Wild Parrots Multiplying in Southern California
It's a common occurrence in Southern California (SoCal) that residents import ornamental plants, fish, and birds from other countries to live in the area's mild climate. When a foreign species escapes its bounds and invades the wild, it often drives out native flora or fauna, to the detriment of the entire ecosystem.
Wild parrots are an imported species gone wild. They appear to be thriving, with the way they're reproducing and squawking all over the region, but how is that possible when they came from the moist jungle and SoCal is mostly dry desert? How have any parrots managed to survive in the wild at all, much less reproduce enough to be considered invasive, in an environment so different from their own?
The term "invasive species" includes both conditions of non-native origin and displacement, meaning that the species comes from a foreign environment and is driving out native birds with its living habits. We'll look first at the origins of SoCal's parrots, then at whether or not they are displacing local birds.
The Origins of California's Wild Parrots
There are 372 species of parrots/parakeets that have been identified wordwide, mostly living in tropical and subtropical regions. In their native habitats, some of these species are becoming endangered, due to a combination of decreasing habitat and the once extensive pet parrot trade. Many of the countries that imported parrots now host thriving flocks in the wild, including the United States.
In Southern California there are at least 11 species of wild parrots inhabiting at least 35 cities (see sidebar). Ten of those species came from the jungles of Latin America, one came from India/North Africa. None came from Australia or New Zealand, which also have native parrots. All came to SoCal via the imported pet trade.
Naturalized Parrots of Southern California
Rose-ringed Parakeets (Conures) from tropical Africa and India
Lilac Crowned Parrots (Amazons) from the Pacific Coast of Mexico (vulnerable)
Red Crowned Parrots from NE Mexico (endangered)
Yellow Headed Parrots from southern Mexico down to Honduras (endangered)
Red Lored Parrots from the Caribbean Coast in southern Mexico down to Nicaragua
Red Masked Parakeets from Ecuador and Peru
Mitred Parakeets from Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina
Blue Crowned Parakeets from eastern Colombia all the way south to Argentina
Yellow Chevroned Parakeets from countries south of the Amazon River Basin
Nanday Parakeets from central South America
Blue (Turquoise) Fronted Parrots from central South America
Australia also has multiple species of parrots, including the well-known budgerigar (budgie). Most of their parrots originated in the jungles of Northern Australia. Over time, as the jungles shrank and weather patterns became dryer, many of Australia's parrots and parakeets moved south, adapting to the dryer climate and thriving there. Had these been the parrots released in Southern California, they would have quickly become invasive.
There is a theory that parrots migrated to Southern California from the jungles of Mexico, but that is likely false. Most parrots migrate only short distances to take advantage of weather changes in their native lands.
However, there are at least four plausible theories that do explain how the wild parrot population started in Southern California:
There are verified reports of small bird traders in the 1940s and '50s who had accidents en route and let their wild-caught, caged parrots free without meaning to.
In 1959, parrots were released from Simpson's Garden Town Nursery on the east side of Pasadena when it caught fire. Rather than watch 65-70 birds in the pet shop burn up, an injured employee, with the help of firefighters, freed as many as he could.
In the San Fernando Valley, parrots are said to have been released in 1979 by Busch Gardens - an exotic tourist attraction theme park set up by Anheuser Busch to draw the public to their Van Nuys beer manufacturing facility. When the company moved its headquarters to a different location, they attempted to place their collection of birds in zoos and private homes, setting free those they were unable to place.
Most of California's pet parrots showed up during a time when importing parrots was still legal - approximately 41,550 in the early '80s, according to Long Beach's Press Telegram News (08/22/13). However, as some parrot species became endangered in their home countries, their importation became illegal and smugglers are said to have released parrots to avoid being caught.
Parents of young parrots teach them how to forage. Because most of the adults imported to Southern California were captured from the wild before being transported, they already knew how to forage or they would not have survived. Now they reproduce in the wild locally, eating fruits from tropical trees also imported, and increasing their flocks to more than 600 birds in some city suburbs. How are those sizes possible without displacing native birds in some way?
