Thursday, January 11, 2007

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Brooklyn ParrotsDid you know that parts of America have populations of wild parrots and parakeets? I didn’t either (even though I have an amateur ornithologist in the house who has been studying birds since he was very small. The future Baron is chock-a-block full of interesting trivia about his feathered friends, their nesting habits, when they mate, how many eggs they produce, and when the fledglings mature. After all, what else is there to do when you live in the country sans TV -- or siblings to torture?).

And then I stumbled upon this website.

It says that of all the birds who have escaped captivity in the US, parrots and parakeets are the most numerous. There are many species of them, and many stories as to how they got here. This is one possibility for those which inhabit Brooklyn…yes, Brooklyn:

More than 60,000 wild parrots of this type (Myopsitta Monachus) were shipped from South America to the U.S.A. during the 1960s and early 1970s. Why so many? Well, the Argentineans had just spent 10 years trying to wipe these parrots out. In fact, a government-sponsored program managed to kill more than 400,000 of them in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But in the mid 1960’s, someone had a bright idea: instead of killing them, why not ship them to the U.S.A. and make a few extra dollars? And thus did the great influx begin.

The website is concerned with the fates of various colonies nationwide, but devotes most attention to the parrot tribes in Brooklyn. Somehow, parrots and Brooklyn seem suited to one another. Yet how did they manage to set up shop so far from their natural habitat?

There is much mystery surrounding the appearance of these remarkable birds in Brooklyn, but it can safely be said that they did not fly up here from Argentina on their own.

1967: The Great Escape

The theory has the greatest credence is that a shipment of birds destined for sale at New York area pet shops was accidentally released at Kennedy Airport in the late 1960’s (1967 or 1968). This incident was referred to as early as 1971 in an article by ornithologist John Bull.

Much confusion remains about what actually happened at the airport. At least one source in Brooklyn has informed me that many shipments coming into the airport were opened by unauthorized people during the 1960’s: Martin Scorsese’s classic film, Goodfellas, based on the memoir of Nicholas Pileggi, depicts the common practice of “crews” opening crates in order to pilfer their contents. My informant speculates that a large crate bearing an indecipherable Argentinean waybill may have been opened in this fashion. But instead of finding bottles of fine Argentinean wine, the crate opener was surprised when an unruly crowd of fully-flighted Quaker Parrots burst into the air, circled the airport, screaming, and disappeared over the horizon.

[The part about crews pilfering crates rings true for me. One of my immigrant uncles, in his first job in the US, worked at the local airport. He was always coming home with odd lots of things like, say, a dozen pots of vinca major in assorted colors.]

Evidently, the birds quickly acclimated and began turning up in the environs of New York, beginning with Brooklyn College. Central Park was another possibility for the parrots, except that the city workers chased them off, believing they would drive out other kinds of birds. Right. Great thinking there: “let’s drive out the parrots. They might cause a disruption in the pigeon population.”

The website has lots of information about the birds’ treatment by nice and not-so-nice utility companies’ policies, proving what we all know: some organizations are real bird brains.

If you’re in the area in early February, you can be part of the Parrot Safari:

Attention all Urban Parrot fans: the next Wild Brooklyn Parrot Safari will happen on Saturday, February 3rd, 2007, at 12 Noon. All interested wild parrot fans should meet at Brooklyn College’s Hillel Gate, which is at the intersection of Hillel Place and Campus Road.

Due to popular demand, our monthly tour will run an optional “second section.” After getting our share of the raucous antics of the Brooklyn College Parrots, at approximately 2:00 PM, our group will walk to the Q Train stop at Avenue I, and journey to Green-Wood Cemetery, where we will observe the late-afternoon antics of the parrots residing there.

The website has wonderful pictures, some YouTube videos, and fascinating information on the parrots’ nests - as one person put it, they’re more like condos.

What a serendipitous thing to find in New York, especially in the winter: wonderfully colorful, exotic parrots! Going on that safari is cheaper than a get-away trip to Florida, too.

If you can’t make the trip, consider buying their parrot calendar, here. As the author says at Café Press:

The Brooklyn parrots have all of the great qualities we associate with the American character: they’re industrious, loyal to each other, they’re amazing little engineers, they coexist well with other native birds, and they just won’t give up, even when the deck is stacked against them.

Now those are immigrants after my own heart.


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