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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Urban Pioneers: Quaker Parakeets

Published 12/24/12

In celebration of National Bird Day 2013, Barry Kent MacKay and Monica Engebretson — senior campaign associates for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiasts — are taking turns in December and January to describe some of their favorite avian species. Below is the fourth installment, written by Monica.

Each year thousands of birds are sold into the pet trade to individuals who are under the mistaken impression that a bird will make a low maintenance “pet.” Eventually, whether due to frustration, disinterest or concern for the birds’ welfare, many people attempt to rid themselves of the responsibility of caring for their birds. Unfortunately, few of these birds will find a loving home, and most will spend their days isolated and confined to their cages. Others bounce from home to home as “owners” tire of them, and some may be abandoned at local shelters and bird rescues.

In addition, an unknown number of birds are simply set free to fend for themselves — and most of them succumb to the elements, starvation or predation. Despite the low chance of survival, the release or escape of “pet” birds is a major source of exotic birds flying free in North America. Certain species, in certain climates, have proved that they are able to survive and, in some cases, raise families in our own urban jungles. At least 74 free-living exotic parrot species are known to exist here.

One of the most abundant free-living parrot species in the United States is the gray-breasted parrot, Myiopsitta monachus, more commonly known as the monk or Quaker parakeet. Native to South America, they can be found in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. They are the sole occupants of the genus Myiopsitta.

Thousands of Quaker parakeets were imported into the United States 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. Ornery and resourceful, these birds now nest in at least 11 states, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia, Florida and Illinois.

Quaker parakeets are unique, being the only parrots in the world who build complex nest structures from sticks and other materials, and live in them all year. Other parrots build nests, but only in a pre-existing cavity in a tree or some other location, and only use them during breeding season.

This unique housing system means that they don’t typically come into conflict or competition with other birds for nesting sites. However, this has led to another problem: In many areas of the country, Quaker parrots favor utility poles and power transformers for nest building, which leads to concerns from power companies that these large communal nests increase the risk of fire and power outages.

While Quaker nests may indeed cause some power outages, it can be difficult to estimate the frequency of such problems attributed to the nests and which are rather the results of power disruptions and transformer failures caused by simple equipment failure, accidents and severe weather. Unfortunately, concerns about power outages or hazards related to the nesting sites have led to misguided and inhumane lethal control efforts. In general, non-native species, including naturalized parrots, are not afforded protection by state or federal wildlife laws. Free-living non-native species also lack the protection afforded to the same species held in private ownership, thereby considered personal “property” under the law. This lack of protection opens the door to gruesome lethal control efforts often involving toxic poisons or shooting.

Such lethal control efforts have proved to be public relations nightmares for power companies, as these feisty, animated little birds have won many fans and defenders in the neighborhoods in which they live.

As it turns out lethal control is not only publically unattractive, it’s also ineffective in the long term, leading many power companies to look to humane non-lethal solutions.

In a letter from the Florida Power Light Company written in response to a letter I sent to it in 2007 calling to question its past use of DRC-1339 and Avitrol — inhumane toxic poisons to address Quaker parakeet conflicts — the company wrote:

“In the past, we evaluated both of these substances as part of a comprehensive research program aimed at finding solutions to deter monk parakeets from nesting on our structures. Neither one of these substances were determined to be effective. Therefore we abandoned this direction of research and have no plans to use these products.”

The letter went on to explain that the company had instead put focus on physical barriers and other deterrents, as well as potential use of non-lethal reproductive control.

Born Free USA continues to advocate for humane non-lethal approaches to dealing with wildlife. It is important to remember that in dealing with conflicts involving naturalized or non-native wildlife species, those irresponsible human actions are usually the origin 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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