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Home > News & Events > MAARSianChronicles > Issue 14: February 2006 > On the Wild Side: Naturalized Quakers: Strangers In A Strange Land

On the Wild Side

Naturalized Quaker Parrots rest in the sun near a power transformer in Connecticut. (Photo by Marc Johnson, Foster Parrots)

Naturalized Quaker Parrots rest in the sun near a power transformer in Connecticut.

(Photo by Marc Johnson, Foster Parrots)

Naturalized Quakers: Strangers In A Strange Land

by Eileen McCarthy, Executive Director & CEO

A recent battle in Connecticut between United Illuminating Co. (UI) and concerned citizens received national attention in the media and prompted position statements from various organizations. At the center of the public protests, press releases, petitions, media coverage, meetings, letter-writing campaigns, and a lawsuit is the naturalized colonies of Quaker — or Monk — Parrots (also called Monk or Quaker Parakeets) who have settled in Southwestern Connecticut.

In November 2005, UI, with the assistance of the USDA and permission granted by an Executive Order to prevent the spread of "invasive species," began an eradication program that involved the trapping and gassing of 179 Quaker Parrots and the destruction of their communal nests. Although sanctioned by authorities, there was no public notice of UI's plan, and witnesses reported that nests and birds were removed under the cover of darkness. Public outcry and a lawsuit filed by Darien, Connecticut-based Friends of Animals led to the suspension of UI's lethal activities through the end of 2005.

Quakers are the only parrot species to build communal nests out of sticks rather than nesting in hollows in trees or cliffs. (Photo by Marc Johnson, Foster Parrots)

Quakers are the only parrot species to build communal nests out of sticks rather than nesting in hollows in trees or cliffs.

(Photo by Marc Johnson, Foster Parrots)

The bright green Quaker Parrot, native to Argentina, is popular in the pet trade, and numerous urban legends recount how escaped "pets" or shipments of wild-caught birds may have pioneered the establishment of naturalized flocks in the U.S. But make no mistake: these are not "pet" birds. Sure, some of them may have once been tame, but parrots kept as "pets" have never been domesticated. Once free in the urban jungles of Brooklyn, New York, or Hartford, Connecticut, they became wild parrots living in a foreign land. They are hearty, adaptable, intelligent birds and the only parrot species known to construct nests out of twigs and branches rather than a cliff cavity or tree hollow. In many areas of the country, Quaker Parrots favor utility poles and power transformers for nest building. The resourcefulness that allowed these feisty little birds to thrive so far from their natural range became a liability in Connecticut.

UI, which owns the utility poles and equipment that delivers power to customers, maintains that the birds are a nuisance and pose a threat to public health and safety. UI's spokesperson, Al Carbone, claims that the parrots' large communal nests and destructive hook bills increase the risk of fire and power outages. However, power disruptions and transformer fires are attributable to a variety of conditions — including equipment failure, accidents and severe weather — and UI offered no evidence that the Quaker Parrots or their nests have been the cause of such hazardous or inconvenient incidents. Many believe that UI's actions were pre-emptive, which, if true, implies that lethal means were unwarranted.

Marc Johnson, Founder & Director of Foster Parrots, a parrot sanctuary and adoption organization in the Boston area, documented the plight of the Connecticut Quakers, rallied residents to oppose UI's program and tirelessly lobbied the company to seek a more humane method of population control. He even provided alternative nesting platforms to anyone who volunteered their property for a Quaker nesting site; UI was not amongst the volunteers. Other animal protection organizations also urged UI to resolve the Quaker problem through non-lethal means such as routine nest removal and deterrents that have proven successful with other Quaker Parrot colonies. Individuals and agencies from regions where power companies, citizens, and Quaker Parrots have learned to live harmoniously, offered to assist in developing a non-lethal program for UI that would control the population, and keep it off company property. Initially, UI did not respond favorably to these suggestions. Either UI sought to keep their plans from the pubic or they simply had no idea that their discrete killing spree would ruffle so many feathers.

Quaker Parrots captured in the night by UI in Connecticut await transfer to the USDA for destruction with carbon monoxide. (Photo by Marc Johnson, Foster Parrots)

Quaker Parrots captured in the night by UI in Connecticut await transfer to the USDA for destruction with carbon monoxide.

(Photo by Marc Johnson, Foster Parrots)

Friends of Animals filed an appeal in the state's Superior Court on January 12, 2006, seeking protection for the parrots through a permanent injunction and a judgment requiring UI to conduct regular maintenance of its equipment to prevent nesting. On the same day, Mr. Carbone announced that the destruction of 103 nests was completed and that UI was willing to develop a non-lethal control plan.1

Whether a legal precedent will be set by court-mandated protection of an exotic species is at the root of a much broader debate, one that has been simmering for years and may be about to boil over: the appropriate policy and response to introduced species that have become established in the U.S. In some cases, like the Great Lakes, successful populations of non-native species become "invasive," presenting a serious threat to an ecosystem's sustainability and the survival of indigenous species. In such cases, the introduced species aggressively compete for resources with or prey upon stable populations of native plants or animals, eventually causing a marked decline in the indigenous population, a sharp increase in the alien population, and wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes ecosystem.

An Executive Order issued by President Clinton on February 3, 1999, established the Invasive Species Council and authorized the council to oversee the implementation of monitoring, control, and eradication programs to prevent the proliferation of invasive species and protect native species and ecosystems.2 While this mission sounds noble, in reality, the solutions are often as troublesome as the problems — sometimes disastrous. The well-known and controversial history of wildlife management at Yellowstone National Park is a prime example of misguided attempts to correct what had gone awry through manipulation of predator and prey populations.3

Destroying naturalized Quaker Parrots and their nests does little to protect native species. (Photo by Marc Johnson, Foster Parrots)

Destroying naturalized Quaker Parrots and their nests does little to protect native species.

