Quaker parrots (Myiopsitta monachus), or monk parakeets as they are also known, dwell in many U. S. households as pets. Flocks of quaker parrots also thrive in several feral colonies on the East Coast, the Midwest, Washington state and Texas.
Neither living accommodation has total approval in the United States. The naturalized quaker parrot’s nesting habits have interfered with utility companies, leading companies to destroy nests and stirring protest from quaker parrot advocates. Others believe that escaped quaker parrots might cause massive crop damage, and consequently the birds are banned as pets in several states.
Quaker parrots are illegal to own in several states.
Whether they will be legalized in all states is up for debate. The feral colonies that exist and their impact, however, must be addressed in some manner. As advocates prove, compromises can protect the quaker parrots’ safety.
Naturalized Quaker Parakeet Origins
Quaker parrots are native to South America, primarily Argentina, where they dwell in grasslands and woodlands. Their spread to the skies of the United States is somewhat mysterious, but one origin is considered fact. An account exists of a quaker parrot shipment losing some birds upon arrival to John F. Kennedy airport in New York in 1967. Others say a similar escape occurred near O’Hare airport in Chicago.
Around this time, feral quakers’ presence became known around the Northeast. So, too, did a federal program to eradicate the perceived threatening bird. The National Audubon Society reported that in 1973 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a "retrieval” campaign aimed at eliminating feral monk parakeets through shooting and trapping.
Quaker parrot supporters have encountered this for the past 40 years, and they have struggled to educate the public about misperceptions.
"I recall a comment a few years back made by the head of New Jersey Audubon that succinctly sums up this bias,” recalled Steve Baldwin, who runs the website BrooklynParrots.com. "He said that the only proper thing to do with the quakers was to ‘send them back to Argentina.’ This bias is the so-called ‘nativist’ argument.”
Quaker Parrot Controversy
The parrots’ nesting habits have posed a problem to utility companies. Quaker parrots weave intricate nests, and one of their favorite places to do so is on power poles. The parrots have even built nests in and around transformers, making the threat of fire very real.
In recent years, utilities in Brooklyn, N.Y., Chicago and multiple areas in south Florida and Texas, have removed nests. In Chicago, an ongoing battle has pitted quaker parrot supporters against power company ComEd. Starting in the late 1980s, the company sought to remove nests built in power converters and poles around Hyde Park, where the parrots congregate in great numbers. Vocal opposition led to some changes in the decision making for this process. Quaker parrot supporters insist that methods besides nest destruction could mitigate the problem.
Because the quaker parrots have been known to feed on and damage crops in their native region, many laws that ban quakers outright have to do with their perceived threat to agriculture. Further studies, have concluded that this is less of a threat than previously thought.
Lifting Bans On Quaker Parrots
Changing perception about quaker parrots’ cohabitation with utility companies is one struggle, but the believed threat to agriculture is another. On this front, ideas have already shifted, but some quaker parrot supporters hesitate before celebrating.
Michael Avery, a biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture USDA-WS National Wildlife Research Center, coauthored a 2006 report on the impact of feral quaker parrots. Regarding the impact on agriculture, the report concluded: "Despite the species’ reputation as a serious crop pest in its native range, there has been relatively little crop damage in the United States.”
In an interview, Avery said, "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.”
Other government officials have reached similar conclusions.
"Very little if any control has been done here, but the monk [quaker] population has just puttered along and, if anything, has declined a bit in recent years,” said Christopher Raithel, principal wildlife biologist, Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife, "but we do not track them in any meaningful way and get very few complaints about them.
"I suspect that they always were considered [pets] until they began to escape and expand in the wild — 1970s?” Raithel continued. "Then, fearing that they would darken the skies, the Fish and Wildlife Service began to ‘recall’ birds in the Northeast. In Rhode Island, I think there was a conscious decision to let the feds do what they wanted, but that the state agency would not get involved with monk control.
"As a non-native established species, the monk parakeet is considered by our agency as an unprotected species — the same status as starling and house sparrow,” Raithel said. "The ramifications of this status are that a landowner wishing to enact control of such species can do so without a permit from us, as long as other regulations such as firearms discharge etc. and local ordinances are obeyed.”
