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Frequently Asked Questions About Monk Parrots (Myiopsitta monachus), also known as Quaker or Monk Parakeets

Issues surrounding non-native and naturalized species such as Monk parrots (Myiopsitta monachus), also known as Quaker or Monk Parakeets, in the U.S. are complex and sometimes controversial. Some groups and individuals are opposed to the idea of non-native species sharing our environment under any circumstances, while others argue that these birds are able to survive because of changes to our environment and, as such, represent part of the planet's changing landscape.

 

How did Monk Parrots come to be in introduced species? What is an introduced species and how does it differ from an invasive species? Do Monk Parrots and other naturalized non-native parrot species pose a treat to native birds and the environment? Why do Monk Parrots choose to nest on power lines?

 

AWC participants share insight based on their experience and work in the field to answer these and other important questions about Monk Parrots in a Round Table Forum.

 

Participating in this forum: 

Marc Johnson -Founder, Director of Foster Parrots, Ltd.
Karen Windsor - Assistant Director of Foster Parrots, Ltd. 
Greg Glendell - Avian Behaviorist, Founder of BirdsFirst, Ltd., U.K.
Mike Schindlinger - Avian Biologist, Lesley University 
Eileen McCarthy - Co-Founder, Executive Director of Midwest Avian Adoption & Rescue Services (MAARS) and Co-Founder/Director of The Avian Welfare Coalition 
Monica Engebretson - Senior Program Coordinator, The Animal Protection Institute
Denise Kelly - President, Co-Founder, The Avian Welfare Coalition

 

Where do Monk Parrots come from?  How did they become established in the U.S.?

 

Denise Kelly:  Monk parrots (Myiopsitta monachus), also called Quaker or Monk Parakeets, are native to South America, ranging from central Bolivia to southern Brazil, Uruguay, and southern and central Argentina.  Tens of thousands have been imported for the U.S. pet trade. While the exact length of time Monk parrots have inhabited the U.S. is unknown, their presence drew attention beginning in the early 1960’s, when escaped and released birds settled and started breeding populations in Florida, Connecticut, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Texas, and other locales.  The flocks we see today include generations of their offspring, as well as escaped or released birds that have assimilated into these flocks.

 

Monk parrots are hearty, resourceful birds. They are indigenous to the cool mountainous regions of South America and, therefore, are adapted to live in much colder temperatures than other topical birds, enabling them to survive harsh winters in states like Illinois and New York.  

 

Naturalized populations vary by geographic location.  Though populations are greater in warmer climates like Florida, Monk parrots in northern geographic regions such as New York and Connecticut, suffer high mortality rates due to factors such as extreme cold, lack of food and shelter, and predation. While numbers tend to increase significantly during the breeding season in spring, these factors usually cause populations to decline and/ or stabilize over time.  Monk parrots are not migratory, and tend to live in the same area among the flocks they were born into.

Monk parrots are ‘opportunists’ and eat a variety of seeds, flowering, nectar and fruit-producing plants in the U.S.  During the winter, they eat seeds from birdfeeders.  Monk parrots are also prolific nest builders of large nests, which they inhabit year-round.  These nests, often weighing hundreds of pounds with plenty of twigs as insulation provide them shelter from extreme environmental conditions. 

 

Several terms have been used to describe Monk Parrots: feral, naturalized, free-flying, non-indigenous, introduced, and/or invasive species.  Can you clarify these definitions?

 

Eileen McCarthy: Quaker (also called Monk Parrot) colonies throughout the United States are most accurately referred to as “naturalized” – meaning they are a non-native “wild” species that has adapted to new habitats and established stable populations. 

 

The term “free-flying” is also accurate in this instance but fails to convey that the Quaker populations are non-native, adapted and established. The term could easily be applied to any bird not in captivity and is most often used to describe the “flocks” of parrots of different species that have not established a stable population, i.e., the parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, California.

 

Domesticated animals are the descendants of once-wild species that humans have selectively bred for chosen traits over centuries. Such selective breeding over many generations not only alters the physical appearance of the species but also the natural – or “wild” -- behaviors of the species. Dogs cats, horses, chickens and many other farmed animals are examples of species whose ancestors were wild animals – either extinct or still living in wild populations -- that have been domesticated for thousands of years by selective breeding for traits that are considered desirable to humans. The result is an animal that is compatible with the role that humans wish that animal to fulfill -- whether as a companion, champion, worker or agricultural “product”.  Domesticated animals are generally less fearful, less likely to exhibit aggression and often possess physical characteristics similar to that of a juvenile wild animal.

