Ed Henry has been watching parrots for two years from his balcony in La Mesa. For reasons unknown to him, small flocks began paying visits to the 45-foot rubber tree that shades the entire east side of his house. Now, he can almost set a watch by their comings and goings. “Right on time,” Henry says as a trio of bright green birds lands in the uppermost branches above the roof. “They eat the berries that the tree produces. And I’m sure they feel secure up there.” It is 5 p.m. on the nose.
No one knows for sure how they got here, but non-native exotic green parrots have occupied California for so long now — more than 50 years, by some accounts — they are considered by Fish and Wildlife to be naturalized. They live here in increasing numbers, and their squawking sounds like coughing or bird laughter, depending on where you line up with their presence.
Henry observes the birds from a small bedroom patio (a ledge, really)that juts out two dizzying stories above ground level. It’s like being in a tree house. (Most of the homes on his side of the street are built on a down-slope.) The thin patio boards creak and bend under our combined weight. A visitor tests the handrails. They seem secure enough.
“They’re a mixed flock. They might even be hybridized.” Henry, who serves as president of the San Diego chapter of the Audubon Society, has identified the birds as being both red-masked parakeets (also known as cherry-headed or red-headed conures) and mitred parakeets (or conures). Parakeet seems to be something of a misnomer, since these birds are large. Henry points out how to tell the difference between the two mostly green birds. The red-masked possess the reddest coloration on their heads, while the mitreds have patchy red crowns and a few red feathers on their wing covers.
“You see flights of 6, and you see flights of 30. They group together for a few moments and then they split apart for whatever reason. It’d be interesting to see if we could put a little GPS locator on one and follow it around town and see where it goes.”
Henry suggests I speak with San Diego Field Ornithologists. They may have more field information, he says, regarding our naturalized parrot species. “But it seems they have a certain disdain for these birds. Maybe because they’re not recognized by the ABA as residents.” (The American Birding Association caters to recreational birders and supports bird-habitat conservation.)
Do the parakeets ever roost (sleep) up here in Ed Henry’s giant rubber tree? Do they nest and produce offspring here?
“I’ve never seen it. But I have seen roosting in the palms along Fresno Avenue in the [La Mesa] Village.” A king bird’s distinctive call rakes the afternoon air. A hummingbird dive-bombs the parrots once, then gives up. This is mocking bird country: has Henry witnessed any resistance to the parrots — and the parakeets — from others of East County’s native and migratory wild bird populations?
“I’ve seen stand-offs between the crows and the parrots,” he says, “large flocks of each. Mostly, they just yell at each other.” Henry, a former professor of anthropology, retired from San Diego State University in 2004. He and his wife have lived in the same house overlooking La Mesa to the north and Spring Valley to the east for going on 25 years. Birding, he says, is a fairly recent avocation. “I started in 2007.”
Then, one of the birds begins feeding a smaller bird with a series of convulsive beak-to-beak spasms as if jackhammering food into the younger bird’s throat. It seems a tremendous effort. “A lot of the psittacine [Latin for parrot family] species are monogamous]. He offers me a look through his field glasses. “I’ve never seen them stick around when they weren’t eating the berries.” The birds in Henry’s tree do not appear to be the least bit timid. “It’s funny,” he says about their apparent tranquility in the relatively close proximity to humans who are staring at them, “they seem like happy birds.”
At the end of our time together, we stand out front in the street for a few minutes comparing notes on parrot sightings and locations and such. He tells me about a “pet” crow that used to steal cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. Suddenly, the parakeets in his rubber tree take wing and vanish into the breeze in a raucous outburst.
“That’s always how they leave” he says. It is a sudden and very noisy exit. “Maybe my voice was too loud.”
The Parrot Scientist
“The first thing neighbors give you is their version of how the parrots got here.” Karen Mabb is one of a handful of scientists who have spent an appreciable amount of time studying the naturalized flocks in Southern California, which means spending time in their preferred habitat: the suburbs. “No,” she says, “I did not hide out in trees. I walked through neighborhood streets with my spotting scope and a camera, and I wore a field vest and a field hat. I’m sure the parrots became habituated to me. I looked for parrots during the day to find out where they foraged, nested, and so on. I walked, because I didn’t drive then. I am a partially sighted person. I was 35 when I got my first car.”