Expanded Quaker Parrot Legalization
Recent changes to the laws in Rhode Island have affected quaker parrot ownership. Since 2010, quakers are legal to own if a permit has been secured. John Davey, a Quaker Parrot Society (QPS) officer, contacted the Rhode Island Agriculture Department to determine its stance on quakers. Davey says a quaker rescue facility is permitted, but he doesn’t know if the rescued birds came from homes or were rescued as wild birds.
Some quaker supporters hesitate before celebrating completely.
"I personally believe that the blanket state bans that were invoked years ago were probably overreactions to a threat that never existed,” Baldwin said. "On the other hand, I am leery of the prospect of these bans being removed without an active management program being in place. The nightmare that I’d like to avoid is to have a bunch of parrots out there that in fact prove to be damaging.
"Just as I believe that the threats the parrots pose to agriculture have been overstated, I have no actual proof that a large group of quakers, released into the wild proximal to areas where food is grown, would have zero impact as well. I know there is a controversy in Spain right now [Barcelona] where the quakers have been feeding on tomato crops. Unfortunately, I believe the city has now begun hunting them as a result, and I have no desire to have this kind of scenario repeated in the United States.”
Understandably, Davey says the QPS does not consider the current Rhode Island situation as ‘welcoming’ quaker parakeets. "While it is possible to get a permit to have a quaker, it is probably a difficult OK to get in most cases. This is the way it is in a lot of states with our little ‘Outlaw Birds,’” Davey continued. "We are attempting to influence state legislatures to adopt a more understanding and humane approach to pet and feral quakers.”
The QPS recently sent New Jersey legislators a letter to encourage them to remove quaker parrots from their list of Potentially Dangerous Species. A state bill would allow quaker parrots to have the same protection as native species. First proposed in 2006, it was reintroduced and sent to committee this year. If passed, bill A454 could protect quaker parrots.
Little hope might exist for legalization in states where ownership of the bird is completely outlawed.
"States like California and Kansas have consistently ignored all the research done on whether quakers are indeed an agricultural threat,” said Ellen Feinstein Kreuger, who edits the QPS newsletter and has authored a series of children’s books about her quaker, Fonzie. "Everything I’ve ever looked into has said the reports of crop pillaging by flocks of wild quakers is purely anecdotal. The origins of these stories from the quaker’s native South America have never been proven.
"Those who have studied wild quakers in this country have found them to be mostly in urban areas and fond of pizza crusts, french fries and wild bird seed from feeders, rather than attacking agriculture.
"Do I think these states will ever change their laws prohibiting quakers as pets? I doubt it,” Kreuger said. "The agriculture lobbies would not allow it even though it’s virtually impossible for a freed or escaped pet quaker to thrive all alone in the wild. It takes two to make babies, and rarely do pet birds escape together into the wild. It would take massive releases, like the fabled ones at Kennedy and O'Hare Airports in the late ’60s to establish any kind of flock.”
"Many strategies and tactics could be employed to mitigate the inevitable conflict that occurs when quakers set up shop in electrical infrastructure,” said Steve Baldwin, who runs the website BrooklynParrots.com. "Alternative nesting platforms could be built, existing pole designs could be modified, equipment [especially power transformers] could be redesigned. One thing we have done is to get some power companies to at least time nest removals so that there is minimal impact on young birds.”
Some municipalities have worked with the feral populations rather than against them. In Yacolt, Wash., the Town Council and Clark Public Utility created a nest management plan for the naturalized quaker parrots in town. The company carefully removed all nests from problem areas, and relocated the nests and nesting materials to alternative sites constructed for the parrots. The company then equipped existing poles with orange sleeves, which incites a natural aversion in the birds.
Although not directly designed for quaker parrots, an Arizona utility company builds nesting platforms for wild birds. Water and power company SRP has an Avian Protection Program that seeks to preserve the migratory path of wild birds that come through the state. The company partnered with the Arizona Game & Fish Department, the Fish & Wildlife Service, Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Foundation and others to create nesting platforms on utility poles. Some quaker parrot advocates have suggested that this could work for their championed parrot.
In Brooklyn, a revamped park was designed with quakers in mind. The Leif Ericson Field redesign considered the safety of the parrots before and after construction. Before light fixtures were changed out, for example, quaker parrot experts investigated them to ensure that no parrots nested there, among other precautions. The completed park offered nesting platforms atop high light poles where the feral parrots are welcome.