What Do We Do About Parrots In The Wild?
When we think of parrots, we usually think of a caged, brightly colored bird who mimics human speech. Parrots are imported, either legally or illegally, into the U.S. through the exotic pet trade. But they don’t always remain caged. Accidental escapes or purposeful releases send these non-native birds into the wild where many find ways to survive. Now, naturalized parrots are widespread. (In biology, an organism is “naturalized” when it spreads into the wild outside its native range and breeds at a rate sufficient to maintain a population.)
Because non-native parrots have become increasingly common, it’s important to understand their biology and ecology, and interactions with native species. To that end, this study surveyed all parrot species seen in the wild in the U.S. from 2002-2016. Data was gathered from citizen science databases eBird and the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC), and also from a literature review. eBird and the CBC provide bird counts, locations, and notations on breeding activities. Just three species, the Monk Parakeet, the Red-crowned Amazon, and the Nanday Parakeet accounted for 65.2% of the recorded sightings.
Monk Parakeet themselves could serve as a cautionary tale about the risks of exotic animal importation. They are both the most abundant and most widely distributed naturalized species, with breeding populations in 25 states. The species’ biology and behavior have made them very adaptable. They can even survive in cold climates by relying on backyard bird feeders. Monk Parakeets can consume a widely varied diet and will eat any type of grain or fruit.
In the 1970’s, an effort was made to exterminate the species because it loomed as a threat to agriculture. Some viewed the danger on a par with that from the European Starling. The effort was only partly successful and today the population has rebounded. The birds are also responsible for numerous fires and power outages each year because they favor power poles and electrical transformers for their nesting sites.
The researchers found at least 25 species across 23 states with stable, breeding populations, and they note several factors that drive where we find populations of naturalized parrots today. The minimum January temperature has the greatest influence on the distribution of all parrot species. This is not surprising since parrots are native to the tropics. Human population densities also appear to correlate with parrot species densities across the southern U.S. Urban parks and the diversity of tree and plant species found in them provide critical nesting habitat and food sources for exotic parrots. Florida, California, and Texas have the greatest number of introduced parrot species, but parrots are regularly or occasionally sighted in an additional 20 states.
We don’t yet know how these naturalized birds might impact native species. So far, there is no evidence of harm, but long-term monitoring will be essential. For animal advocates, this story of parrots is more than a case study in the hazards of the exotic pet trade. It also raises several tough questions. How do we balance global and local conservation demands? Can naturalized species become endangered in their new home? And what do we do if the needs of non-native – but globally threatened – species conflict with those of native animals? Advocates can use this study to advance the conversations on these vital and complicated issues.