Have you seen the Connecticut parrots?
Someone's pet got loose. That's what you might have thought the first time you were close to the Sound and caught a glimpse of brilliant green flitting through the trees or across the road-someone's pet parrot got loose and, if it's not found soon, it'll never last the winter.
Turns out, you'd be half right.
The shoreline has seen a steady increase in nesting groups of monk parakeets, Myiopsitta monachus, over the past decade. Originally from temperate regions in Argentina, the birds were heavily imported by the pet trade up through the 1960s as cheap and friendly pets and, though the theories for the exact mechanism range widely, enough got loose by the late '60s to establish wild flocks that now range from Maine to the Great Lakes to the West Coast.
From pet to the wild
Milan Bull, senior director of Science and Conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society, says stories ranging from truckloads of parakeets overturning to broken crates at JFK airport are all "more like urban legend" at this point, but what's clear is that "it started from the pet trade...maybe someone just opened a window and let their pet out."
Connecticut Audubon documented the first Connecticut nesting group of parakeets in Bridgeport in 1971 (those first five pairs shared their nest with an odd roommate-a great horned owl) and the hardy birds have steadily moved their way along the coastline. While the monks are well-documented from Rhode Island to Maine, in Connecticut they haven't yet passed the Connecticut River.
"They kind of skipped their way up the coast," says state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) wildlife biologist Jenny Dickson, whose agency has documented a few nests in the Old Saybrook town cemetery.
Noting that the monks originally were found in temperate as well as tropical areas of Argentina (the birds have since spread to most of South and Central America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Japan), Bull says the Connecticut shoreline provides everything the birds need to thrive-but those same factors are likely to limit their range.
"They exist way up in the Andes in the snowbelt; they don't just live in the tropics...I think the moderate temperatures and abundance of berries like beach berries and Rosa rugosa" on the shoreline allow them to thrive, Bull says, noting, "There's not much winter food for a monk parakeet in the Adirondacks."
The state is a little more concerned about the monks, however. While Connecticut Audubon classifies the birds as a non-native species, DEEP calls them an invasive, exotic species. Why invasive?
"Because they can grow (in population) at an exponential rate-that's why you turn around and notice that they're suddenly everywhere," Dickson notes.
Despite the invasive moniker, the birds don't appear to be affecting their neighbors in the way other invasive birds like mute swans or starlings have in the past.
"I haven't noted any direct impact on native birds-they're not cavity nesters, unlike almost all other parrot species," so they don't compete with cavity-dwelling birds like bluebirds or woodpeckers, Bull says.
Their nests-clusters of interwoven twigs (primarily built in evergreen trees) maintained by anywhere from one to five nesting pairs of birds-make the monk parakeet highly unusual in the parrot world; they may also be part of their success.
"Part of what helps them survive the winter is the year-round nest, which is uncommon for most birds," Dickson says.
Cause for concern
The nests, which can appear singly or in groups in one or more close-by trees, often have several, separate nest entries and serve as a center for close-knit groups of monks. The nests have also, notoriously, caused other concerns.
"They are controversial because a small number of them nest where they shouldn't nest," Bull says, noting that some parakeet colonies seem to prefer nesting on top of electrical transformers on utility poles.
CL&P spokesman Mitch Gross reports that, on the shoreline, problems have been "few and far between," though nests have caused powerline disruptions in "very scattered instances" and are handled on a case-by-case basis.
The problem does exist, however, and as the consequences of nesting can be severe-"People have had transformers catch fire and crash to the ground in front of their homes," Dickson reports-the solution is generally euthanizing the offending colony.
There are two observed behaviors for groups of monk parakeets, Dickson says: they either nest in utility poles or in trees. Because "you don't see a lot of movement from one group to another," removing a problem nest generally results in that group returning to utility poles, Dickson says.
While to date the monks haven't shown any strong environmental or economic impact, experts are keeping a close eye on the birds.
"In South America, they're incredible pests-thousands of parakeets will descend on a corn field" and destroy it, Bull says.
Dickson says DEEP is concerned for orchards and nurseries, as the birds' habit of pruning twigs to build nests could become an economic concern should the birds move inland, though there has only been one instance of crop damage reported in three decades.
So far, so good
To date, though, much of the controversy that followed the monk parakeets up the Gold Coast from New York seems to have skipped the shoreline. Here, they've been seen more as a beautiful-if noisy-curiosity. They've become a frequent visitor to local bird feeders, including those at the Audubon Shop in Madison.
"I like seeing them at the feeder," says Jerry Connolly, co-owner with his wife Janet of the Audubon Shop. "Some people don't like them because they're loud, but all parrots are loud."
The birds coming to Connolly's feeder are likely from a nest in the Madison Stop & Shop parking lot, or possibly from a well-established nest site in Hammonasset State Park, where Connolly leads regular birding tours-and yes, the parakeets have joined the list of hawks, sandpipers and seagulls as frequently spotted species on those tours. He's also traveled much further to spot the 'keets.
"It's kind of fun. We led a birding trip to Brazil, (where) we saw them in their natural habitat, where they're supposed to be," Connolly says.
Peoples' feelings about the monks tend to depend more on proximity than anything else, however.
"People really are of two opinions," Dickson says. "Generally, the people who have them (nesting) in their backyard aren't in favor of them. People who have them at their feeder or flying through their yard tend to enjoy them. It depends on how much you need to deal with the nuisance factor."
Because there are a often lot of birds in each nest, "You tend to have a lot of feathers, a lot of droppings, and a lot of noise," she continues.
Bull, whose descriptions of the birds show a certain admiration, also admits, "I'm not sure I'd want a nesting group right outside my bedroom window."
Love them, hate them, or undecided, shoreliners seem certain to have a chance to become more familiar with these gregarious green newcomers.
"They're here to stay for sure," Connolly says. "They get through these cold winters, they're not going anywhere."
DEEP is tracking inland progress of monk parakeets. To report a nest group farther inland, call 860-424-3011. To report an interference with a power line, call CL&P customer service at 800-286-2000 (UI customers call 800-722-5584).
Monk parakeet nests are hard to miss-some are built as large as a refrigerator. While they can be found in most shorefront communities, the nest group with the most visitors has to be the one in Hammonasset State Park. It's at the park's far western end-stop in at the camp office for directions.