.”

Sandra Bigelow, a native of Flatbush, asks if the parakeets are in direct competition for food with any other animals. “I suppose you could say that they compete for food against the other introduced birds we find in urban areas, like sparrows, starlings, and pigeons,” Baldwin responded, “but that’s it.” Just as he said that, a pigeon flew down to some newly scattered bird seed which safari-goers had brought for the Monks, which they had promptly ignored. The pigeon ate to its heart’s content, unmolested by man or beast.

Their diet is a deceptively important piece of the Monk Parakeet puzzle. They have colonized only urban areas because they depend on humans for food in winter. They are not destroying any natural habitats nor competing with any native birds in the city, where man has already changed the landscape. One academic study from 1974 cites competition with Robins or Bluejays, but no other study since then has witnessed this behavior. In fact, several mention how well they get along with other species of birds, to the point of sharing their nests with some species of owls.

Monks are Urban, not Wildlife

The Brooklyn Parrots could have chosen to live in secluded wild areas. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, is a migratory bird haven just south of JFK international airport. It would seem to be a perfect place for wild parrots to live, being protected and wild. And yet they have never built nests there.

Thirty year veteran Park Ranger Edgardo Castillo confirmed this via telephone. “We don’t have them here. Never have. You might see one or two flying around, but this is not an area where they nest. They are urban birds. There is no food for them here in winter.”

So Monks live in the city, they do not compete with native birds, and in fact they get along with them as well as with other introduced species in the city. So how come they are still persecuted, and by whom?

The Opposition

Continuing down Campus Road, Baldwin told the story of how Con Edison treated Monk Parakeets before there was a group of people defending them. “We haven’t had any problems [in Brooklyn], but there were nests in Queens that were a problem for Con Edison. Monk Parakeets had built a nest on an electrical transformer. Those transformers cost $25,000 each, not counting the labor to fix or replace them, in addition to any blackout costs. So Con Edison had to get [the nests] out of there.”

Baldwin continued: “what happened the first time [Con Ed destroyed their nests] was the birds just waited for them to leave, and started rebuilding their nest almost immediately after they left. So the next time, Con Ed took down the nests in January. That’s a particularly cruel and inhumane way to kill the birds, leaving them without shelter in the middle of winter.”

While Baldwin and animal rights advocates realize that Con Edison must safeguard its property, several groups (like Feathered Friends Parrot Adoption Services, Inc. and Edgewater Parrots) are working to change state law so that Monk Parakeets are afforded some measure of protection from indiscriminate harassment. In the meantime, Baldwin and others have worked closely with New Jersey utility company PSE&G in later actions to mitigate damages to the Monk Parakeets and save many birds.

Some municipal organizations have learned to work with bird activists. One particular action Baldwin describes on his webpage (Photo-Essay: A Bronx Tale: The Great Baby Quaker Parrot Rescue), tells of cooperation between New York City's Department of Design and Construction (DDC) and a group of activists (including Baldwin) that saved 43 baby parrots when several large nests had to be taken down one summer in a lightbulb-replacement project. The babies were taken to an animal sanctuary, DDC replaced the lights, and the parent Monk parakeets set about rebuilding their nests after everyone left.

Con Edison did not return any calls or emails for comment.

Monks have not had much of an impact on Con Edison infrastructure in New York City because most electrical infrastructure is under ground. But Monk parakeets have been known to wreak havoc in other places where the infrastructure is above ground, like Connecticut and Florida, where the utility companies have to constantly wage a war of attrition against the species.

Snapshots of Safari Participants

Ann McDermott lives in Manhattan, but was born and raised in Brooklyn, and came on safari because of Baldwin. “I know Steve through his Beatles music, he has a tribute band, called “Elementary Penguins”, from the song “I am the Walrus”, and he plays every Saturday night in Times Square, in the Subway, or if the weather permits, in Central Park, near Strawberry Fields. I read his page on Facebook, and he posted about this safari, and I thought, well, that sounds like a good way to spend a Saturday morning. So here I am. This is the cool thing about New York – nature really does exist among the concrete and the steel.”

