It was a typical afternoon at The Lakes. Neighbors riding bikes, saying hello to one another. Kids running from one house to the next looking for adventure. The hot Florida sun baking their heads and shoulders.
But for a wayward monk parakeet it was time to find food.
Nicole Malcomson and her brother Gregory Piccarella, who were visiting cousins in The Lakes, didn’t notice the small green parrot until it was right on top of them, literally.
“The parrot started swooping down and attacking my cousin’s head,” 11-year-old Nicole said.
Her cousin Kevin Opalensky, 15, thinks the bird was someone’s pet at one point. When he first saw the bird, he hand-fed it pieces of bread.
“Birds usually aren’t that comfortable with people,” he said.
The following day Nicole and Gregory played at The Lakes community pool with their mother and the parrot returned. This time, the kids weren’t scared and began feeding it peanuts and seeds. It even followed them into the pool, trying to land on their heads.
“I was kind of surprised to see it,” Gregory said, while watching the bird feed from his sister’s hand at the community pool.
Nicole giggled as the small green bird with turquoise feathers in the back and a grey chest pecked a few seeds at a time from her outstretched hand with its orange beak.
“The bird that seemed tame was almost certainly an escaped pet. The wild birds are rarely so tame unless someone has spent a great deal of time working with them to tame them down,” explained Jerry Jackson, a Florida Gulf Coast University professor and ornithologist.
The monk parakeet is native to South American countries like Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. The birds arrived in Florida through the pet trade business. Monk parrots established populations in Chicago and the Miami/Fort Lauderdale and Tampa/Sarasota area decades ago, but have been spotted increasingly at Southwest Florida parks, beaches and even in people’s backyards.
Jackson said he’s seen flocks of a dozen to 20 or more birds on different occasions near the Edison Home in Fort Myers, in his front yard in Naples, at a park in Cape Coral and on Gasparilla Island.
Those birds are self-sustained breeding colonies, established populations that have easily adapted to Florida’s climate and ecosystems.
“They’re not going anywhere,” said Scott Hardin with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. “They’re not mercifully an ecological problem, but an economic problem.”
Some say the birds compete for food with native species and can sometimes spread seeds from exotic plants, which also causes concern for some. But Mike Avery, a project leader with the National Wildlife Research Center’s Florida field office in Gainesville, disagrees.
“So far, that has not materialized. There’s been some damage to tropical fruit in Southwest Florida, but it’s really not widespread,” Avery said. “They feed mostly on food provided by people on backyard bird feeders. That seems to be the pattern. They’re being subsidized by residents who like to see them in their yards.”
Almost everyone agrees that the main stress the birds cause are for local utility companies such as Florida Power & Light.
“In Florida and other areas they cause thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to electrical equipment as a result of their frequently building their large, communal stick nests on electrical transformers. FPL has had serious problems with them,” Jackson said.
Avery explained that the large, bulky nests get wet from rainstorms and fall, causing short circuits to electrical transformer boxes.
In a recent report by the Miami Herald, an exotic bird trapper who makes a living catching the birds and selling them to pet shops, almost died when he got shocked from an electrical pole he was climbing to fetch a nest of monk parakeets.
When the invasive species first took hold to U.S. soil in the late 60s and 70s, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission tried to eradicate the birds, but soon gave up.
“Efforts to recapture them by the Fish and Wildlife Service were abandoned after people became upset by the effort. End of story. Fish and Wildlife service gave up. I don’t think they should have,” Jackson said.
If an effort to remove the parrots restarted it would take an “extraordinary and very expensive effort,” Jackson continued. “I love monk parakeets and have a pet one that I raised from an egg nearly two decades ago. They can make wonderful pets, but do not belong in the wild in Florida.”
The monk parakeets are one of 195 documented bird species not native to Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Like iguanas in Fort Lauderdale and pythons in the Everglades, the monk parakeet is here to stay.
“I expect they will be here forever,” Avery said.
Fun facts about monk parakeets
-- Trapping and selling monk parakeets is legal in Florida because it is a non-native species
-- The monk parakeet is native to South American countries Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia
-- Monk parakeets build large communal nests with sticks and branches
-- Also called the quaker parakeet or parrot
-- Noted as an agricultural pest, but some controversy surrounds the research methods used to calculate the losses
-- Monk parakeets kept as pets usually obtain a large vocabulary
-- Florida has the largest population of monk parakeets in the United States