In The Wild
by Bob Thomas
Sitting at a traffic light in New Orleans, I absentmindedly glanced at the neutral ground and felt a sensation that the ground was moving. In fact, there were a number of green birds with blue-black flight feathers and gray breasts and faces walking about feeding on grass seeds. These were Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus), or Quakers as they are often called, “our” only naturalized parrot since the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet in the 1920s. They are now commonly seen flying in noisy flocks in most areas around Lake Pontchartrain; if they fly nearby, you are guaranteed to hear their squawks.
Native to Argentina and adjacent areas of South America, Monk Parakeets appear to have arrived in large numbers in the United States in the 1960s. Dr. George Lowry, the late renowned LSU ornithologist, reported nesting Quakers in Metairie in the early 1970s, though there were rumored observations in the region as early as the 1940s. They are very popular pets, and we assume that some escaped and some were intentionally released. They’ve been seen in at least 30 states, and are known to be breeding in 11.
Since this species is native to southern latitudes similar to those in our hemisphere, the parakeets do well in our climate. Experiments indicate that Quakers easily tolerate temperatures ranging from 17°F to 111°F, and they actually survive temperatures as low as -27ºF in the Chicago area.
Monk parakeets are the only parrot in the world that abandoned nest sites in holes in trees in favor of constructing elaborate chambered nests fabricated with sticks. These nests may be in trees, but in our area they really like tall, metal electric poles, much to the consternation of the companies who maintain them. Their mere presence has resulted in short-circuits and other challenges.
Quaker nests are most commonly apartment complexes housing a number of pairs, each with their own entrance, entrance foyer, and bedroom. The world record Quaker condominium is from Argentina, contained over 200 compartments, and weighed over 2600 lb.
In Argentina, Monk parakeets often feed on tree-borne fruits and seed crops such as corn, sorghum, and sunflowers, so they are considered agricultural pests. Though this is often alleged in the U.S., the problem has not been documented. Instead, the birds eat a variety of seed crops, native flowers, and a few wild fruits. In fact, they often visit bird feeders in some neighborhoods.
Monk parakeets lay 5-24 eggs that hatch in about 24 days. An average of 1.5 young fledge from each nest after the 40th day. The juveniles stay with the adults for as much as a year, then they disperse and eventually find a mate and set up housekeeping. Since they may live more than a decade and potentially produce two broods per year, coupled with their overall hardiness, it is not surprising that Quakers tend to have rather stable populations. The fact that fledglings tend to only disperse a few miles before nesting enhances population growth, but has not resulted in explosive expansion of range.
There are many species of parrots flying around urban areas in the United States, but there is only one that is similar in size, shape, and color to the Monk parakeet. It is the Rose-ringed Parakeet, a native of the old world. It is easily distinguished from the Monk Parakeet by having a red bill (instead of orange), green breast (as opposed to gray), and having an obvious ring around its neck. Though the two species are reminiscent of one another and occupy many of the same places, they are easily distinguished and the Monks are exceedingly abundant by comparison.
Keep your eyes and ears peeled and you are sure to encounter the delightful, yet raucous, Monk parakeets. Many consider them an interesting addition to our non-native avifauna.
Published in In The Wild, Louisiana Levant Magazine, September 1,2007.