Mabb, 41, is a biologist by training who works as an ecologist for the U.S. Navy. She now lives in Vista. She thinks she may have logged thousands of hours looking at parrots. “I went out a couple times a week between 1995 and 2003. The parrots flew by in the morning. I’d come home, have dinner, the parrots would fly over again, and I would know it was time to go to the roost. I’ve done parrot field-work across the country,” she says, including time spent studying thick-billed Amazons in Mexico. “The irony is that most parrot species in the wild are threatened or endangered, yet, here in our urban jungles,” Mabb says, meaning the fruited backyards of suburbia, “parrots are flourishing.”
The scientific literature that exists on Southern California’s parrot populations documents their appearance in Los Angeles County going back as early as the 1960s. Eventually, Mabb and her fellow researchers recorded at least 13 species of tropical parrots that have traded the homeland jungles of Mexico and Central and South America for the West Coast of California. They include blue-crowned conures (some may recall that a blue-crowned conure nicknamed Connor starred in a 2003 documentary called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) lilac-crowned Amazons, cherry-headed conures, mitred conures, red-crowned Amazons, and yellow-headed Amazons, which may have been the first species to naturalize in Southern California. “A big fire in Pasadena,” Mabb says, “resulted in the release of several yellow-headed Amazons.”
On November 30, 1959, the Pasadena Star News reported that Simpson’s Garden and Pet Store did indeed catch fire. An employee named Paul Everett, 22 at the time, was overcome by smoke while attempting to save some caged birds. He was taken to an area hospital. He survived the fire, but upwards of 70 birds (mostly parakeets, according to the Star News) did not. Everett did manage to save Poncho, the garden center’s parrot mascot, but any other parrots that were released into those smoke-filled skies that day have become the stuff of legend over the years, a sort of California parrot creation myth that sometimes has the firemen themselves opening cages and setting birds free in the retelling of it.
“Now, those yellow-headeds [in Pasadena] are gone, and there are red-crowned and lilac-crowned Amazons in their place. And these are not migratory birds.” So why and how did they get here? Not under their own power, Mabb says. Nor due to habitat destruction or tropical storms or global warming: Mabb correlated the growing accumulation of wild parrots in California with the numbers of parrots that were being imported for the cage-bird trade. She saw a simultaneous increase in both. The Amazons in our skies, says Mabb, are not domesticated pets, but wild-caught birds with intact survival instincts, some of which were turned loose or escaped.
“The parrots are here as a consequence of our collective human culture. That is what I studied. We are changing our world on a massive ecological scale, and it has evolutionary implications,” of which Mabb reduces to two words: “biotic homogenization. Humans have removed a lot of barriers to animal dispersal, resulting in a shuffling of the ecological web house-of-cards, if you will. Most parrots are losers in their native habitat, and only some parrots are winners in our human-modified habitat.”
At present, wild red-crowned Amazons may number less than 2000 in their original home range of northeastern Mexico. They live in greater number here as well as in parts of Texas, Florida, and Hawaii, where the parrots have also naturalized. “The flock of red-crowned Amazons in Pasadena is close to 4000 birds,” she says. She thinks that as many as 1000 of them may be juveniles from that year’s hatch.
Naturalized parrots in California are considered non-threatened, according to Fish and Wildlife, because they typically nest in or consume non-native ornamental plantings throughout the region. Likewise, there is no agricultural damage on record as having been inflicted by the parrots.
“As an ecologist, I can’t advocate promoting introduced species, but human exploitation is the reason parrots are here. That’s also a large contributor to why parrots are disappearing from their native habitats. I personally like parrots, so I don’t encourage people to collect parrots.” She says she has seen poachers lifting chicks out of the nest. “It’s very unfair to the parrots — they are wild animals.”
There is no accurate head-count to date, Mabb says, of the numbers of parrots that live in San Diego County. Gary Nunn has an idea as to why the poverty of information exists on the local flocks. “They’ll die out. They’ve been regarded as cage-birds that escaped. That’s always been the attitude from academia and birders,” he says. Nunn is vice president of the San Diego Field Ornithologists. He lives in Pacific Beach, is 46, and works as a scientist in the field of genetics. He is quite aware of the parrots, and agrees with the designation of “naturalized.” “For them to be considered as a native species,” he says, “we’d want to see more scientific papers and an increase in parrot numbers from breeding here.”
