Crows & parrots outwit exterminators
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2006:
DARIEN (Ct.), SAN FRANCISCO –Crows and parrots, believed
to represent the apex of avian intelligence, evolved in an
environment favoring agility and efficiency in the lightest possible
Any air war strategist could therefore predict the outcome in
conflict between the bird brains and exterminators with thoughts of
Foes of crows with shotguns, fireworks, lasers, and
recorded distress calls took the most murderous toll on crows they
could during the winter of 2005-2006, on battlefields from upstate
New York and the Philadelphia suburbs to the Rocky Mountains.
Most of the crows, however, are still there, or at least
not very far away.
Attempted parrot purges have been no more successful, even
though the entire U.S. wild parrot population is believed to be
probably about 20,000, not more than 50,000 by the highest serious
estimates. About 7,000 parrots, mostly monk parakeets and conures,
live in California, with at least 2,000 monk parakeets in Florida.
USDA Wildlife Services claimed in January that a week of
nonlethal hazing had driven all but 500 crows out of Auburn, New
York, where as many as 33,000 congregated a few weeks earlier.
Complaints about crows meanwhile erupted in Syracuse, Marcellus,
Cazenovia, and Cortland, noted Syracuse Post-Standard staff writer
Then the 60 participants in the third annual crow-killing
contest organized by Lance Gummerson of Auburn, Tom Lennox of
Owasco, and Jon VanNest of Moravia shot 462 crows in the countryside
near Auburn during just two days, February 11-12. Yet most of the
crows who were there reportedly escaped the gunners. The official
crow count in Auburn increased to 600.
Crows can be rousted–but if the habitat attracts them, they
come right back when the perceived threat subsides. Auburn
reportedly drew 63,000 more crows at peak this winter, and still had
5,000 more when the killing contest started than were there a year
A similar story of frustration came from Lancaster,
Pennsylvania, in late January, where an estimated 50,000 crows for
two nights feasted on unpoisoned bait put out by USDA Wildlife
Services. The third night, Wildlife Services used poisoned bait.
The crows “moved over a block and sat down and didn’t want to
come over,” state USDA Wildlife Services director Harris Glass told
The Wabash Valley Audubon Society has tried for at least five
years to disperse huge “murders” of crows, as flocks are formally
called, in Logansport and Terre Haut, Indiana. The Wabashers found
that noise worked best, but “All the noise does is move them from
one location to another,” Wabash Valley Audubon Society president
John Haag admitted to Associated Press.
Apparently heedless of the failures of crow-shooting and
noisemaking elsewhere, Riverton, Wyoming mayor John Vincent
declared a public emergency in early February 2006 and ordered town
police to shoot crows. As of February 12, they had killed about
800 to no visible effect.
Shaking fists toward the skies, crow-fighters soldier on
like medieval crusaders, whose every move was signaled by black
clouds of carrion-pickers. Starving crusaders at times ate crow, as
farmers fled ahead of them, taking their livestock, but crows
undoubtedly ate crusaders much more often.
The clank of armor in the Middle Eastern desert heat meant to
the crows more or less what the sound of a can opener does to a dog
Foes of crows, re-outfitted as purgers of parrots, are also
among public service agencies’ first line of defense against avian
invaders from South America. Colonizing the greater New York City
area and parts of Texas and Florida more than 40 years ago, at least
10 parrot species are now taking advantage of climatic warming to
rapidly extend their range. A fossilized beak found in Montana
indicates that parrots were in upper North American once before–but
as contemporaries of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Personnel from USDA Wildlife Services, state wildlife
agencies, and private exterminating companies routinely tear down
the birds’ homes or blast them apart with water cannon, trying to
protect electrical wiring.
The most prolific feral parrot species, monk parakeets,
also known as Quaker parrots, are nonetheless as diligent as any
human monks and intrepid as Quaker missionaries, often rebuilding
stick nests that weigh more than a ton within a matter of days.
Other feral parrots tend to be less obvious, but not less persistent.
Crows vs. parrots
Losing on all fronts to bird brains, most of the alleged
expert crow and parrot expurgators appear to be unaware that in
nature these two orders seldom co-exist–and not just because parrots
are primarily Southern Hemisphere birds, while crows colonized much
of the world from the north.