(Photo by Marc Johnson, Foster Parrots)

Rigorous monitoring of U.S. avian populations over the past century indicates that introduced parrots have never endangered our native birds. Despite the adaptability of some parrot species — such as Quaker Parrots, Budgerigars, and Lovebirds — their success in establishing thriving populations is limited, at best.4 Most often, these species settle in suburban areas, exploiting untapped or plentiful resources — such as power transformers, backyard fruit trees, and bird feeders– without inciting conflict or promoting competition with other species.

There are wild flocks of parrots living in diverse metropolitan regions across the U.S. — New York, Phoenix, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, and Austin to name a few. Some parrot welfare professionals believe that the naturalized parrot populations offer glimpses of a growing problem: the "surplus" of "pet birds." As the pet trade increasingly exploits parrots, they are turning up in animal shelters and parrot rescues, bird marts and swap meets, internet retail venues, and newspaper-classified ads — or are simply abandoned — at alarming rates nationwide. A few escaped or intentionally released birds form flocks and struggle to subsist as strangers in a strange land, only to then be threatened by federal policies, government agencies, conservationists, environmental advocates, and utility companies.

More than 125 species of non-native birds living in the U.S. today are afforded no protection under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, protecting native bird species. Amongst the birds unprotected are some of the most familiar species, which we commonly think of as indigenous, such as some crow and jay species and all pigeons. Europeans who, themselves, immigrated to the U.S., introduced the vast majority of these non-native species.5 Ours is a land of immigrants who claim it as their home yet are, nonetheless, often regarded as outsiders. Equal protection under the law is not a privilege that will likely be granted non-native birds, no matter how many generations live and die on our soil, in our trees, and at the hands of those who view all exotic species as potential eco-terrorists. Indeed, a small number of exotic avian species have been so successful in their adopted land that they may have contributed to a decline in native populations, but those are exceptions, not the rule.

Fossil records indicate that many species continued to thrive only because they possessed the ability to migrate to distant lands. (Photo by Marc Johnson, Foster Parrots)

Fossil records indicate that many species continued to thrive only because they possessed the ability to migrate to distant lands.

(Photo by Marc Johnson, Foster Parrots)

So, why did Carolina Parakeets go rapidly extinct while European Starlings flourished? Part of the problem with labeling or targeting species for protection or eradication is that the science is not available to guide such decisions; we simply do not know or fully understand all the factors that lead to species decline. Tragically, bird species and populations are in decline worldwide. Several avian species native to the U.S. have gone extinct in just the past few hundred years; the only two naturally-occurring parrot species, the Carolina Parakeet and the Thick-billed Parrot, went extinct in the U.S. during the last century. Almost a third of the 350 parrot species are endangered in their native ranges, where trapping, culling, logging, habitat destruction, and agricultural land use threaten populations that cannot compete with encroaching human development and activity.6 Fossil records indicate that many species continued to thrive only because they possessed the ability to migrate to distant lands; this undoubtedly occurred in avian species. Some scientists theorize that birds are the winged descendents of dinosaurs that escaped the gigantic meteor that slammed into Earth 65 million years ago, creating the Caribbean Basin, destroying vast areas, disrupting the planet's atmosphere, and causing mass extinctions. Flight may have been the single most significant factor in permitting birds to evolve into the magnificent creatures they are today.7 In the future, there may be nowhere to fly to.

If we are seeing fewer and fewer native Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Robins at the park or outside our bedroom windows at first light, it is most likely not because Quaker Parrots or other exotic birds have driven them to the brink of extinction. It is far more likely that suburban sprawl, with its requisite strip malls, SUVs and McMansions, have left little habitat for indigenous birds to call home. There is no eco-system left unmarred by human footprints, no great wilderness, no Eden-Before-the-Fall — and extinction is forever. If we hope to protect our natural heritage, then we must — first and foremost — confront our own invasiveness as a species and accept the daunting challenge of saving the world from ourselves.8 Just because it was apparently easy to diminish once-abundant animal populations, does not mean that encouraging them to thrive will be apparent or easy.

The 21st Century demands a global perspective in every arena from economics to climate change, media, politics, and disease transmission; the future of Earth's flora and fauna depends upon the same global vision — one in which international industry and trade regulations are rigorous and strictly enforced to minimize the environmental impact of human activity. Likewise, if parrots are endangered in their native lands but capable of sustaining self-limiting populations in the U.S., posing no risk to native species, we must consider their preservation part of our responsibility to safeguard biodiversity on a global scale and thus, grant them legal protection.

Footnotes

Dixon, Ken, "Group wants protection for birds," Connecticut Post, January 13, 2006

2 

Executive Order 13112 of February 3, 1999 - Invasive Species

3 

Pritchard, James A., Preserving Yellowstone's Natural Conditions: Science and the Perception of Nature, University of Nebraska Press, 1999

4 

Butler, Christopher J., "Feral Parrots in the Continental United States and United Kingdom: Past, Present and Future," Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery, 2005, Vol. 19: No. 2, pp. 142–149

5 

Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Federal Register, Tuesday, March 15, 2005, Vol. 70, No. 49,

6 

Juniper, Tony, and Mike Parr, Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World, Yale University Press, 1998

7 

Dingus, Lowell, and Timothy Rowe, The Mistaken Extinction: Dinosaur Evolution and the Origin of Birds, W.H. Freeman & Co., 1998

8 

Nussbaum, Martha C., "What Do We Owe Our Fellow Creatures?," Coloquy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2, 2006

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