I got the message late at night on my answering machine: "The peregrines are eating the parakeets." It sounds like something Aldrich Ames might have sent in code to the Russians, but it was my friend Chuck Thurow, who'd picked up this juicy bit of nature gossip at a dinner party in Hyde Park. The host suspected that a peregrine falcon was gobbling up the monk parakeets that normally frequent his bird feeder.
What made this of interest wasn't so much that one bird was eating another. Rather it was that until recently neither the predator nor the prey existed in Hyde Park or Chicago--in fact, there are very few of either anywhere in North America. Yet both the peregrine falcons and the monk parakeets selected Hyde Park as choice habitat on their own--though humans have played influential roles in both species' lives.
By almost anyone's standard the peregrine falcon is a noble bird, with the serious eyes of a predator and strong wings the color of battleships. It bears down on its prey at speeds approaching 200 miles an hour, making it the fastest animal on earth. For generations European royalty regarded peregrines as the bird of choice for hunting, and even today falconers favor them for their grace and intelligence.
Historically peregrines did not nest in what is now Chicago. The flat, wet prairies were inappropriate habitat, though they probably made good foraging grounds. But the birds did breed and nest along the bluffs of the Illinois River and other waterways in the state. By 1952 the peregrines had left Illinois, and by the early 1970s the pesticide DDT had almost exterminated them in North America. No nesting pairs could be found east of the Mississippi, and only 19 pairs were known to survive in the west. When the Endangered Species Act passed Congress, in 1973, the peregrine falcon was placed at the top of the charter list of animals in danger of extinction.
In 1974 a group called the Peregrine Fund was established to try to protect what was left of the falcon population and if possible to increase its numbers. Largely as a result of the organization's efforts and the banning of DDT, the falcons slowly began to recover. One of the fund's innovative programs encouraged the release of falcons in large cities, where tall buildings simulate the cliff-and-canyon environment falcons favor for nesting and where large populations of pigeons provide an ample food supply. Successful programs were launched in New York, Boston, Dallas, and, in 1986, Chicago.
Armed with federal permits, private philanthropic funding, and guidance from experts, the Chicago Academy of Sciences bought young birds from the Raptor Center in Minnesota for $2,000 a pop and fledged the falcons from the ledges of office buildings in the Loop. Major media covered the falcons' arrival in Chicago. Retired Ameritech employees volunteered to build special structures for the nests. The opportunity to name one of the falcons sold for $1,000 in a fund-raiser.
From 1986 to 1990 46 peregrine falcons were released downtown, at Illinois Beach State Park, at the College of DuPage, and elsewhere. One pair of birds has nested successfully on the ledge of a building on Wacker Drive since 1988. The goal of the Chicago program is not to have a lot of falcons living in the Loop, but to help rebuild the midwest's population. When the birds fly north in the spring after spending the winter in the southern U.S. or Mexico, they don't necessarily return to where they were released. One of the Wacker Drive birds was from a Minnesota release program.
Last year an immature male and a mature female took up residence in Hyde Park. At least one falcon is now back, and Mary Hennen of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the local peregrine project's coordinator, will be in the neighborhood this month trying to determine if it's one of last year's pair. If both birds return, there's a good chance they'll nest. Hennen says she hadn't determined where the female was from. But the band on the young male indicated that he was from a nest in the wild, not the product of a release program. With hundreds of nature preserves and parks to choose from, he selected Chicago's south side as his territory. It could be that natural areas are less attractive than they used to be; when the peregrines almost died out great horned owls moved into their former territory, so the niche the falcons occupied is no longer as available.
It was 14 years ago that a small family of monk parakeets took up residence on 53rd Street and Hyde Park Boulevard. They too came of their own volition. No governmental body authorized their arrival, and no organizations or individuals encouraged them with special parrot boxes. The birds constructed their own shopping-cart-size nest in a green ash tree, using twigs and grass and scraps of cardboard.
Unlike the elegant peregrine, the monk parakeet is a flashy bird. About the size of a pigeon, it's a gaudy shade of green with a light-colored breast and smudges of eye-shadow blue on each wing tip. Its favorite food is dandelions, the lowliest weed of all, but it will eat almost anything. Monk parakeets have even been known to eat fermented hawthorn berries, then stagger around shamelessly in drunken stupors.