“Members of the crow family are found in South America,”
Lives of North American Birds author Kenn Kaufman told ANIMAL PEOPLE,
“but members of the genus Corvus, the true crows and ravens, are
not found there. The common raven extends halfway down Central
America, but the southernmost crows on this land mass are in Mexico.
Thinking about places I know about in the tropics ,” Kaufman
continued, “jays are generally not common in South America, the
jaylike things in forests of southern Asia are mostly uncommon, and
the crows and ravens found in Africa and southern Asia are very much
out in the open country, not overlapping much with parrots, which
tend to be tied to the forests.”
Indian house crows and ringnecked parakeets share the same
cities. Yet as their name indicates, house crows did not become the
prolific species they are today until human development enabled them
to thrive in a deforested niche that was less hospitable to parrots,
who retain an urban habitat niche at only a fraction of their rural
Parrots, chiefly vegetarians, have the edge over crows in a
fruit-filled jungle. Crows, chiefly insectivores, do better as
the jungle gives way to grasslands and conifers.
“I don’t know if the omnivore versus herbivore dichotomy is
the reason why these groups don’t overlap much,” Kaufman said, “but
it is a stimulating question.”
Where parrots thrive, crows and their jay cousins seem to
take a hint that the habitat will not support them.
Where corvids predominate, Psittacidae seldom settle, not
least because crows and jays are voracious nest-raiders, while most
parrots and parakeets produce just two eggs per nest each year.
Accordingly, leaving either crows or parrots alone might be
the best way to deter the other.
For example, crows roosting on the wires may prove to be the
most certain means of keeping monk parakeets and conures out of power
pole transformer platforms. About once a year conflicts between
power companies and parrots burst into headlines, especially in
Florida and Connecticut.
Confrontations between Florida Power & Light and parrot
defenders appear to have peaked in 1999-2000. In August 2000 the
Animal Rights Foundation of Florida unsuccessfully sought to bring
cruelty charges against FPL workers who killed baby parakeets by
blasting them out of their nests with hoses. FPL eventually issued a
statement of regret, and began working with the Quaker Parrot
Society to keep the parakeets from nesting on power poles.
The most recent of many Connecticut parrot wars erupted in
October 2005. United Illuminating workers dismantled many nests,
while USDA Wildlife Services dispatched captured occupants in a
carbon dioxide gas chamber.
Parrot defender Julie Cook, 37, of West Haven, was
arrested for breach-of-peace for refusing to leave the scene of a
nest removal. The charge was later dropped.
“The electric utility relented after 179 birds were killed,
among a statewide population estimated at more than 1,000,”
summarized Ken Dixon of the Connecticut Post. “In all, 103 nests
from West Haven to Bridgeport were destroyed in United Illuminating’s
$125,000 eradication program.”
“That’s $698.32 per dead parrot in costs to taxpayers or
rate-payers,” commented Friends of Animals president Priscilla
On December 6, 2005, FoA withdrew an application for an
emergency injunction to save the parrots, after United Illuminating
said it had finished parrot captures for the year. FoA is hoping,
however, to make the suspension of parrot-killing permanent with a
lawsuit alleging that United Illuminating has been negligent in
trying to keep monk parakeets off off power poles, and should not
now be allowed to kill the birds when non-lethal methods have barely
United Illuminating spokesperson Albert Carbone said that the
nest dismantling teams ” found that a lot of the insulation on the
wires was chewed up, which was a fire hazard and a threat to public
health and safety.”
Carbone claimed that parrot nests have caused two utility
pole fires since 2003.
But that raised the question of why United Illuminating
didn’t clear the nests away long before they became parakeet
apartment houses, holding as many as 40 birds each. Consolidated
Edison in Brooklyn and Public Service Electric & Gas Company, in New
Jersey, have reportedly both turned to nonlethal preventive
measures, after more aggressive efforts against monk parakeets
failed years ago.
“It’s not our policy to call them pests,” Consolidated
Edison spokesperson Chris Olert told Verna Dobnik of Associated Press
Connecticut Light & Power, the other major electrical
utility serving Connecticut, has reportedly had to demolish only one
nest, in 2003.
FoA has recommended non-lethal monk parakeet solutions for
more than 15 years. A 2001 confrontation between FoA and the city of
Stamford over monk parakeets ended when federally protected ospreys
built nests atop monk parakeet nests at some sites. Earlier,
Stamford tried covering power poles with netting to keep monk
parakeets away. The parakeets quickly shredded the netting.
