Where the wild parrots are—the story behind the United States’ colorful flocks

Where the wild parrots are—the story behind the United States’ colorful flocks

The only two parrots native to the U.S. were locally or fully extinct by the 1930s—but dozens of species introduced through the caged bird trade thrive there today.

December 06 2023 Jillian Anthony

In the late 1960s, or so the story goes, Monk Parakeets, or Myiopsitta monachus, were frequently shipped from Argentina to New York as part of the global caged bird trade. Nobody knows exactly how it happened—maybe a window was left open at JFK airport, or a corrupt customs official cracked open a crate thinking it contained something more valuable, like wine or beef—but somehow, some of the parrots escaped.

“There are a bunch of notions about this,” says Stephen Baldwin, the man behind the Brooklyn Parrot Society, about the origin of Brooklyn’s Monk Parakeets (also known as Quaker Parakeets). “I can’t disprove any of them.”

Over the following decades, the birds established themselves as permanent residents of the city. Their current stronghold is in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, fluttering about the soaring Gothic Revival arches that mark the main entrance, where they’ve built their nests. But New York is hardly their only conquest. The Monk Parakeet is now one of the most widely distributed parrot species in the world, and has large breeding populations in at least 21 states. And they’re not the only parrot species to be introduced by humans to a new place, either on purpose (intentionally released) or on accident (escaped), and to survive—or even thrive.

The Carolina Parakeet, or Conurpsis carolinensis, and Thick-billed Parrot, or Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha—the two species of parrots native to the United States—had been hunted to extinction or driven out of the country by logging and development by the early 20th century. But in recent years, more than 56 species of wild parrots have been spotted in the United States, across 43 states. Of those, 25 species have established breeding populations, meaning they have a toe-hold and are likely self-sustaining. At least one species of parrot is breeding in 23 of the 50 states, although by far the most likely states to spot a wild parrot are California, Florida, and Texas.

All of these parrots were also imported as part of the pet trade, either legally or illegally, and the founding members of these wild colonies likely have similar origin stories to that of the Brooklyn Monk Parakeets. They either escaped from cages or were released by pet owners who became bored of them or otherwise unable to take care of them. However, not all species are as successful at surviving in the wild as the Monk Parakeet. Take the Budgerigar, or Melopsittacus undulatus, also known as the “Budgie,” which is one of the most popular pet birds in the world, and often spotted in the wild following accidental or intentional release. But for whatever reason, Budgies have a terrible track record establishing breeding populations in the wild, and rarely stick around for long.

Jennifer Uehling, a PhD candidate in ecology at Cornell University, got her start in the field at the University of Chicago, where she contributed to the ongoing study of the Monk Parakeets of Hyde Park. Her undergraduate thesis was on non-native parrots in the U.S., and she was one of the authors of a 2019 paper on naturalized parrots in the United States. Uehling said there’s still so much to learn about how non-native parrots establish themselves in the wild.

“The short answer is that we don’t really know,” Uehling says. “We don’t know how far these birds are able to move once they’re released, and if they’re staying in urban centers”—where most naturalized parrot populations are found—“because that’s where they were released or if it’s because the urban centers provide really good habitat for them.”

Uehling explained over the phone that urban spaces are highly disturbed habitats—where manmade structures and introduced species have generally supplanted native flora—which can be damaging or challenging for native species but possibly beneficial for nonnative species, like parrots.

Monk Parakeets, as the parrot enthusiast Baldwin pointed out, often make nests in manmade structures like stadium lights, as well as in trees. (Perhaps their most significant foes are utility companies. Monk Parakeets’ nests can weigh up to 200 pounds and short out electrical wires or catch on fire; the Parakeets were blamed for 198 power outages in Florida over a five-month period in 2001.) Monk Parakeets’ success in the wild, even in colder climates, is often attributed to the fact that they can build their own nests, and subsist on seeds from backyard bird feeders all winter.

Some of the parrots that have been naturalized in the U.S. are actually struggling in their native habitat, like the Red-crowned Amazon, or Amazona viridigenalis. There is some disagreement in the scientific community over whether this bird is native to the southernmost part of Texas—which would make it the only parrot species native to the U.S. to still survive within its borders—but regardless, the Red-crowned Amazon is now naturalized and breeding in southern California and Florida, in addition to Texas, and is one of the three most common species of naturalized parrots in the U.S., along with the Monk Parakeet and the Nanday Parakeet, or Aratinga nenday. But in Mexico, the Red-crowned Amazon is in decline because of poaching and habitat loss. The thriving populations in California, Florida, and Texas give Uehling hope that at some point, those birds could help contribute to species diversity and help bring the parrot back from its decline in its native region.

For many years, from the mid-2010s until late 2019, Baldwin led free monthly tours, or “parrot safaris,” teaching people about the marvelous history and surprising endurance of the Monk Parakeet.

“Without being too anthropomorphic about it, it’s an inspiring story of survival and endurance and love,” Baldwin says. “I love these guys. I think they’re great, and I’m not the only one who feels that way.”

Amidst a sea of bad environmental news, Baldwin sees in the naturalized parrot an inspiring story of resilience, and a second chance for humanity to do right by parrots.

Baldwin told the story of how Americans wiped out the two native species of parrots. “That’s something that’s pretty rotten that humanity did, and now we got a second chance,” he said. “We’ve got parrots. They’re not native, they’re imports, but they’re here and they’re perhaps occupying the same ecological niche that the Carolina Parakeet once occupied. That’s a miracle!”

Uehling said parrots are a challenging subject of study. “They’re hard to catch,” she says. “Parrots in general are a little bit challenging to work with, especially in more urban habitats.”

But this means that there are still many avenues of inquiry yet to be explored. “There are a lot of really cool opportunities out there for genetic work, to identify the composition of populations, and whether they’re composed of recently released birds or if they’re all more genetically similar and therefore, part of a self-sustaining population,” Uehling said.

The legal caged bird trade in the U.S. is a thing of the past, thanks to international regulation, so it’s unlikely these populations will get significant influxes of new, recently released birds. However, it’s clear that parrots are now permanent fixtures of the American landscape, both to our benefit, as Baldwin points out, and—as many of these species struggle in their native habitat—to theirs.

“This is good news; all is not lost,” Baldwin said. “These parrots are just taking it one twig at a time, and they go on.”

All photos by Stephen Baldwin