Wild Monks

Wild Monks

Sometime around 1970, a crate, or perhaps it was a cage, shipped from somewhere in South America, landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Inside were monk parakeets, bright green birds native to the savannahs and scrubland of Paraguay and Argentina. Mobsters may have popped the lid to inspect the goods, expecting fine wine or rare art, a baggage handler could have dropped the cargo, or the container may have been cracked or broken to begin with, no one knows for sure. But somehow the parakeets got out, and in certain communities they continue to cause a fracas.

Justin Nobel
Published: 12/04/2008

Sometime around 1970, a crate, or perhaps it was a cage, shipped from somewhere in South America, landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Inside were monk parakeets, bright green birds native to the savannahs and scrubland of Paraguay and Argentina. Mobsters may have popped the lid to inspect the goods, expecting fine wine or rare art, a baggage handler could have dropped the cargo, or the container may have been cracked or broken to begin with, no one knows for sure. But somehow the parakeets got out, and in certain communities they continue to cause a fracas.

Today, monk parakeets have colonies from Connecticut to California. Their twig nests, known as “stick condominiums,” can weigh 300 pounds and are commonly found on transformer boxes atop telephone and power poles. Utility companies claim the nests are a fire hazard and have systematically removed them in some neighborhoods. In southern Connecticut, displaced birds were euthanized, causing outcry from parrot advocacy groups like Massachusetts-based Foster Parrots. Stamford, Conn. has installed a series of manmade platforms to replace the ball field lights where the birds once nested. Monks have moved into two of the platforms, according to a recent local newspaper article.


Monk parakeets are smaller than a pigeon but build nests that can weigh up to 300 pounds. (Photos courtesy of Steve Baldwin).

Monks are non-native, which means they have no special protections guaranteeing their safety. In fact, a special permit is needed just to handle monks in New Jersey, where the birds were banned in 1971 in anticipation of crop raids—the attacks never materialized. Just next door, in New York, it’s legal to have the birds as pets, and many do. Parrot popularity is problematic, says Karen Windsor, the Executive Director of Foster Parrots. They are messy, loud, aggressive and wilder than most people expect. “People have an idea that they’re going to get this really amazing and entertaining piece of furniture,” said Windsor. “But the truth is these are 100 percent wild animals.”

Her group’s aviary holds more than 400 parrots, including rescued monks and former pets. Parrots also last longer than many owners anticipate; macaws can live for more than a century. “You’re dog will die in 12 years, your children grow up and move out, you divorce your partner after 25 years, but your parrot is going to outlive you,” said Windsor.

John Bull, an ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History, examined the monks that escaped from Kennedy Airport in a 1973 paper entitled “Exotic Birds in the New York City Area.” He describes their giant nests, which can host a dozen pairs, each with separate quarters and entranceway, and notes the birds’ lovely coloration —“The tail is bluish-green, the bill pinkish-cinnamon, the small eyes black, and the legs and feet gray.”

Bull he also meticulously lists New York nest sites: “On a steel beam of the club house at the south end of the grandstand at Aqueduct race track in Queens, Long Island; in a smashed glass globe of a floodlight used to illuminate Cleopatra’s Needle behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City’s Central Park; on an abandoned metal crane on Riker’s Island in the East River between the Bronx and Queens; and last but not least—nearly 100 feet up on the steel platform of a United States Coast Guard microwave tower at Fort Tilden, Rockaway Beach, Long Island!”

Recently, New York City’s monks have been spotted in cemeteries and parks. Several times a year enthusiast Steve Baldwin leads free tours to the more accessible sites. Groups typically consist of 10-15 people, some traveling from as far as Montreal. “Most people have never seen wild parrots,” said Baldwin. “You look up there and you see these green heads popping up and they just look down at you and they are yelling and hollering, even the more cynical people say, ‘My god, there is a whole community of Argentine parrots living here!’”

Steve Baldwin’s next “Wild Brooklyn Parrot Safari” is Saturday, Dec. 6, at 11 a.m. See his website for directions: http://www.brooklynparrots.com/.

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