Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Rise & Fall of Wild Parakeets in Oregon

Did you know there used to be feral parakeets in Oregon? Between 1982 and 2003, there were regular sightings in Oregon, though never very many.* The species was a South American native known as the monk or Quaker parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus). 

We used to worry about monk parakeets becoming an agricultural pest here. In South America, large flocks can damage fruits and grains, and we have plenty of fruit and grain crops in Oregon. Monk parakeet populations were increasing exponentially in the United States until 2003.*
These beautiful birds make huge communal nests. At one time, up to 24 parakeets were living in nests at Portland International Airport (PDX) near the cargo terminal. They were fun to watch and a hit at nearby bird feeders. One of the staff members told me someone had rescued a baby parakeet that had fallen out of the nest; they had taken it home for a pet. The family had a newborn infant, and the parakeet quickly learned to imitate the baby’s cry. It was driving the parents crazy because they couldn’t distinguish the baby’s cry from the bird’s imitation, so they re-released it back into the wild!

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) debated whether or not to take action. In general, eradicating a new potential pest before it gets permanently established is a good policy. Birds, however, were not our normal business. Over the years, we’ve learned that when in doubt, do a risk assessment. So we did. In fact, a risk assessment of monk parakeets was one of the fist risk assessment ODA ever conducted: The conclusion in 2003 was that the risk was moderate—with a very high level of uncertainty. It was also clear from a review of the literature that people love these birds, and control programs tend to meet fierce resistance from the public. We decided to watch and wait.

It was the right decision. A decade ago, there were two sites with active nests: PDX and Scio. The colonies hung on for several years, then died out or moved out on their own. There hasn’t been a monk parakeet sighted in Oregon on the Audubon Society Christmas bird count since 2006. 

The national picture has also changed. Importation, once unrestricted, is now regulated, and this species is no longer important in the pet trade. Feral populations peaked around 2004 and have been declining ever since. There are still plenty in Florida and other warmer states, though they haven’t become the plague that some people predicted.

An interesting wrinkle in this story is that there used to be a native parakeet in the Southeast. The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinesis) went extinct in the early part of the last century. No one is quite sure why, but it was heavily hunted for its decorative feathers. It could be that monk parakeets are refilling that empty niche.

Even though the parakeet nests in Oregon have been abandoned, you don’t have to go far to see feral parakeets—there is an active nest now in Yacolt, WA. If you go to check them out and one of them cries like a baby, you’ll know where it came from.

Dan Hilburn

*Butler, C. 2003. Species Status Review: Monk Parakeets in Oregon. Oregon Birds 29(2):97-100.

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