Mabb says the various flocks here are species-specific, meaning the different varieties don’t mix. “There are maybe a half-dozen flocks total in San Diego.” She thinks that red-masked and blue-crowned parakeets inhabit Ocean Beach and Point Loma. In La Mesa, large flocks of red-masked and mitred parakeets are seen regularly. At Point Loma Nazarene University, Mabb says blue-crowned and mitred parakeets roost, and lilac-crowned and red-crowned Amazons swirl about Lakeside and El Cajon. Mabb knows of a new flock of red-crowned Amazons starting in Oceanside. She thinks the birds are here to stay.
“As long as we have parrots and an urban forest, they’ll persist. The ecological opportunity is here. And parrots can live for a long time. More than 70 years, in some cases, which means that some of those birds flying around here today could be the original escapees.”
The Parrot Man
“I know who let those birds loose, those parrots. It was, like, oh, maybe 40, 48 years ago.” Colin Cable sits in a van parked near the library in Lakeside with a woman he later identifies as his daughter. He speaks in halting sentences and scratches at his memory to put together matters of concern, such as street names and addresses. He may not remember exact coordinates, but he says he can lead a visitor to places of interest, such as where parrots roost. He’s been monitoring the local Amazons for decades, he says.
“It was Rios Canyon,” he thinks, turning the word “Rios” around and around in his mouth. “Out where Harbison Canyon is.” He is certain that’s where at least one flock of parrots got transplanted from Mexico to El Cajon.
“A friend of mine had a pick-up truck full of wild-caught parrots he’d brought back over the border. Somewhere along the way, coming through Harbison Canyon, he saw a Fish and Game truck and he thought they were gonna bust him with those birds, so he pulled off the road, and he just let them go. Turned them all loose. He had a truckload of them, maybe 50 parrots, in a big chicken cage. They were wild; they weren’t pets. He told me he was gonna breed them or something, but I don’t think he knew too much about birds.”
Cable’s life has intertwined with nature in unusual ways. He once lived with a pet skunk that he reared from an orphaned kit. “It slept in bed with me. I had to trim the nails because it dug in my sheets.” He’s a grandfather, tatted and pierced, works odd jobs for coin, and says that he is a watcher of all birds, and not just parrots. “I caught a handful of baby quail once. They’re an inch tall, and they come out fully dressed just like their parents. I sat in a bush and I made a sound just like a mother quail, and they came right up to me. My brother had a laying hen that took care of them.” He’s nurtured baby barn owls, he says, and once, he did the same for a red-tail hawk that he found injured by a roadside. He has also kept naturalized parrots as pets.
Cable explains that he captured some of the local red-crowned Amazons via the use of a homemade trap. “I made it so they could walk in but not get back out again. I put a tape-recording I made of parrots inside the trap, and some decoys. I made the decoys myself out of styrofoam and painted them green. I found some parrot feathers and I used them, too. The decoys looked just like red-crowned Amazons when I was finished. I’d go to people’s houses and ask if I could use their tree for my trap. ‘No — leave those birds alone!’” he mimics admonishment. “But some people don’t like them. They’re noisy. But you get a couple of tame ones? They don’t make all that noise like the wild ones do. In the wild, that’s how they talk to each other.”
Does he have any captive parrots at present? “No,” he says, “I’m too busy.” But if he happens to locate a bonded pair within reach, he hopes to settle them into an aviary and sell their offspring to supplement his livelihood. He’s done it before. “One time, a friend of mine, he knew a guy in Florida that owned a pirate ship, the kind where he’d take tourists out and sail around. And he wanted a tame parrot, like a pirate had, so I sold him one of my babies for $150. He used that parrot in an advertisement and he made T-shirts with its picture. He sent me and my kids some of those T-shirts when he got back to Florida. I’ll bet he’s still got that parrot. Some of them live longer than people do.”
Naturalized parrots are not sheltered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, nor are the federal protections granted to the variety of Amazons that have taken up residence in California. Mexico claims 22 species of parrots, for the record. There, all but 2 are listed as being at risk; 6 are endangered, 10 are threatened, and 4 are under special protection due to loss of habitat and illegal trapping for the pet trade. Aside from a U.S. Fish and Game provision that prohibits the disruption of select birds while nesting (chickens being an obvious exception to the rule, for example) naturalized parrots are fair game from a legal standpoint.