 

By contrast, a wild animal is one who is genetically, physically, and behaviorally indistinguishable from individuals of the species that live freely, independent of humans in the species natural habitat and range. A captive-bred animal whose ancestors have not been selectively bred by humans is still a wild animal -- even if s/he lacks the learned behaviors and survival skills essential to an individual of the same species living freely. However, a captive wild animal is likely to learn other behaviors and skills necessary for his/her survival in captivity and amongst humans or other animal species. As such, captive parrots -- although captive bred, hand-raised and, possibly, “tame” -- are still, by definition, wild animals. Arguably, some species such as Budgerigars and Cockatiels may be considered domesticated since they have been selectively bred in captivity, over several generations, for plumage coloration that does not exist in the wild population except, possibly, as a rare mutation.

 

“Feral” refers to a domesticated animal who lives in a wild state, independent of humans such; the term ”feral” is sometimes used to describe a free-living animal who was once captive and/or “tame” but the label is misleading, in my opinion.  While these Quaker colonies undoubtedly do include a number of individuals who are recent escapees, it is inaccurate to refer to them as “feral” since these individuals are not the descendents of many generations of selective breeding. In fact, the vast majority of the individuals in the Quaker Parrot colonies were most likely wild-born, as were their parents and grandparents.  It would be more correct to refer to them as “non-native” (not indigenous to a particular place) or “naturalized” (living freely as an established population in a region the species does not naturally inhabit). 

 

What definition best describes Monk parrots in the U.S.? Do they fit the definition of a true invasive species?  

 

Eileen McCarthy: The definition of “invasive species” included in the Presidential Executive Order 13112 of February 3, 1999 reads:  <<"Invasive species" means an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.>>

According to this definition, naturalized Quaker Parrots cannot be considered an “invasive species”. Although some of these populations are stable and well established, there has been no documented decline in other animal or plant species in these areas.

 

The vast majority of naturalized Quaker Parrot colonies in the US exist in semi-urban and sub-urban areas where they do not seem to be in direct competition with other species. These birds nearly always build their nests on man-made structures and at bird feeders, backyard fruit trees, etc. but there is no evidence indicating that these birds pose a threat to human health or safety.

 

Greg Glendell:  These two terms are not mutually exclusive.  Species can be BOTH invasive and non-native.  Some non-native species are more ‘invasive’ than others, so their ecological effects on native can vary.  Invasive just refers to the degree to which non-natives affect native species.  For instance, if a non-native species competes for nesting sites or food sources and impairs the ability of another species to survive, they would be considered invasive.  However, if the introduced species is neither displacing native animals nor causing ecological or agricultural damage, their impact would be considered to be benign. 

 

During the recent eradication plan that the United Illuminating Company in Connecticut implemented, the company claimed their right to do so under the Presidential Order on Invasive Species?  What is this Order and how does it affect Monk Parrots in the U.S.?

 

Denise Kelly: Yes, a Presidential Executive Order signed in 1999 does give the USDA authority to “manage and control invasive species.”  While the USDA is mandated to control populations they are not required to kill animals under this Order. 

 

Monk parrots were not specifically targeted, nor do they fit the definition of a true invasive species as outlined in this Order.  While relocation is prohibited, eradication of invasive species is listed only as an option--not a requirement--under this Order.  This is an important distinction to keep in mind if this Order is used as a basis to resolve future conflicts.  Utility companies and other entities do have a choice to use non-lethal, humane means of population control to address conflicts with animals under this Order.

 

Karen Windsor:  Bill Clinton's Executive Order of 1999 also differentiates between benign non-native and invasive species, even stating that some non-native species have actually had a beneficial impact in this country.  The EO created a committee of governmental agencies whose function is to evaluate non-native animal species and determine whether said animals were benign non-native or, in fact, invasive as based on scientifically conducted research.  The criteria qualifying a species as invasive include unchecked population growth, causing significant environmental or agricultural damage, and competing with native animal species for nesting territory and food sources.  At this point, while we do not have hard data from scientific research to prove that the Quakers are NOT an "invasive" species, governmental and utility authorities do NOT have hard data from scientific research proving that they are.

