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parrots AND PLUNDER

Are monk parakeets pests?


Ornithologist arent sure.

Bright green and noisier than a kindergarten class at playtime, flocks of monk parakeets have become a
vivid-and growing-addiction to the fauna of many U.S. towns and cities. The creatures now thrive in at
least 76 localities in 15 states, according to Stephen Pruett-jones, an associate professor of ecology and
evolution at the University of Chicago. ln the next 20 years, he adds, I believe they will be all over the
United States.
Although some find the sight of parrot flocks charming, particularly in grayish northern cities. It is
possible that their existence all over the country would be a problem. No one really knows for sure
whether they will be, and hardly anyone is trying, to find out.

The conventional wisdom that the birds are agricultural psts, like starlings and Africas quelea bird, is
based on studies done in Argentina and Uruguay. Two of the five South American countries where the
birds are native-since the 1960s. That notion has been challenged in recent years by a distinguished
Argentine ornithologist, Enrique H. Bucher. In one paper, Bucher wrote that neotropical parrots do not
fit the typical profile of a successful pest species. They lack the typical combination of high mobility,
flock feeding and roosting, opportunistic breeding, and high productivity that characterize successful
pest birds.

Although they may disagree whether the monk parakeet is a pest, Ornithologists generally agree that
the bird is highly unusual. lt is one of the most interesting parrot species in the World, Pruett-jones
says. It is the only one of the 330-old species of parrot that builds its own nest. The nests can be Simple
abodes for one nesting pair or compact-car-size monstrosities that shelter half a dozen or more families
in separate chambers, apartment-style. Their nests, for a parrot, are totally bizarre, says Jessica
Eberhard of the Smithsonian Tropical Research institute in Panama, Nests are often further aggregated
into colonies of perhaps hundreds of birds.

The social behavior of monk parakeets also appears to be unusual. Eberhard has found that some
breeding pairs were assisted by a third monk parakeet, probably an offspring, which performed various
odd jobs, such as helping to build the nest or bringing food to the female during incubation and
brooding. Altruism like that had never been seen before in Wild parrots.

Butt family values are not likely to warm the hearts of farmers, who insist that monk parakeets feed on
many different crops. I can tell you that one of the bird species that has been a problem for growers of
lychee and longan is the monk parakeet, says jonathan H. Crane of the University of Florida`s Tropical
Research and Education Center. They will come in and devastate a crop. Some electric utilities have
also had problems, because nests are often built on transformers, causing the equipment to overheat or
short out.

In Argentina, widespread crop damage in some provinces has prompted officials to institute
extermination programs. In entre Rios, for example, landowners are required to kill the parakeets living
on their land. In Buenos Aires province, the government makes, systematic killing sweeps every five
years.
No one knows for sure how the birds got to the U.S., although it is presumed that many were simply
released by people who had bought them in the 1960s as pets and became annoyed by their squawking.
By the early 1970s, there were so many monk parakeets that a national eradication program was
launched; it reduced the population to perhaps several hundred birds in seven localities. The birds have
rebounded so well however, that they are now the most widely distributed of recently introduced bird
species in the U.S., Pruett-jones claims. Anywhere from 5,600 to 28,000 of the creatures live in the wild
(the wide range results from the difficulty in counting them). Pruett-jones further estimates that the
monk parakeet population doubles every 4.8 years.

One of the few states that is hostile to monk parakeets is California, where the birds are prohibited as
pets and are sporadically eradicated in some places, according to Annamaria van Doorn, a graduate
student at the University of Florida. Florida, an agricultural state that has the largest number of the birds
by far does not control or regulate them. Given the way the birds have rebounded from control
programs in Argentina and the U.S., however, van Doom questions the effectiveness of eradication.

What will it be like it parrots thrive in the wild in most states? Fun for bird-watchers, but costly for many
farmers. If they are an agricultural pest, the effects could be similar to those of the Starling, which
would be devastating, Pruett-jones says. But no one knows for sure whether they are or are not.
Glenn Zorpette