Kyle Mac Donnell, a Graphic Designer and Production Designer who lives in Greenpoint, is “into taking photographs of birds. I just found out about the parrots from a friend who is house sitting. I started looking things up on the internet and I found the Brooklyn Parrot website, and I also went to Sunset Park [where there is another Monk colony] and took a lot of good pictures which I have posted on my Flickr account, if anyone wants to see them.”

Two girlfriends out for a walk before lunch: “I’m Michelle, I found out about this on the internet, and I just like birds, so here I am! I live near here, the next town over. I can’t say anything about how these people feel about [the parrots], but if they were in my backyard I’d embrace them;” and Andrea, from Flatbush, who said she “came here because I like birds and I was interested in parrots. I’ve been in Brooklyn nine years, so it was time to come see them.”

A couple from Manhattan Beach were curious: Anya Bransama said “we’ve been watching the parrots for a couple of years, so we just wanted to know more about them,” and Steve Coiner added, “We see them all the way up and down Manhattan Beach. We live sort of in the middle. They’re all around us. I remember when I was a kid, we were coming in on the expressway one day and we saw one racing with the traffic. This was in the seventies. It’s amazing they’re still here.”

Community Building

Baldwin stopped the group across the street from a small children’s playground at the end of Brooklyn College’s track and field area whose fence had been decorated with metal cutouts of Monk Parakeets. He explained that the community had gotten together to petition for that particular decoration when the park was being refurbished. It’s obvious that Steve relishes even the smallest victories for the Monks.

“‘Hot Spot Lot’ Park, as it is lovingly called by the locals, is an emblem,” Baldwin recounted, “because the Parks Department decided that the Monk Parakeets were significant enough to actually memorialize them, and hired an artist to do these very nice cutouts of them. That shows that even though the parrots have no official status in New York State, they are sort of officially recognized as being members of this neighborhood, and as a part of Brooklyn.”

“No official Status?” someone asked from the back of the pack.

Baldwin explained that Monk Parakeets can be legally owned and bred and sold in New York as long as they are ‘banded’ (they have a metal band on their leg), but ‘wild’ colonies are offered no protection under state law. Therefore, it is legal to trap them or kill them without a permit or a limit, like Raccoons or Coyotes. Although there have been several attempts to pass legislation to protect them, all local congressional efforts have so far ended up ‘in committee’, which is another way of saying in limbo.

New York is one of seven states where Monk Parakeets are legal with restrictions (in NY they have to be banded, other states have other restrictions). There are 11 states where they are illegal (they cannot be held as pets, sold, be brought into the state, transported across state lines, or bred in CA, CO, CT, HI, GA, KS, KY, NH, PA, RI, TN, WY), and 32 states where they are legal without any restrictions. Unfortunately, just because they are legal does not mean that Monks are accorded any protection under the law. And without any corroborating evidence, some people say Con Edison likes it that way just fine.

The Conundrum

One overriding reason there is a regulatory bias against Monk Parakeets in New York is that they were expected to become as damaging and widespread a pest as they had been in South America. But in the 50 years since they were introduced here, that threat never materialized.

Prof. Stephen Pruett-Jones, a renowned ornithologist, Monk Parakeet specialist and professor at the University of Chicago, explained in a telephone conversation that they have not become the damaging invasive species that they were expected to become. "They are a pest in a small section of Florida and a nuisance in some parts of Illinois, but otherwise they have not become the menace we thought they might become."

Pruett-Jones also clarified the Monk Parakeet’s ‘classification.’

“You must understand the terminology. An ‘introduced species’ is one that did not occur naturally here, it came from somewhere else. But Monk Parakeets have become a ‘naturalized’ species because they are breeding here.”