While every detail of the falcons' Chicago appearance was carefully documented, no one knows how the goofy South American monk parakeets made it to Hyde Park. The best theory going, which still makes you shake your head, is that in 1967 a large shipment of the parakeets was flown from Argentina to New York to be sold as pets. The crate broke open at Kennedy Airport, and the birds escaped. Some settled and became established in Central Park. That much is documented, but subsequent events are less clear. Ornithologists know that in the years after the Kennedy incident small numbers of monks were spotted in North Carolina, Oklahoma, and California, but no one knew for certain whether they were Kennedy escapees or releases by individual pet owners or even migrants from Argentina.
Monks first showed up in Chicago's western suburbs in 1974. Three years later they were seen at Montrose Harbor. In 1979 the first one was spotted in Hyde Park. In 1980 a small group began building the first nest on 53rd Street right across from the building where Harold Washington lived. Doug Anderson, a parole officer who's one of Hyde Park's most knowledgeable birders, believes that around 200 parakeets now live in Hyde Park at ten different nest sites, making it the largest concentration of the species in the country.
The big question is, if these birds started out at Kennedy Airport, why on earth would they have passed over all the inviting habitat between Queens and Hyde Park? What was wrong with New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana? A similar question could be asked of those who believe the birds might have made it here from Argentina.
Yet if you prefer the theory that individuals released their pets in scattered locations, how did the birds ever find one another? The most plausible part of this theory is the underlying assumption that someone with a monk parakeet would be eager to push it out the window. Though they're called parakeets, monks are true parrots, with obnoxious voices to prove it. Once you know what they sound like, you can hear the Hyde Park birds squawking from blocks away.
Anderson believes in a combination theory. He thinks the birds sprung loose at Kennedy may have scattered throughout the country, but in Chicago they encountered enough other monk parakeets released by unhappy pet owners to start a colony.
He also thinks the monk parakeet might be filling the ecological niche once occupied by the Carolina parakeet, the only species of parrot endemic to North America; it's been extinct since 1920, the victim of people who disliked it because it ate too much grain from farm fields and too much fruit from orchards. I would like to think his idea is true, though I'd guess the monk's chance of survival is better if it stays in Hyde Park than if it heads for the rural areas where the Carolina parakeet thrived.
Argentineans have attempted to exterminate the monks for the same reason southerners destroyed the Carolina parakeet. And five years ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture was so concerned about the potential for damage by this new alien species that it considered eliminating the monks' few nesting colonies in America, though to date no farms have been threatened. Combining ornithological expertise with good old Chicago political savvy, Anderson formed the Harold Washington Memorial Parrot Defense Fund to pressure the department to hold public hearings on its plans. Department officials promptly dropped the subject.
Whether the monk parakeet is filling an ecological vacancy or whether it's an evil starlinglike invader, I find myself rooting for its success. It's an amazing thing to see big green birds flapping around Hyde Park. So far they've survived Chicago's hard winters. None of that sissy flying-south stuff for these guys; they seek shelter on fire escapes when the temperature drops below zero.
The parakeets do use local bird feeders and are reportedly big seed hogs, chasing other birds away. Bob Wollmann puts out cafeteria trays of birdseed in his backyard on Ellis Avenue. In the past having 30 of the parrots feeding at one time was not unusual, but this winter the monks have mostly stayed away. Occasionally three or four birds will come.
Wollmann was the one who told Chuck Thurow about seeing the peregrine pick off a parakeet, which he assumed was the reason they weren't coming to his feeder. When I asked Wollmann about it he said that he couldn't call it a trend, that actually his roommate saw it happen once last September. And since peregrine falcons fly to Texas and Mexico for the winter, they couldn't be responsible for scaring the parakeets away from his feeder during the colder months. "Maybe the neighbors have better birdseed," he suggested.
Mary Hennen confirms that at least one peregrine falcon has killed and eaten at least one monk parakeet in Hyde Park. She herself found the remains of the bright green head and feathers after a falcon left a perch on a fire escape. Since Hennen isn't in Hyde Park every minute, it's certainly possible the falcons have eaten more parakeets.
Still there's no evidence that the falcons are singling the Argentineans out, and it's unlikely that they'll eat enough of them to jeopardize the Hyde Park colony. The monk parakeets have simply become one of many prey species for the falcon. Hyde Park's species may be eccentric, but the natural world there seems to be in its own peculiar state of good health.