As in the past, monk parakeets surviving the utility company
offensive almost immediately rebuilt their nests. But this time
many rebuilt on 20-foot nest poles designed by Marc Johnson, of
Feral Parrots Ltd. in Rockland, Massachusetts. As of late January
2006, Johnson had installed 23 nest poles with eight more planned.
“We have to get United Illuminating to do really aggressive
maintenance throughout the spring and into the summer, particularly
during the breeding season, so the birds aren’t allowed to build
even a small nest [on power poles],” Johnson told Dixon.
“These are very smart birds,” Humane Society of the U.S.
urban wildlife director Laura Simon told Pat Eaton-Robb of Associated
Press. “If you harass them correctly at the right time of year,
they will learn not to build on the electrical poles.”
Connecticut Legislative Environment Committee co-chair
Richard Roy (D-Milford) pledged to review a 2003 state law that
identifies monk parakeets as an eradicable feral species, and said
he had asked the state Congressional Representatives to try to remove
monk parakeets from federal hit lists. “I’ve had over 50 calls about
this,” Roy told Eaton-Robb, “and only one person has been on the
side of United Illuminating.”
The Connecticut Audubon Society favored the nest removals,
consistent with Audubon opposition to any non-native wildlife, but
society senior director of science and conservation Milan Bull had
good words for the parakeets. “They’re great birds,” Bull told
Dixon of the Connecticut Post. “In South America,” where they are
native, “they are considered an agricultural pest,” Bull noted,
but added, “I have not noticed any situation, beyond a peripheral
level, where monk parakeets have competed with native birds.”
Monitoring the Connecticut parrot population for decades,
Bull told New York Times reporter Lennie Grimaldi in September 1990
that they may be descendants of a wild-caught flock who were crated
and flown north from Argentina to be sold in pet stores circa 1968,
during a brief parrot import boom. More than 64,000 monk parakeets
were imported from 1968 to 1972–and, as escapees turned up all over
the U.S., 11 states enacted monk parakeet bans which have largely
been ignored, especially by the birds.
One particular crate full of monk parakeets reputedly bounced
off a truck either at Kennedy International Airport in New York City,
or along Interstate 95 near the T.F. Green State Airport in Rhode
Island, according to different versions of the same story related by
Bull and Rhode Island animal advocate Kathleen A. Lemery. Or
possibly similar accidents happened twice.
Whatever occurred, monk parakeets were first recorded in
Connecticut by the annual Audubon Christmas bird counts in 1971. At
about the same time small flocks were seen in Warwick, Rhode Island,
and on Long Island, directly across Long Island Sound.
The first Connecticut colony, settling in New Haven, spread
south to Bridgeport circa 1990. The Warwick colony colonized
Jamestown, Rhode Island, in 1997. The Long Island colony
apparently moved to New Jersey circa 1993.
“They may not be trouble now,” New Jersey Division of Fish &
Game zoologist Paul Zalka warned in 1997, “but once they spread,
they’ll create havoc.”
Agreed New Jersey Audubon Society conservation director Rich
Kane, “These parrots will wreak havoc.”
But the New Jersey parakeets didn’t wreak havoc until after
the Public Service Electric & Gas Co. twice destroyed their nests.
Twice the parakeets rebuilt. Finally, in June 1998, parakeet
nesting activity caused an early morning short circuit on a pole in
Edgewater. Six fledglings were killed, despite the efforts of six
adult parrots to save them, witnessed and described to Bergen Record
staff writer Richard Cowen by Edgewater firefighter Bill Schiess.
Southern Connecticut State University biology department
chair Dwight Smith recalled during the 2005 attempted parrot purge
that earlier extermination efforts using similar methods failed.
Flocks were netted alive at least twice, and were sent to live at
the Beardsley Park Zoo in Bridgeport and the Long Island Game Farm,
but the remnant populations left at large soon recovered.
“There has been an incredible outpouring of support for these
animals, and we need to work with the USDA, the Connecticut
Department of Environmental Protection and United Illuminating Co. to
find another viable approach,” said Representative Christopher
However, changing the relevant federal policies might
require legislation which at present might have little change of
Many species of parrot are recognized by the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species as either endangered or
threatened in the wild, but CITES protects species only in global
A USDA budget appropriation rider slipped through Congress
just before Thanksgiving 2004 by U.S. Representative Wayne Gilchrest
(R-Maryland) and U.S. Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio) broadly
exempted “non-native” species from the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty
Act. Though the amendments were aimed at enabling government
agencies to exterminate mute swans and non-migratory Canada geese,
the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service took the opportunity to exempt more
than 100 species altogether, and wrote the enforcement regulations
in an open-ended manner that allows for exempting more species later.
