The Hyde Park parrots are in the news again. The parrots are a flock of about 50 monk parakeets, originally psittacines of Argentina, who are now entering their eighth year of residence in a tree in Jackson Park, at 53rd and Lake Shore Drive.
The founders of the colony were escapees or rejects from living room cages, and natural increase--presumably supplemented by more escapes--has tripled their numbers in eight years.
They live in an enormous communal nest built of sticks and grass and various other materials, a nest type that is unique to this species among the more than 300 species of parrots in the world. It looks like the crown of a haystack dropped into a treetop.
Their tree sits right in front of the apartment hotel where Mayor Washington lived. The mayor enjoyed looking at the birds, and he claimed they were good luck for him, that he would never lose an election as long as they stayed in their tree. Alas, he is gone and the birds remain. At least for now.
The recent round of news stories was inspired by the apparent intention of the Animal Damage Control Office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to trap the birds and either return them to a life of captivity or destroy them. The stories focused on a group of Hyde Parkers--almost as cute and cuddly as the parakeets--who are determined to save their birds from the clutches of the USDA. Calls for environmental impact statements were heard. A defense fund has been established. Supporters have declared that we are a nation of immigrants, so why not immigrant parrots?
But last week, William Bonwell, a district director of the ADC, declared that there was no settled policy as to what to do with the birds, so for now, they will be left alone.
It is possible the USDA is backing off because of the noise the Hyde Parkers made. The Illinois Department of Conservation wants the birds removed, but both agencies may be content to wait till the legislature adjourns. Their greatest fear is a bill introduced in the heat of the moment to protect monk parakeets.
The DOC, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the Illinois Extension Service, and the Animal Damage Control Office signed an agreement in 1973 to control monk parakeets, and the agreement has been applied several times. Birds in the northern suburbs and at downstate locations have been either shot or trapped, although new populations continue to establish themselves.
My own opinion is that the Hyde Park parakeets should have been removed about 1981. I don't know why the USDA waited so long, but they shouldn't wait any longer. Tomorrow morning would be a good time to start trapping the birds, but if they can free up some time today, that would be even better. The longer we wait, the greater the risk that monk parakeets will be beyond control.
The case against the parakeets--and it is very strong--is based partly on the characteristics of this particular species and partly on the bitter wisdom we have gained from centuries of accidental and deliberate introductions of exotic species.
Monk parakeets are slender long-tailed birds measuring about a foot from tip of beak to tip of tail. Their upper parts are green with a bit of blue in the tail. Their bellies are lemon yellow. A soft gray covers their faces and breasts--a monk's hood, the source of their common name. They are said to make tractable cage birds, and they can be trained to talk. They do emit a loud raucous call that sounds like the noise you would make if you dumped a handful of machine bolts into a coffee grinder. I'm sure this noise would give you goose bumps out on the pampas, but in your living room, it could drive you nuts. I suspect the full flavor of that call helps account for the large numbers of released birds that keep showing up around the country.
Monk parakeets are natives of the southern third of South America, ranging from Bolivia and southern Brazil south through Argentina to about 48 degrees latitude. They are hardy for parrots, able to handle subfreezing temperatures on their home range, but they do not naturally inhabit any places as cold as Chicago.
They travel in flocks, often flying long distances to food sources, and their diet is quite varied. They eat seeds of many plants, as well as insects and fruit.
Unfortunately, they also eat domestic fruit and ripening grain. In Argentina, they are ranked among the most damaging agricultural pests. They relish crop-grown sunflower seeds, corn, sorghum, millet, and a variety of fruits. In the Argentinean province of Cordoba, crop losses have reached 45 percent. Bounties on the birds produced more than 400,000 dead parakeets in one two-year period, and drastic control measures (burning nests, poisoning, shooting) have been tried. None has had much effect.
Here in the USA, they have been breaking out of captivity for almost 20 years. The first wild population was in Miami, and since then they have appeared as wild birds over much of the country. In the early 70s, they established themselves in upstate New York, but the cold winters of the late 70s--combined with an active control program--wiped out the colonies. Slightly warmer weather in this decade may have helped the birds come back in northerly locations.
So far, monk parakeets have not been declared pests anywhere in the U.S. only because they have not been numerous enough to cause significant damage. But in New York, they were seen eating corn, sunflower seeds, apples, cherries, peaches, pears, and grapes. In other words, we can reasonably expect them to become pests as soon as they build up their numbers.
Defenders of the bird usually mention that they haven't been any problem in Chicago. But cornfields and apple orchards are hard to find in Hyde Park. These birds are opportunistic eaters. If a backyard feeder gives them everything they need, they will use it. But if a cornfield is the nearest food source, they will quite likely use it instead. We should remember that many earlier introductions--house sparrows here, the mongoose in Jamaica--were regarded as wonderfully desirable additions to the local fauna until their numbers got out of hand.
We need to consider the consequences of our two possible courses of action: removing the birds or leaving them alone. If we remove them and I am wrong about their potential as pests, then we have needlessly taken 50 parakeets from their home in the park. If the defenders of the parakeets are wrong and we follow their advice, we could see millions of dollars in crop damage and years of expensive, and probably futile, control programs.
We should worry about the potential losses of food and money to the monk parakeet, but we should worry more about respecting nature. Respect for nature starts with recognizing what it is. It is not a random collection of species; it is not a show put here to entertain us or a picture we are free to paint to our liking. It is an infinitely complicated set of interlocking systems and the life of every plant or animal depends on the systems it is adapted to.
To sustain natural diversity, to foster the exuberance of life on earth, we need to respect the integrity of these ecosystems. They are literally what keeps the earth's creatures alive. To casually allow the introduction of a potentially destructive exotic into an ecosystem is an act of vandalism.
It also cuts us off from our native earth. A monk parakeet in Illinois is essentially a zoo animal, an exhibit, a creature diminished because it has no context. Seeing that bird, you could not tell if you were in London, Buenos Aires, or Chicago. It has no necessary connection with this place.
It belongs in a royal pleasure garden with a menagerie--a few peacocks perhaps or a bird of paradise--looted from around the world to amuse a king and his courtiers. It is ironic that this is being played out in Jackson Park, a place dedicated to a very different idea.
Jackson Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who is also responsible for Central Park in New York. Olmsted was looking for ways to get urban people in touch with nature, and his designs tended to develop from what nature provided. In Jackson Park, where the natural landscape was a succession of sand ridges and marshy swales, he built islands separated by lagoons. Wooded Island, just south of the Museum of Science and Industry, was meant as a retreat, a natural refuge in the city. Olmsted left in place the oaks that were growing on the ridge that became Wooded Island. They are still there today. And he sent agents to rural Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan to bring back native plants by the carload to give his creations a natural look. If you want to pretty birds, Wooded Island has nesting wood ducks, hooded mergansers, green herons, warbling vireos, yellow warblers, and tree swallows, actual American birds on their native ground.
Wooded Island symbolizes a reconciliation between the land and the millions who have come to live here in the past few hundred years. It is a metaphor that shows us that if we give natural things the space they need to live they will reward us in ways unknown in royal pleasure gardens.