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For the Birds

Published 03/15/04
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 35 Number 1, Spring 2004

Imagine a colorful flock of parrots flying free. Perhaps you picture them in lush Mexican jungles or on craggy mountainsides in South America. But what about in the hectic streets of San Francisco?

Unlikely though it may seem, Telegraph Hill in San Francisco is just one of the many places across the U.S. in which abandoned or escaped “pet” parrots have established colonies.

Such colonies are an inevitable result of the global trade in exotic birds. Each year, thousands of birds are sold to individuals who mistakenly believe that the animal will make a low-maintenance “pet.” Birds are, in fact, very difficult to care for, with complex physical and psychological needs that few people are able to meet.

Eventually, whether due to frustration, disinterest, or concern for the bird’s welfare, many people rid themselves of the responsibility of caring for their bird. Unfortunately, few of these animals will find a loving home. Most spend their days isolated and confined to their cages. Others bounce from home to home as “owners” tire of them. Some are abandoned at local shelters and bird rescues.

In addition, an unknown number of birds are simply set loose to fend for themselves. Most of them succumb to the elements, starvation, or predation. Yet certain species, in certain climates, have shown that they are able to survive in the urban jungles of the U.S.

At least 74 free-living exotic parrot species are known to exist in North America; no fewer than 9 species are currently breeding in California. In fact, it has been estimated that there are more than 2,000 free-flying parrots in southern California alone.

Naturalized parrots — non-native species that have established a relatively stable population — have inhabited Los Angeles County since the 1960s, according to Karen T. Mabb of the Department of Biological Sciences at California State Polytechnic University. Thirteen different naturalized parrot species now live in Los Angeles County, and at least two of these — red-crowned parrots and lilac-crowned parrots — face the threat of extinction in their native homeland of Mexico.

Another naturalized species is the Monk, or Quaker, parakeet. Thousands of Monks were imported into the U.S. from Brazil and Argentina during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, and thousands more are produced each year at breeding facilities to satisfy consumer demand for inexpensive small parrots. As a result, large numbers of naturalized Monk parakeets now nest in at least 11 states.

Invaders or Victims?

Parrots are not the first “foreigners” to establish themselves in North America. In the late 1800s, the American Acclimation Society deliberately introduced European plants and animals to the U.S. While the majority of introduced birds perished, the European starling, released in Central Park in New York City in 1890 and again in 1891, quickly became one of the most abundant birds in North America. The starling has since been dubbed an “invasive species” — one that displaces native wildlife and disrupts native ecosystems — and has become the target of multiple and futile lethal control efforts. It is the plight of birds such as the starling that causes concern over naturalized parrots among conservationists and animal advocates, albeit for different reasons.

Non-native species, including feral cats and pigeons, naturalized parrots, and starlings, are not protected under state or federal wildlife laws (with the exception of non-native animals introduced and “managed” for sport). Free-living non-native species also lack the protection afforded to the same species held in private ownership, who are considered personal “property” under the law. This means that cruel lethal control efforts can be used against non-native animals in the name of native species protection or “nuisance” animal control.

Some conservationists worry that naturalized exotic birds pose a threat to native bird populations, and advocate for lethal control. But other avian experts note that these fears are often unfounded or overstated. For example, in Birds of North America, senior author Mark Spreyer says, “Early on, it was feared that [the Monk] parakeet would thrive in its new home, ravaging crops as its range expanded. Over the years, this threat has not materialized and, in many areas, efforts to retrieve wild parakeets have been discontinued.”

A current controversy involving naturalized birds is unfolding on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where a flock of mitered conures is under fire. Some allege that the conures could negatively impact both native island ecology and commercial crops (which, ironically, consist primarily of non-native plants). Biologists are concerned that the birds are involved in the spread of miconia, an invasive plant that authorities have spent millions of dollars trying to eradicate. The state has attempted to secure federal funding to survey and track the flock’s movements and to conduct “control activities,” including shooting the birds.

But the birds’ true ecological impact is still unknown. Estimates of the flock’s size vary widely, casting doubt the claim that the birds are a growing threat and significant contributor to the spread of miconia. Moreover, while conures will eat miconia seeds in a controlled captive setting, it is not known if wild conures do the same. Although some activists have proposed humanely trapping the conures and placing them in sanctuary, the flock’s fate remains uncertain.

In most cases, fears that naturalized birds might cause significant harm have proven unwarranted. One possible reason for this is that naturalized parrots tend to inhabit urban areas where many native plants and animals have already been driven out by North America’s most invasive species — Homo sapiens. In addition, while many species of naturalized parrots have been present in the U.S. since the early 1960s, their populations have remained relatively small, suggesting low reproduction and/or high mortality rates.

There are instances, however, in which naturalized birds are a cause for concern. In Arizona, for example, naturalized lovebirds compete with native birds for nesting sites. Alternative, human-made nesting sites have been proposed as a way of countering this problem without resorting to lethal control.

In dealing with conflicts involving naturalized or “invasive” animals, it is important to remember that irresponsible human actions are usually the true cause of the problem. We must ensure that our policies toward such animals are not equally irresponsible. Birds, whether native or not, should not pay the price for our mistakes.

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