Displacement of Local Birds
There are five main conditions ecologists check for to see whether a species is invasive or just "introduced" - i.e. not from around here, but also not taking away from native birds:
Competing for food, water, and nesting sites (resources)
Preying on local species and decreasing their populations
Causing or carrying avian diseases
Preventing native birds from reproducing or destroying their young
- Rapid growth, due to lack of predators
Studying the local population of wild parrots in Southern California in this light shows that they are not nearly as invasive as one would expect. They are noisy, true, but not invasive habitat-wise. The following exploration of these five conditions is taken from four main sources:
- Salvatore Angius - started the online parrot monitoring site, Californiaflocks, in Long Beach CA .
- Kimball Garrett - Ornithology Collections Manager for the Los Angeles Natural History Museum (responsible for collecting and labeling birds).
- SoCal Parrot - Non profit group that rescues and rehabilitates wounded wild parrots.
- The World Parrot Trust - A parrot encyclopedia, informational links, and interesting blogs about parrots.
If you live in SoCal, do you have wild parrots near you?
1. Resource Competition
Salvatore Angius has photographed and documented the habits of California's parrots and parakeets ever since two of his own escaped in the mid 1990s. He wasn't able to find his, but became fascinated with what he did find and now is planning a full-length, eye-witness documentary. On his website, he has already documented and photographed the eating, drinking, and nesting habits of most of the parrots in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. His findings correlate with those of Kimball Garrett.
Yellow Headed Amazon
In 1997 Kimball Garrett studied the birds to see how they had proliferated, what they were eating, and whether or not they were displacing or threatening native bird populations. At that time he counted around 2,500 wild parrots in the Los Angeles area alone eating nectar, seeds, fruits, nuts, and flowers of 55-60 types of trees and bushes. Nearly all of those were non-native, imported trees - eucalyptus, sycamore, magnolia, fig, date, olive, persimmon, pecans, cherry, kumquat, walnut, cedar and juniper berries, golden rain flower, palm nuts, and sometimes bark from certain trees.
Some parrot species eat exotic foods not found in their native areas, but learned from watching other kinds of parrots.
Silk Floss Tree
Kimball found quite a few interesting parrot eating habits:
Some birds are very picky about what they eat and some eat almost anything.
Some species eat exotic foods not found in their native areas, but learned from watching other kinds of parrots.
Yellow Headed Parrots only have three types of food they like to eat in the wild, especially cashews.
Rose-ringed Parakeets, primarily based in Bakersfield, also eat mandarin oranges, apples, sunflower seeds, mulberries, and some cereal grains.
Yellow Chevroned parakeets are the only ones that feed on the flowers and fruit of the silk floss tree.
Some of the parrots and parakeets will eat from bird feeders, given a variety of the right kinds of foods.
As for water, parrots get it from sources that also don't compete with native birds. They scoop it up from telephone wires and leaves of trees, and they suck out the liquid from tropical fruits, nectar from flowers, sap from the giant bird of paradise, and the milk of almonds.
When parrots roost, the whole flock occupies a tree, using neighboring trees for overflow. They tend to roost on summer nights in deciduous trees and in evergreen trees in winter - e.g. eucalyptus, sycamore, carrotwood, and live oak. In areas like Temple City and Arcadia, flocks of 650-750 have been seen roosting all at once. In late summer 5-10% of those are juveniles - proof that the parrots are mating in the wild.
When parrots nest, they don't build nests like smaller birds do, nor do they occupy the small holes that woodpeckers prefer. Instead, they hatch their young in large holes in tree trunks, cliff sides, and old telephone poles. The undersides of roof tiles also provide good nesting sites for some parrots.
2. Preying on Local Birds
Not only do parrots not eat local insects, but they also do not eat other birds. Because of the prevalence of tropical trees and flowers in the cities of California, there is plenty of food available that is similar to that of their native habitats, but that California native birds don't eat. Except possibly for the Rose-Ringed Parakeet in Bakersfield, parrots leave alone both the food of native birds and the birds themselves . . . unless they're playing. Parrots and crows have been seen chasing each other for fun.