 

However, once the status of the non-native species has been determined, it is the responsibility of the committee has the responsibility to devise a species management plan that is not restricted to, but may include, an extermination protocol.

Although Monk parrots are an introduced species, they are not invasive in the Northeast. Nor do they threaten any native species.  Their population kept in check by cold winters and predation, and they suffer a higher death rate and less successful reproduction rates. They also have a limited diet during winter relying heavily on backyard feeders and tree buds.  Populations in New England have been relatively stable for the past 30 years, with populations ranging from 200-300 in most locales.  Which is why the decision to eradicate them in Connecticut was unwarranted.   

For full text on the President Order on Invasive Species, click here.

 

Do Monk Parrots pose a threat to native species by competing for food or nesting sites? Are they a threat to the environment or agriculture in the U.S.?

 

Mike Schindlinger:  Monk parrots are not presently known to exhibit such a threat, due largely to the fact they build their own stick nests (a fact that make them unique among the parrots). In fact, where they are found in the Pantanal in Brazil, they often build nest cavities into large nests of Jabiru storks (Jabiru mycteria), and sometimes their nests formed part of nests of the Gray-crested cacholote (Pseudseisura unirufa) (J. Burger and M. Gochfeld, 2005).

In North American urban areas where monks are introduced, they are often found at backyard feeders, where they would be most likely to be competing with native chickadee, titmouse, finches and other common feeder-birds for access to seed. But they would be competing with non-native species as well, such as starlings, pigeons, and some sparrows. They are also known to eat the fruits of crabapple trees, and holly berries. In comparison with many other factors influencing the survival of native bird species (such as loss of native grass species maturing to seed, loss of large forest tracts, and cats), they are not a significant threat in the northeastern states.

 

According to an article published in Chicago Wilderness Magazine, “Michael Avery, a biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), asserts that they pose no threat. "There is no documentation of their causing damage to cereal crops in the U.S., and no indication that they are displacing other birds. They are not cavity nesters, like starlings, which displace woodpeckers. Overall, there seems to be no competition for food or nest space."”

 

Greg Glendell:  This is not simple to answer.  Bird populations are dynamic and their behaviors change to suit differing situations.  A species can be benign for decades, then ‘discover’ a way to exploit, or even indirectly eradicate, another species.  Birds can also affect other life forms, including plants, and people as ‘pests’ if their numbers are perceived to be out of control.  One example is the claim that feral pigeons carry diseases when, in fact, this is a result of their adapting to living in dirty, human-degraded environments.  

Monk Parrots tend to build large, intricate nests on or near utility poles and transformers.  Why do they build their nests in these areas?

 

Marc Johnson: It is widely believed that Monk Parrots are drawn to the power poles because of the warmth that transformers provide. But this may not be the primary reason, since Monks also build nests on power poles and electrical towers in warmer climates such as Florida.  There are two primary factors that seem to attract Monks to the power poles; one, the high unobstructed views offer protection from predators and two, the wire junctions and transformer brackets offer a study place to anchor the first critical sticks upon which they an build larger nests.  However, conclusive research as to why Monks built on these structures is not currently available. 

 

Greg Glendell: The pole sites replicate their natural nesting sites in the crowns of trees and palms in their native habitats.  They also provide safety from human interference and predation.

 

How valid are claims that their nests cause power outages or fires?  What studies or statistics are available to back up these claims?

 

Karen Windsor:  No single electric utility company has yet to publish data to substantiate these claims.  While utility companies in Florida have conducted some research, no formal studies on a wide-scale or national basis have been made available.  As a result, some utility/electric companies, often reference generic statistics that represent national figures, rather than undertake studies in ‘target’ areas to prove the scope of the Monk parrot problem in their area.  In the absence of specific data, the extent or validity of power outage/fire ‘incidents’ comes into question.    Also, power disruptions and transformer fires are attributable to a variety of conditions — including equipment failure, accidents and severe weather and other animal nests.

 

In the recent case involving the extermination of Monk parrots in Connecticut, the United Illuminating Company failed to offer evidence that the Monk Parrots or their nests were the cause of such hazardous or inconvenient incidents.