Pruett-Jones went on to explain that an ‘invasive’ species describes a species that causes damage to native ecosystems or to native species. That “is actually the category that is the least accurate in describing the Monk Parakeet,” he said. “The general public uses that term incorrectly to refer to any introduced species as invasive and that is problematical.”

The Monk expert went on to summarize their development. A single colony grows until it literally is too large for the space they occupy, and then within a week, half the population leaves the original nest and smaller nests are built in the surrounding area.

What has saved the Monk Parakeets up to now is that they are usually rooted to urban places. They like to live in tall trees or poles next to grassy areas in close proximity to homes with back yards and bird feeders.

Closing Thoughts

The Avian Welfare Resource Center agrees with Dr. Pruett-Jones. “Though Monk Parakeets sustain populations in at least 17 states, there is no documented evidence that these colonies have caused any widespread damage to agriculture, nor have they been proven to pose a threat to native bird species. Monk Parakeets have simply dared to interfere with commercial activity, and that alone has garnered them a greater share of national media attention than any other of the 25 naturalized parrots in the US. Regardless of their non-native status, we need to ensure the humane treatment of all naturalized birds by granting them legal protection.”

For advocates like Steve Baldwin, the Monk Parakeets have already suffered enough persecution. He directed me to a quote from Avianwelfare.org which sums up the parrot’s dilemma: “Parrots live in two opposing worlds — and they are threatened in both. In the wild, habitat destruction, poaching, and the cruelties of the legal and illegal trade in exotic animals menace them. Some species face extinction. Here in the United States, ironically, there’s a crisis of a different sort. The fight on behalf of exotic birds — for their welfare and very survival — must be waged on many fronts: in rain forests, grasslands, cliffs, and brush regions around the globe, as well as [in state legislatures,] breeding facilities, pet stores, zoos, and our nation’s living rooms.”

The Big Picture

Monk Parakeets are a story about how man relates to other animals on the planet. It’s a story about nonexistent animal rights and human unconsciousness to the web of life. It is a story about fickleness in our legal designations and our regulations regarding animals, and how the animals end up bearing the brunt of human hypocrisy. It is a story about aspiring to treat all species humanely.

As Steve Baldwin said as we parted company. “I am intrigued by Monk Parakeets because their story resonates from a number of different angles. They are ‘strangers in a strange land’ in the way that many human immigrants to Brooklyn are. They were deported from their native lands after suffering extermination pogroms. Through sheer chance, they survived and were allowed a rare chance at freedom. Their existence is perilous and they have many enemies, human, non-human, governmental, and corporate. And yet they persist. There are many obvious parallels to the struggles of the human spirit here.”

Dr. Stephen Pruett-Jones summed it up from his academic perspective: “The Monk parakeet will continue to be both an interesting and controversial species and one that highlights the complex interaction between public sentiment, public policy, and biology.”

But Jonathan Franzen, famous author and avid birdwatcher, may have the wisest perspective of all. In the Commencement speech he gave this past month at Kenyon College, he explained how having fallen in love with birds has helped him deal with the world.

“My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.”

“How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed.”

“I used to have a really angry, despairing sense that the world is screwed, that people have screwed the world, and so we should just let it all end. Let's have the great plague that will reduce the population by 90 percent, and let the land regenerate and nature catch its breath. I've moved away from that sort of deep-ecological extremism, which I found to be not personally tenable. It was time for me to stop thinking about apocalypse, time to move to New York City, time to start enjoying life. And from there I moved on to loving birds, which was a much more positive mode of engagement. If you're trying to save your child's life, you might make certain compromises that you would have found morally insupportable at a younger age. Love leads to pragmatism in a way that anger doesn't.”
And that is the 'take away' from any contact with Monk parakeets. You fall under their spell, and anyone that spends just a little bit of time with them comes away feeling much more than respect for them, and inevitably rethinking their relationship with birds and wildlife in general.

Monks may, one urban follower at a time, be the species that makes better humans of us all.