From Brooklyn to Chicago to Dallas and beyond, more and more people are being greeted to an unusual sight at their birdfeeders: wild parakeets.
Specifically, they’re seeing Monk parakeets, also known as the Quaker parrot. If your neighborhood has been invaded by them, it will soon be hard to miss. Not only because of the ruckus these chatty birds make, but because their nests can be over six feet long and three feet wide! Monk parakeets are cheeky green birds with beige bills and gray faces and underbellies. When their wings are spread you can also see vivid blue primaries, primary coverts, and secondaries.
There are no native parrots in the United States—not since the Carolina parakeet was wiped out almost a century ago—but feral Monk parakeets have been here since the 1960’s. Most parrots are tropical birds, and most pet parrots released (intentionally or not) by their owners face a fast and unfortunate death: from predation, starvation, and cold. But Monk parakeets hail from the more temperate parts of Argentina and neighboring South American countries. Cold weather is no news to them. The original birds survived and spread, and now there are confirmed colonies established in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.
But how do they survive the winter, let alone thrive? The secret to their success is their social habits. Monk parakeets are the only Psittacidae to build stick nests, and they often live in colonies. The huge, communal nests they build—often on telephone poles or streetlights, to the dismay of utility companies—keep them warm and insulated enough to survive even brutal Chicago winters.
However, the winter foods they would have foraged for in their natural habitat are absent here and feral parakeets rely heavily if not entirely on backyard bird feeders to make it through the winter. They especially depend on fatty foods, like sunflower. Caring for the local parakeets sometimes becomes a community effort, and can be a great way to meet other bird enthusiasts. The sight of parrots and pigeons feeding side by side is one to remember.
If you’ve seen a nest in your area and want to attract them to your yard and lend a helping hand, try safflower and black oil sunflower seeds, with shelled nuts and bits of fruit. Millet, finch food, and parakeet food from pet stores is also appreciated. Large nuts meant for larger birds will be ignored—their bills are too small to crack them with ease. Just remember, they’ll be as shy as any other wild bird.
The jury is still out on whether feral Monk parakeets are an ecological pest. Power companies certainly consider them pests, since their massive nests can cause power failures. But so far they don’t seem to be harming native bird populations, perhaps because they mostly keep to urban areas, where their main competitors are other non-natives.
And no one denies they are a charming surprise in your yard.