The entire parrot family, Psittacidae, is exempted from
Migratory Bird Treaty Act protection, according to the USDA list of
Welcomed in Chicago
Despite federal and Audubon antipathy, monk parakeets have
long been officially tolerated and even encouraged in the Hyde Park
district of Chicago, beginning during the mayoral tenure of the late
Harold Washington. When an ash tree in Harold Washington Park that
had supported as many as 50 monk parakeet nests split and fell in
June 2004, the Chicago Police Department, Chicago Park District,
and Chicago Animal Control all helped to rescue and relocate the
nests to other trees in the park.
USDA Animal Damage Control, as Wildlife Services was
formerly called, in 1988 ordered that the parrots should be evicted.
The Harold Washington Memorial Parakeet Defense Fund successfully
resisted the order.
The Chicago monk parakeets expanded their habitat from six
known nesting sites in 1998 to 43 in 2004, according to Chicago
printing company executive Walter Marcisz, who has documented their
activity for the journal Meadowlark. Monk parakeets reportedly range
from the Shedd Aquarium, alongside Lake Michigan, out to Carol
Stream, Kenosha, and semi-rural suburbs in DuPage and McHenry
counties, tending to follow berry thickets. Contrary to USDA
expectations, however, they so far show no signs of spreading on
into the Illinois grain belt.
There is not much fruit in a corn field–and that’s where the
Neither have monk parakeets spread beyond Houston, where
their presence was documented by 1984; the Dallas-Fort Worth area,
with local colonies since 1987; and Oklahoma City, where they were
found in 1990. Where backyard fruit trees thrive, monk parakeets
thrive. The land beyond the watered suburbs, they leave to the
Along the west coast, monk parakeets are thriving as far
north as Seattle and Port Orchard, Washington. In April 2005 the
Port Orchard city council required Cingular Wireless to trap a feral
flock of about 30 as a condition of winning a permit to nearly double
the height of a cell telephone relay tower.
The Port Orchard parakeets are believed to be descended from
five who escaped in early 2002 from a dropped crate at Phase II
Birds, in the South Kitsap Mall. A red-headed conure who escaped
from a home in South Kitsap may fly with them.
At least six parrot species have colonized California. The
oldest continuously observed populations, in the San Gabriel Valley,
may have been started by escapees from a 1959 pet shop fire in
As many as 1,500 parrots thrive in Temple City, California.
Bakersfield, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San
Bernardino, and Riverside also have established populations of
various species, mostly conures and monk parakeets, but also
including black-hooded parakeets and others.
The San Francisco conures are especially well-known,
documented in a recent book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, by
musician Mark Bittner, and in a film by the same name made by
Bittner’s partner Judy Irving. Bittner has advocated often for the
parrots and their habitat in a series of public controversies going
back almost a decade.
Conure flocks have also been controversial in Colorado
Springs and Maui, Hawaii.
Peach-faced lovebirds, an African species, circa 1989-1990
nested near Mesa and Apache Junction, Arizona. By 2004 they ranged
throughout Phoenix and Scottsdale.
Contrary to general impression, there are parrots who are
native to parts of the U.S., other than the Carolina parakeet,
officially extinct since 1930.
Thick-billed parrots range into Arizona at times from Mexico.
A few dozen may nest in Arizona. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
tried from 1983 to 1995 to expand the thick-billed parrot population,
releasing 88 birds who were confiscated from smugglers. Disease,
drought, and predation soon killed at least 43 of them. The rest
vanished–but thick-billed parrot sightings are still occasionally
reported, including a large flock observed at Copper Canyon,
Arizona, in 2005.
Red-crowned parrots, green parakeets, red-lored parrots,
yellow-headed parrots, and lilac-crowned parrots, also native to
Mexico, have within the past six years formed colonies in the Rio
While the others probably are descended from birds who
escaped from smugglers, the red-crowned parrots may have migrated
north from nesting colonies known to have existed along the Rio
Conchos, 183 miles south of Harlingen, Texas.
In any event, parrots have escaped from smugglers for
decades. Only relatively recently have they found the North American