At the onset, UI stated that the Monk parrot nests were causing a total of 10 to 12 fires and dozens of power outages per year.  As the capture and extermination progressed, these same statistics were elevated to represent a monthly figure and then to dozens of fires and power outages occurring every week, as if to   suit the electric Company's need to gather public support for their drastic actions.

 

But by the Company's own admission stated in an article in Light and Medium Truck, March 2005 edition, "Animals, mainly squirrels, are responsible for about 9% of United Illuminating's power outages each year".   As a result, it is widely believed that UI's actions were pre-emptive and that lethal means were unwarranted. 

 

What can utility companies do to best mitigate conflicts with birds nesting in problematic areas? If necessary, under what circumstances or conditions should nests be removed?

 

Marc Johnson: Local power companies need to closely monitor nests and implement maintenance on a regular basis to prevent nests from becoming too large.   However, if nest tear downs are necessitated, they should be undertaken from early spring through mid-summer to give the birds time to find alternative nesting sites during the time of the when nest building is combined with the drive to reproduced.  This will also give the Monks ample time to find new food sources before the weather turns cold.   Under no circumstances should nests be removed in the dead of winter leaving birds with no shelter, or in the late spring when nests are full of hatchlings. 

Another promising strategy may be to provide alternative nesting sites in combination with nest teardowns other deterrents to keep populations from increasing.   Information on a pilot program can be found at: http://www.fosterparrots.com/monkbunker.pdf


What other available humane population control methods currently exist?

Monica Engebretson: Lethal control methods are ineffective in solving conflicts with naturalized parrots in the long term.

According to the National Pest Control Association, “While the strategy of bird removal (trapping and/or lethal baiting) reduces the population it only offers a temporary solution to the problem. Birds will migrate back into the area and reinhabit previous roosting sites if they are not excluded from the site. So in either case for long term bird management, exclusion is essential.”

 

Fortunately, there are humane non-lethal solutions that can make an area unattractive to birds, thereby reducing bird presence to an acceptable level. Further, many companies, including Nationwide Bird Control (www.nwbird.com) specialize in humane, non-lethal bird control and provide deterrent products as well as assistance in administering them.

Another company specializing in resolving conflicts with birds is Bird Busters. The company has a new product called “FireFly Bird Diverter,” which they believe may be the answer to resolving conflicts with monk parakeets.

 

According to Bird Busters, “The 3”x 5” Firefly utilizes reflectance of sunlight during the daylight hours and luminescent light emission during dusk and nighttime hours. The diamond bar and luminescent material make up the main components of this product. The diamond bar material causes sunlight to become refracted during daylight hours, providing a “Sparkle Effect” which can be seen by birds and humans up to one quarter of a mile distance. This sparkling and refraction of light allows the birds to change their flight pattern to divert around marked wires or potential roosting sites. Moreover, the alpha bird will also react with a respective alarm call that reinforces the fear factor among the rest of the flock.

 

Research on avian vision from Cornell University indicates that birds can see in different ranges of both visible and ultra violet light. The FireFly product was designed to use both peak vision ranges of light visible to birds (360 nm and 560 nm wavelengths). Humans can see in the visible spectrum only.

 

Wind rotation of the product using a swivel system increases the effectiveness of the product to all birds. A bird’s vision utilizes both light and motion. The angle of light refraction and position of the flapper unit is constantly changing due to wind currents. The wind increases the “Sparkle Effect” in all approaching birds, where wires or structures have been marked with the FireFly product. This is accomplished by motion and light–both components of bird vision.

 

The product will effectively haze all birds within a 25 feet radius, when placed at bird’s eye level or above the bird. Birds become nervous with the constant changes in the product position, since it begins to rotate in the slightest breeze (3+ mph wind current). The FireFly will therefore keep birds off power lines, buildings, substations, etc. and also provide the best avoidance measure for bird collisions with man-made structures. Bird hazing is directly proportional to increased sunlight /ultra violet index that exist at the installation site. Over time, there are enough periods of sunlight and wind to effectively haze the birds from the 25-foot installation area and thereby eliminate pest birds from roosting or nesting.”

 

Other examples of effective, long-term and humane solutions to conflicts with birds include:

 

  • • Netting to exclude birds from structures.

  • • Balloons, holographic foil strips, and other visual deterrents that scare unwanted birds away.