Until 2003, they were fair game in Mexico as well. That was the first year no permits were issued in an attempt to put the brakes on a national policy that saw the trapping of about 80,000 parrots a year. The ban was lifted in 2006, according to a comprehensive report titled “The Illegal Parrot Trade in Mexico,” published by Defenders of Wildlife in January 2007. The report describes a cartel-like parrot business:
Most bird trappers in Mexico are organized and form unions of capturers, bird salesmen, transporters, and breeders. According to the government’s environmental ministry, there are six registered unions. These unions have existed for many years and are generally not democratic, being in control of their founders and their associates. Some of them control the illegal trade of birds at the markets, like the Sonoran market in Mexico City.
The red-crowned Amazons in Cable’s first breeding project were purchased in Tijuana. “A couple of young ones. I had them tamed in the time it took me to get from the border to back home. I have a thing with animals. My mom wanted me to be a veterinarian.” So, what became of the pair of breeders? “Shit happens,” is all he will say about it.
“I’ve found parrot nests here in palm trees,” Cable says. “And they’ll use old woodpecker nests, too. That’s a small hole, but they just squeeze right in. I found a nest one time and waited for when they had babies. I could hear them chirping in there, but I couldn’t get my hand in. My hands are pretty big.” Cable reveals some of the parrot roosts he knows of, then thinks better of it and asks in a roundabout way not to disclose them in print. A majority of the roosts he identifies are nestled in the small forests of old-growth trees that shade the trailer parks that dot the urban landscapes of El Cajon and Lakeside. But the parrots actually come and go throughout the county at will, and he thinks he knows why.
“I live by Lake Jennings. I see different Amazons out here — blue-crowned. There’s a group of them, eight or ten. They hang around here during a certain time of the year.” Why? “There’s pecan trees.” Cable says the Lakeside parrot flocks are beginning to thin out now. “I go up a dirt road — I don’t remember the name of it — it goes up off the 67 toward San Vicente Lake. There’s a little pond I go fishin’ at, and they haven’t come over for a couple of days. I think they’re working east. They start out at Point Loma. I’ve been workin’ out there, and I’ve seen the same flock in people’s front yards feeding. I’ve noticed that things — plants, trees — bloom in different areas at different times. The parrots,” Cable says in the tone of a man stating the obvious, “they’re going for food.”
“We could be the future of these species,” Brooke Durham says, gently working a plastic syringe full of viscous green fluid into the beak of a bulbous, flapping parrot hatchling covered in white fuzz. “These parrots are disappearing in their native habitats from habitat destruction and exploitation by the pet trade.” It follows that parrots and modern suburbia do not always shade imperceptibly into each other. The disgruntled have been known to shoot at them. Occasionally, common pesticides do a parrot in. They are sometimes clipped by cars, ambushed by cats and hawks and dogs, or are pilfered from nests and sold into the pet trade.
“This kind’s worth $300,” says Durham, pointing to a red-masked conure waddling about on a desk in front of her, wanting to help out with the feeding of the hatchling. “Red-crowned Amazons sell for $400, and these,” she says, indicating a lilac-crowned Amazon perched on her shoulder, “these sell for $600. There’s videos all over YouTube of people putting up ladders and robbing nests. To some people, these birds are free money.”
Durham founded SoCal Parrot and runs it out of her family home in the San Diego suburb of Jamul. She describes her operation as the only feral-parrot rehab facility in California. “The first parrots that I took in were Hilo and his sister Kona [Durham’s names] in May of 2007, Amazon chicks that a storm had blown out of a palm-tree nest in the Spring Valley area.” A tiled room addition at the back of Durham’s large split-level home serves as a recovery room for injured parrots. A pair of miniature chickens patrols the floor. Durham admits to having allowed the little rooster to sleep in bed with her on its own pillow as a sort of guard-dog whenever her husband Josh was away on business. She produces a handful of custom-fitted chicken diapers when a visitor inquires about the species’ untidy nature.