3. Infecting Local Birds With Diseases
Not much is known about diseases that parrots bring, however they have been around long enough that if they were carrying deadly diseases, local populations would have been affected already. In the 1980s parrot importation was banned, so most of those swelling local flocks come from young parrots raised here, rather than new ones coming from other lands. Investigation of dropped parrot feathers indicate that they have pretty good health. Only a relative few feathers contained feather lice and mites, but no dangerous avian diseases.
4. Limiting Reproduction of Native Birds
Local bird reproduction would be threatened by losing their eggs, nests, or hatchlings to parrots, but parrots do not take any of these things. Given their lifestyles, the only way parrots could really affect reproduction of native birds is by taking over nesting sites. Although they may be doing some of it in cities, the birds they compete with there are opportunistic and adaptable, not the native birds that require specific native habitat. Nanday ("Black Hooded") Parakeets are the only ones observed nesting outside of cities. They inhabit the Santa Monica Mountains and bear watching.
5. Lack of Predators
Parrots actually do have predators in Southern California, it turns out. Peregrine falcons, Cooper's hawks, and red-tailed hawks prey on adults and juveniles. Squirrels, rats, opossums, raccoons, and feral cats go after the eggs and the hatchlings. Human tree trimmers often cut down branches that contain parrot nests, accidentally killing babies. Some parrots are driven out of their nests by colonizing bees.
In addition to being noisy and communicative, parrots are very smart, sometimes banding together against predators. In February of 1996 Karen Mabb, from CSU Long Beach, reported that she saw an accipiter hawk attack a flock of ten Amazons that were flying and foraging. When the hawk tried to grasp a parrot, the whole flock lifted itself higher than the hawk and started crowding and crashing into it, squawking loudly. The hawk flew away and didn't try again.
My curiosity has been satisfied, and satisfied in a way that I like, since I've always had a fondness for parrots. My mother used to have budgies when I was young (native to Australia), and I've often seen people at fairs carrying parrots and even cockatoos on their shoulders. I was happy to discover that most birders in SoCal do not view wild parrots or parakeets as invasive.
According to Kimball Garrett, "Since they are essentially restricted to highly modified urban and suburban habitats, they don’t really qualify as ecologically “invasive,” although they always have the potential to become so. In a couple of cases (mostly with Nanday Parakeets in the Santa Monica Mountains) some populations are occupying relatively natural habitat for nest sites, and that could potentially spell problems for some native species. But the birds mainly eat exotic, rather than native foods, and do not threaten native bird species in any other way, that we know of."
SoCal Parrot was founded by two licensed wildlife rehabilitators, per their website. They work with the wild parrot population to rehabilitate those that run into problems - like electrocution from wires, being hit by cars, or attacked by carnivores. The group's members consider themselves ambassadors to the wild parrots and they also state that the birds, although naturalized, are not invasive.
Other than taking over phone lines from local birds and chasing crows and mockingbirds, the wild parrots do not seem to be disturbing native birds much. Nanday Parakeets threaten nesting sites, but even they eat different foods from native birds and do not threaten them in any other way.
Wild parrots could be replacing children, however. According to one college student who left a comment on SoCal Running online, he heard "swings squeaking, whistles blowing, and laughter" of children in the playground of a church school during Easter break one year, but there were no children. The sounds were coming from a flock of parrots on the phone lines and trees above.
For Further Information About Parrots
- The Illegal Parrot Trade In Mexico | Defenders of Wildlife
This is a 121 page PDF report on Mexico's illegal parrot trade, partially funded by the US Department of Fish & Wildlife.
- Conservancy of the Phoenix, Inc. - Pet Parrot Page
From the point of view of Gremil Green Bird, a captive Mitred Conure (parakeet), this website shows how to treat pet parrots with respect.