Adventures in parroting

Carrie J. Sidener and her Quaker parrot, Simon.

Simon, my little green quaker parrot, lives a privileged life.

He’s got a huge cage with tons of toys, a warm home to sleep in (and even a heated perch to keep his little toes cozy in the winter months), a steady diet of healthy food and a human to cuddle with or annoy, depending on the occasion. He gets lots of play time, warm showers and sometimes binge watches Netflix.

I can’t imagine him as a wild parrot. And yet, so many of his kind live in the wild, and not just in his native Argentina.

Over the summer, Forbes published an article on parrots in the United States, finding some 56 parrot species have survived — and thrived — in 43 states.

Can you image sitting on the steps of Monument Terrace to enjoy lunch outside, only to have a little green quaker sneak up on you to steal your sandwich, laughing maniacally when he succeeds?

The U.S. had just two species of native parrots — the Carolina parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis, which was hunted to extinction, and the thick-billed parrot, Rhynchopsitta Pachyrhycha, which fled to Mexico because of logging and development, according to Forbes.

With our native parrots gone, where did all these new guys come from? The pet trade.

In the 1960s, parrots became available as pets, but wild parrots (and some not-so-wild ones) are hard to tame. Some managed to escape and others were turned out by owners who had no idea what they had gotten into, according to the Forbes article. Those suited to the prevailing climate survived, particularly in cities where food is easy to come by and there are fewer predators out for a parrot snack.

A friend who lives in the Lake Worth area of Florida has a wild colony of quakers living near her home. I visited her earlier this year and as I enjoyed a morning cup of coffee on her patio, I could hear little quaker voices. At first I thought it was a combination of my overactive imagination and missing Simon — until she asked me if I had seen the wild ones.

I never did spot one, but I certainly heard them each morning.

Behavioral ecologist Stephen Pruett-Jones, now an associate professor at the University of Chicago, first became interested in wild parrots after he learned of the famous monk parakeets in Chicago’s Hyde Park in 1988, according to Forbes. They first were spotted in the park in 1968, and built their first nest in 1970.

Monk parakeet, by the way, is the other name for quaker parrots. The wild gang in Florida has to be living the easy life compared to their Chicago counterparts.

Forbes notes the most common parrot species in the U.S. are, in fact, Simon’s kinfolk. Quakers, or monks, are most know for building epic multifamily nests — most often on utility transformers, which, as you can imagine, causes a little bit of trouble. Quakers account for more than 1/3 of the wild parrots spotted.

“But many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations,” Pruett-Jones told Forbes. “Wild parrots are here to stay.”

The recent study, which compiled records from eBird and Christmas Bird Counts from 2002 to 2016, found many of the parrots live in the warmer areas of the U.S., but there is a sizable population in New York and Chicago.

Not so much in Virginia, though.

“Many of them were escaped pets, or their owners released them because they couldn’t train them or they made too much noise — all the reasons people let pets go,” Pruett-Jones explained in a press release, as quoted by Forbes.

Some of these parrots are endangered in their native countries, such as the red-crowned Amazon, but their populations are increasing in the U.S.

“Because of human activity transporting these birds for our own pleasure, we have inadvertently created populations elsewhere,” Pruett-Jones told Forbes. “Now for some of these parrots, they may become critical to the survival of the species.”

That’s kind of amazing when you think about it.

Still, I’m sure Simon is much happier eating holes in the side of my breakfast burrito when I’ve got my back turned than toughing it out in the wild.

Sidener is the special publications editor for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5539.

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