Durham is an artist. Pinkish streaks highlight her otherwise blond hair. She sips from a can of soda as she introduces various birds by a name often associated with the mishap that brought them to her. Sparky, for example, is an Amazon whose feathers were all blown off in an encounter with a power line. They have since grown back. Behind the house, a breezy, protected flight cage nearly a quarter the length of a football field houses a couple dozen rehabbed Amazons deemed ready for release into the manicured wilds of San Diego.
Interview with Brooke Durham of SoCal Parrot in San Diego County
An interview with Brooke Durham of SoCal Parrot, a rescue and rehabilitation organization. Featuring footage and discussion of the flight cage, nutrition, communication and flock behavior, and rehabilitation/release.
“We’re not quite sure how to do that yet,” Durham admits. “There’s been no protocol established.” She’s thinking they’ll have it worked out for a release during the spring of 2014. Inside the house the air-conditioner is cranked on high against the East County heat. Durham’s husband Josh is here along with half a dozen volunteers. Some wear T-shirts inscribed with a mission statement: A fledgling non-profit dedicated to the protection, rescue, and rehabilitation of Southern California’s naturalized parrots. The birds inside (and there are many) call out, shriek, whistle, or make random noises in hopes of gaining human attention. Sometimes it pays off and a parrot is allowed to join the humans gathered around a dining table. Durham serves pizza and salad and rigatoni. “Nobody leaves my house hungry,” she says. Traces of a Kentucky accent curl around her words. It seems a blaze of activity, this volunteer group and their rescue birds, but this isn’t really the busy time, Durham says, not by a long shot.
“With the Amazons, we see babies coming in from May through July. They taper off in August.” Parrot chicks that fall from nests or are otherwise displaced need hand-rearing in order to survive, she says. “Then, we see injured young adults come in from October through December.” Most of her bird patients need subcutaneous fluids to combat dehydration, a mild pain medication, and a controlled environment in order to stabilize, she says. Durham is neither a veterinarian nor a registered veterinary technician. She is a former Project Wildlife volunteer, in the service of which she learned the bulk of her avian-rehab technique. “Dr. Christi Garfinkel is our overseeing veterinarian. She serves on our board of directors, and she reviews our protocols and consults before medication is administered.”
How many volunteers help at SoCal Parrot?
“Right now? About 12.”
How many does Durham need?
A component of SoCal Parrot’s mission is education. “We need to get our literature translated into Spanish so that we can distribute it to the tree trimmers.” She says that trade in particular is hard on nesting parrots. She says most locals are accepting of the parrots, even if they are noisy and decimate the flowers or fruits growing on their ornamental trees. Has SoCal Parrot encountered any haters? Yes. “One guy at the La Mesa Days Street Fair was drunk, standing there at our booth making comments. He wanted to know how to get rid of the parrots.” She told him it would be easier for him to move.
“Palm trees are the reason Amazons survive here; the palm trees’ fruit, and Canary Island date palms are one of their favorites to nest in.” The naturalized conures, she says, are another story entirely. “They like to nest in structures, like houses. If there’s a vent or an opening under the roof line, that’s like the holy grail for them.”
Durham has no clear idea how much it costs to run SoCal Parrot. For now, it’s all out-of-pocket — meaning hers and her husband’s. She says they are ready to accept donations. “We got our non-profit status in April.” Good timing: news of the Jamul parrot rescue is getting around. “The Orange County animal shelter is referring parrots to us now. We go up there and get them.”
The heat bears down hard on an evening in Lakeside. A dusty pitbull is loose and running about, thereby preventing a park ranger from closing Lindo Lakes for the night. The ranger produces a leash. The dog barks at the sight of it, then joins a visitor under the shade of a live oak and drools while the ranger dials Animal Control on his cell. The dog barks some more. Presently, a man appears across the street and whistles the pit back home. Crisis averted.
Standing under a pocket of shade trees on the back side of the American Legion meeting hall, facing the green lake water, Karen Straus doesn’t necessarily look like the kind of person who would jump in the ocean and film humpback whales, but she is. “I worked as a field producer, writer, and photographer for nature-television documentary programming, mostly for the Discover Channel. I specialized in underwater documentaries. We were the last of the blue-chip two-hour specials. Then it went to more of the reality TV, with personalities handling the animals.”