  • • Wood or metal fastened at a 60-degree or greater angle on ledges to prevent pigeons from perching (they prefer a flat surface).

  • • Bird wires to keep birds from landing on ledges, ranging from single-strand wires placed 3 to 4 inches above the rail of ledge to a more complex wire coil that is wound around a railing or fixed on a ledge.

  • • Discouraging feeding in public places.

  • • Commercial fogging agent Rejex-it®, which prevents crop depredation from roosting birds. Rejex-it is harmless to people, animals, and the environment, but it is distasteful to starlings and other birds, preventing them from roosting where the product has been applied.

Finally, as a last resort, or in situations where the population is deemed a threat to native species, reproductive control might be appropriate. Innolytics, LLC has developed a product called OvoControl that has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

 

The core technology for OvoControl centers on the proven ability to significantly decrease the hatchability of eggs by feeding medicated bait to birds during the reproductive season.  The effect is fully reversible and care has been taken to develop a feeding system, which will limit exposure to non-target species.

 

While the technology has not yet been specifically tested in parrots, the existing data indicate that all avian species are sensitive. 

 

In what states are Monk parakeets illegal?

 

Denise Kelly: As of January 1, 2006, 11 states prohibit the sale, possession, and transfer of Monk parrots: California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Wyoming. Restrictions apply in 7: Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Virginia.  No restrictions apply in the remaining 32 states.  More detailed information and updates regarding the status of current laws governing Monk parrots, and other exotic birds, contact your local Game and Fish Commission, Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources, USDA, US Fish & Wildlife Services and/or other government agencies.  Since laws are subject to change, it is strongly advised that guardians of Monk Parrots carefully review existing laws and keep abreast of any changes to legislation in their state. 

What other concerns do non-native species present?

Greg Glendell:  The long-term ecological effects of non-native species on native wildlife are very difficult to predict.  These can include the passing on of lethal diseases to native species that are not lethal to the non-native carrier of the disease.  This is how non-native species tend to ‘succeed’ over native birds i.e. they often succeed by *indirectly* affecting native species’ abilities to survive and breed, rather than being directly aggressive towards them.  Parasitic infestations often transfer between species via nesting sites.  Parasites survive winters in the nesting hole, usually as eggs, and then to re-infect the following year’s users of the hole.  Parasites may carry bacterial or viral infections themselves that they can pass on to other birds.  Also, captive parrots that are hole nesters could pose a threat to other native hole-nesting birds (and other animals) if they escape or are released into the environment. 

To protect native species and ecosystems, the release of non-native species should be discouraged. 

 

What other factors are contributing to non-native species in the U.S.?

 

Denise Kelly: One root problem is the exotic pet trade. We cannot ignore the fact that exotic birds and other wildlife are being brought into the U.S. and bred in captivity at alarming rates.  Most people are unable to meet the demands of caring for a wild animal or bird, especially after it matures and is fully-grown.  In addition to birds, exotic animals of all sorts are ending up at sanctuary shelter organizations, re-sold and/or traded at exotic animal markets, given to roadside zoos or other venues where they are kept in deplorable conditions, and/or released into the environment.  Regulations aimed at holding accountable those who irresponsibly sell, release, or otherwise cause harm to Monk parakeets and all non-native species is needed.   

 

Non-native birds such as Monk parakeets did not have a choice in being from their natural habitats having to adapt to new habitats where, in some cases, they are unwelcome. They shouldn’t end up paying the price for human irresponsibility. We have an ethical obligation to develop humane, peaceable solutions conflicts that may arise regardless of whether they are native or non-native to our environment. 

 

What should concerned citizens do to help protect these birds?

 

Denise Kelly: Several power companies are testing and implementing non-lethal strategies to deter birds from nesting in problematic area.  However, more research based on scientific studies into the behavior of these birds in the environment is needed before we can definitively say what works for sure. If conflicts do arise in your community, seek the assistance of humane organizations that are experienced in dealing with wildlife issues so they can provide resources and work with the community and local legislators to develop long-term humane solutions.

 

Marc Johnson: Concerned bird advocates should be proactive, rather than wait until conflicts arise. One way would be to organize a local action committee to educate local power companies about non-lethal alternatives and coordinate installations of alternative nesting platforms if nests need to be removed.  Public education efforts dispelling the myths of Monk parrots as invasive species should also be pursued. 

 

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