One thing you certainly don’t expect to see in a North American city known for its cold winters is a thriving population of parrots. Nonetheless, noisy flocks of them can be seen all over my neighbourhood. Monk parakeets, also called quaker parrots, have been breeding in parts of Chicago for at least 40 years.
How did they get here? Urban legends abound (one persistent story has them escaping from a crate at the airport, though their nests were first reported far from there), but all that’s known for sure is that they arrived via the pet trade. The long-tailed, greenish, pigeon-sized birds are native to southern South America, where they are agricultural pests, especially in fruit orchards.
Shockingly, these birds manage to stay through the Chicago winter. Though they’re native to the subtropics, and thus more tolerant of cold than the average parrot, they never encounter freezing temperatures in their original range. However, monk parakeets use their nests* year-round, and the massive structures (they breed communally, with several pairs building many-chambered nests that are often used for years) are well-insulated against the Windy City’s worst weather. But they rely on help from humans, too: they’re almost entirely dependent on backyard bird feeders in the winter.
Locals seem to have mixed feelings about the birds. Initially, the US Department of Agriculture was concerned that the parakeets would damage crops, as they do in their native range, and tried to remove them. They met with opposition from residents who liked the splash of tropical colour the birds provided. Though some birds were destroyed, the population rebounded, and so far the threat to crops hasn’t materialized.
However, other problems have: the parakeets began nesting on utility poles, posing a fire risk and causing occasional blackouts. The nests are removed, but the birds rebuild them in the same place. They also crowd out other birds at feeders, potentially threatening native birds**. On the other hand, some admire the parakeets’ adaptability and all-around pluck: they’re immigrants who help each other through tough times and start over in the face of setbacks. They’re not (yet?) a serious bioinvader, not like house sparrows or starlings. Perhaps we should learn to coexist.
But are they so benign? For now, maybe, but there are feral monk parakeet populations in New York City***, Spain, southern England, Japan, and many other places. A similar conflict between the perceived agricultural threats these birds pose and the feelings of local residents who welcome the birds simmers in many of these places. Like starlings, parrots are gregarious and extremely noisy—potentially another nuisance. And, dare I say it, perhaps climate change will allow further expansion of these populations. Just as we favour cute and fuzzy endangered species for our fundraising, are we also favouring the more ornamental invasives?
*In fact they’re the only species of parrot to build nests rather than use tree cavities.
**Granted, they’re mostly crowding out house sparrows, another, less-pretty, exotic species. In fact, in Brooklyn, New York, home to another feral population, the parakeets are encouraged at Greenwood Cemetery because they drive out pigeons, whose guano damages historic buildings (apparently the parakeets’ guano is less caustic!).
***Fascinatingly, there’s also a probably-spurious escape-from-the-airport tale about the origin of the New York population.