A New York transplant, she is now retired and lives in University City with her husband. Straus was in charge of running the Audubon Society’s annual bird festival. She is a birder by avocation and still shoots wildlife photos. As such, Straus has been following parrots around San Diego and as far away as Texas. “I love bird photography.”
It turns out that a substantial flock of Amazon parrots inhabit Lakeside, says Straus, for the variety of edibles that grow in neighborhood backyards: pecan, various stone fruits, and berries. Lindo Lakes, she says, is where the parrots congregate in the morning and again at day’s end before breaking off in smaller flocks and flying away to their roosts.
Throughout the weeks leading up to our meeting at the lake, Straus has been emailing parrot-sightings in La Mesa and Lakeside. In turn, I sent her back some coordinates of my own: “5:45 p.m.: small group screeches unseen from inside the fans of a palm tree near La Mesa Blvd. 6:30 p.m.: 50 or so very loud cherry-headed conures commandeer a tree on 3rd Street.” Straus and I are following the flocks; we are parrot-chasing, as she and other birders and wildlife photographers call it.
Wild parrots in Lakeside with birder Karen Straus
Bird aficionado Karen Straus discusses and demonstrates the spotting scope/iPhone technology that she uses to photograph wild parrots and other birds, and discusses her observations of wild parrot behavior.
“Sounds like parrots,” Straus says in Lakeside, across the street from some tall eucalyptus in front of a seedy apartment building. “A few. Not as many as yesterday morning. My impression is that they stage here, that there’s a nesting spot not that far away in El Cajon. I have seen them feeding here occasionally, depending on what’s blooming. Yesterday, I saw about 50 of them, and they appeared to be resting. Then they headed off to an area where I understand that there are some pecan trees. It’s a road that runs out to San Vicente Reservoir. Oh — there went a green flash, up in the tree there. There you go — that’s a parrot squawk.”
Straus is tall and willowy, dressed from an REI catalog in sage-green brush attire and those all-terrain sandals, and scans the surrounding trees through a small pair of field glasses that dangle from a cord around her neck. “I look for them by sound first. I always hear them before I see them.” A silent parrot is all but impossible to see in the canopy. “When they don’t want to be seen, they sure aren’t going to be.” Straus is right. Save for the random outbursts, the parrots above blend with the foliage.
“Amazons: what we’re seeing here at Lindo Lake are red-crowned and lilac-crowned Amazons — a medium-sized parrot.” She has a tip that the parrots roost in El Cajon. We take separate cars. “This would be a good time to roost up. These guys are chattering,” she says, “and probably heading to roost.”
Straus has photographed parrots across the country. “One of the most fun events I ever went on was a parrot chase in Texas as part of their Rio Grande birding festival. All of the locals in town would radio in sightings of where the parrots were going and looking like they were getting ready to roost for the night.”
She stops talking abruptly and points: “Whoo, a low flyer,” she says when a parrot swoops a few feet overhead and banks up hard to join the others in the trees we’ve been observing across the street.
Back to Texas: “The coordinates would be radioed in. We had these 12-passenger white chase vans and we would roar out to the sighting place. Everybody would jump out of the vans and then the parrots would come flowing overhead and land on telephone wires. We just had an amazing spectacle at sunset with five or six different species, hundreds of parrots all chattering on the telephone wires until they settled in a tree or a light tower nearby.”
On the way out to El Cajon, we spot a low-flying flock of parrots that alights atop the power lines at Julian Avenue and Caraway Street, just behind Lindo Lakes. There are at least 50 of them. They make an astonishing racket. The late-afternoon sun fires the rich greens and reds of their plumage. Suddenly, the entire flock plunges into silence: Straus has retrieved her Nikon D300 from the backseat of her car and is now pointing a long black lens at them. She looks at the parrots. Almost all 50 of them look back at her. Straus giggles. This has happened before.
“Most of my pictures are in-flight shots. The parrots are very fast,” she says from behind the camera. “They’re so curious. They’re looking at us while we’re looking at them.” She identifies these birds in particular as red-crowned Amazons. Julian Avenue at this time of day is fairly busy. Some of the parrots drop from the wire and swoop to near-ground level, then flap deliriously close to danger only feet ahead of passing cars before they pick up speed again and gain altitude. Straus is right. These parrots are fast.