May 16, 2019
No matter how gilded the cage, sometimes a parrot—or a parakeet—just wants to spread its wings and fly. And although owners may worry when a bird goes out the window, it turns out that not only are parrots that have “liberated” themselves surviving alfresco; they’re thriving.
A new study conducted at the University of Chicago has found that 56 species of parrot— none of which is native to the United States—have been spotted in the wild in 43 states. And incredibly, of those species, nearly half have reportedly been breeding—in 23 states.
Indeed, when Stephen Pruett-Jones, PhD, an ecologist at the University of Chicago, first came to the Windy City in 1988, he stumbled on a unique piece of the city’s history—the monk parakeets of Hyde Park.
The squat, bright-green birds aren’t native to Illinois, or to the United States, at all. America. originally had two native parrot species: the Carolina parakeet and the thick-billed parrot. The Carolina parakeet is now extinct; the thick-billed parrot, a Mexican species that ranged into the southwestern states,is no longer seen north of the border.
Monk parakeets have been known to live and breed in a colony in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood since the 1960s, after a pet bird craze led to the import of thousands from South America. Many escaped their homes or were released by their owners into the concrete jungle, eventually breeding in at least 10 states by 1968.
Pruett-Jones decided to organize a lab project to count them and other parrot species nationwide. He teamed up with Jennifer Uehling, a former UChicago undergraduate student now working on a Ph,D, at Cornell University; and Jason Tallant of the University of Michigan to research data on bird sightings from 2002 to 2016..
“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,” explains Pruett-Jones. “But many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay.”
Pruett-Jones and his team used two databases of bird sightings to track naturalized parrot species from 2002 through 2016. First, they turned to the Christmas Bird Count, an annual survey by the National Audubon Society that captures a snapshot of birds nationwide. during a two-week time period between December 14 and January 15. The second database, called eBird, is a spot where bird watchers can log online all the bird sightings they come across.
The researchers found that the most common U.S. parrot species were the monk parakeets, the Red-crowned Amazon, and the Nanday Parakeet. Most of the birds are concentrated in the warmer climates of Florida, Texas, and California. There are significant populations also in and around large cities like New York and Chicago. The researchers estimate that there are more Red-crowned Amazons living in California now than in their original habitats in Mexico.
But there is some disturbing news: Although at one time there were about 400 monk parakeets living in the U.S., the number is believed to only be around 30 today, with the largest colony found under the Skyway bridge connecting Illinois to Indiana. Researchers say there appears to be a decline in the overall bird population in the United States., giving bird fanatics and animal advocates even more reason to protect these “escapees” from harm.
“Because of human activity transporting these birds for our own pleasure, we have inadvertently created populations elsewhere,” says Pruett-Jones. “Now for some of these parrots, they may become critical to the survival of the species.”
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