From San Francisco to South Florida, populations of nonnative parrots—some imperiled in their tropical homelands—are thriving in U.S. cities and suburbs.
If you take a drive around Miami with your windows down, winding through golf courses, residential streets and downtown parks, chances are you can find them all over the city: yellow-chevroned parakeets crowding a backyard feeder, mitred parakeets preening in a melaleuca tree, a colorful flock of Amazons—lilac-crowned, yellow-headed and orange-winged parrots—on power lines, even a pair of blue-and-yellow macaws in a dead royal palm.
While a quarter of the world’s parrot species are at risk of extinction in their native habitats, populations of introduced parrots in places like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Long Island, Florida, New Orleans and Texas are growing. These urban areas have become unintended refuges for species—including red-crowned parrots, lilac-crowned parrots and red-masked parakeets—that are at risk in their native habitats due to poaching for the pet trade and habitat loss. Such thriving U.S. populations could play a role in future conservation programs. “Once they get rid of the illegal trafficking of parrots in Mexico, it’s possible that some of the red-crowned parrots in Los Angeles could be reintroduced there,” says ornithologist Bill Pranty, formerly of the Archbold Biological Station in Florida.
All the nonnative parrots are escaped pets or descendants of escapees. Parrots are found in the greatest numbers in parts of South Florida and California with large numbers of exotic plants—imported and watered by humans—that produce fruit, seeds and flowers year-round. “That’s one of the reasons you find parrots in the city rather than in Everglades National Park,” says Pranty. Some areas of South Florida may in fact have a greater diversity of parrot species in a smaller area than anywhere else on Earth.
Wild Parrots Are Multiplying in Southern California
Wild parrots are an imported species gone wild and appear to be thriving, with the way they're reproducing and squawking all over the southern California region.
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. 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
Parrots in South Florida
Parrots and parakeets are not migratory, so, in almost every case, the species that occur in Florida are those that have been imported for the pet trade. Many of the world's tropical countries allowed commercialization of their birds and in the 1960's and 1970's, the Miami area became a major importation center. Many exotic birds escaped in great numbers at the point of entry, while others escaped in smaller numbers from pet shops or from their owners. Over 20 species of parrots have been observed in South Florida. Large populations of rose-ringed parakeets, monk parakeets, canary-winged parakeets and budgiergars have become established. These and other members of the parrot family, Psittacidae, are rapidly establishing breeding populations in South Florida.
Normally, plants and animals do not do well when introduced to a new environment, but some species of the parrot family have been extremely successful and have continued to expand their numbers in the wild. Their success can be partially attributed to Florida's mild climate and changing landscape. Subtropical Florida now contains many elements of the world's tropics.
In South Florida's urban areas native plants have been largely replaced by exotic vegetation. Instead of native shade trees, such as gumbo limbo or live oak, exotic fig trees and Australian pines line city streets. Non-native plants from the tropics, popular for their showy flowers or edible fruit can be found in virtually every backyard. With the introduction of non-native plants from the tropics, the ecological stage was set for the establishment of parrots and parakeets. Various kinds of parrots and parakeets have successfully adapted to urban areas. Many have no problem finding the same kinds of plants they once roosted in or fed upon in their native countries. Also, there are a few competitive factors, such as predators, diseases or parasites, to limit their reproduction or life spans.
Nearly all species dwell in trees and they feed on fruits, nuts and other vegetable matter. Their varied diet contributes to their success in southern Florida. Parrots are agile climbers and will use their heavy beaks and clasping toes to move from branch to branch in search of food. Because these brightly colored birds are so popular as pets, backyard bird watchers are delighted when they are visited by them and contribute to their success by feeding and protecting them.
Parrots and parakeets roost or feed together in pairs or flocks. They nest in unlined holes in trees, termite nests, rocks, or banks. Several Australian species nest on the ground and the Monk parakeet builds colonial nests of twigs in the branches of trees or on power line transformers. Each pair of parakeets has its own private compartment, but the entire flock seems to be on intimate terms. The nest is used as sleeping quarters all year round and is added to from year to year until at times it breaks the supporting branches or lines.
But there are some problems….
The natural ecological communities in South Florida are vulnerable to non-native invasion. Exotic parrots and parakeets might out-compete native bird populations for food and space. A common characteristic of successful non-native invaders is that they are more aggressive than their native counterparts. For example, many parrots and parakeets build their nests in the cavities of dead trees. Tree cavities are limited in number in suburban areas. Increasing populations of psittacids may harm native hole nesting birds when they are pushed out to make room for non-natives.
What Happened To America's Only Endemic Parrot?
One hundred years ago, the last Carolina parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis, a male named Incas, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. Although he appeared to have died of natural causes, it was rumored that Incas died of a broken heart because his mate and constant companion of more than three decades, Lady Jane, had died only a few months before. There were no survivors, since no serious efforts had ever been made to breed this colorful and personable parrot in captivity nor to protect it in the wild.
The Carolina parakeet was a medium-sized, long-tailed parrot with mostly green plumage, sometimes with a distinct blue cast, a yellow neck and cheeks, a red or orange head, and a pale, horn-colored bill. It was the only parrot species that was endemic to the continental United States, and it ranged farther north than any other contemporary parrot species.
Carolina parakeets once occurred throughout lowland deciduous forests and forest edges of the southeastern and south-central portions of the United States, and often were found in or near canebreak habitat. Although it has nearly disappeared, canebreak was an important marsh and riverine ecosystem dominated by giant (river) cane, Arundinaria gigantea, which is the only bamboo species native to North America.
Regardless of how we lost the Carolina parakeet, North America lost its only endemic parrot species after the arrival of European settlers, and this loss was likely due to a combination of factors, particularly wholesale habitat destruction and unrelenting persecution.
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