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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews

Weekend Edition: “Friends of Animals” Have an Appetite for Destruction

Long-time readers may have gathered that I’m a bird-watcher, a serious one.

But I’ve only half-followed a controversy between our local utility, United Illuminating, which wants to get rid of stray monk parakeets and their large nests for the sake of maintaining the power lines, and the so-called “Friends of Animals,” a Darien, Connecticut-based group trying to protect the squawking, bright green birds, for the sake of the birds.

Then last week Friends of Animals announced a lawsuit against UI in a press release containing the following language, which I am not making up: The suit claims that numerous other birds, including song sparrows, house finches and great horned owls, also use the parrot nests for shelter. “The presence of the Monk Parakeet, a strict herbivore, is a benign effect on other local species and may actually increase numbers and variety of wildlife in an otherwise ecologically barren urban environment,” the suit says. Now, I live in this “otherwise ecologically barren urban environment” described in the press release.

And in the past year I have witnessed—in the midst of this burned out holocaust of a region—the following wildlife in my yard: sparrows, finches, Goldfinches (both summer coats and winter coats), a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Carolina Wrens, Winter Wrens, a Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black and White Warblers, Yellow Warblers, Yellowthroats, Northern Flickers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Cedar Waxwings, doves, chickadees, and—just last week—a Red-Tailed Hawk perched eight feet away from me.

Quite a “barren urban environment”!

But that’s not the only bit of disinformation contained in the “Friends of Animals” press release. Let’s examine the nests themselves—described as “shelter” for native bird species—since the nests started the whole conflict with United Illuminating, which wants to kill the birds and eliminate the nests.

Monk parakeets build their nests on utility poles or high up in oak trees. The nests look like giant mutant squirrel condominiums. The parakeets build them stick-by-stick with small branches they find on the ground and carry to the nest in their large beaks.

Being made of sticks and being very big, a monk parakeet nest can weigh more than 400 pounds. I am not making that up.

Since native New England oak trees were not designed to carry 400 pound monk-parakeet nests on the ends of their branches, the nests routinely break off the oak trees and fall in a huge clump to the sidewalk or the road. (The birds favor utility poles as well as trees along roads, rather than deep in woods, for reasons that likely relate to their eating habits.)

I have hauled more than one broken nest off the road beneath a parakeet-inhabited tree a few blocks from our house during early-morning walks, and they are an engineering marvel: more than a yard wide and two or three feet high, they look like an ant-hill made of sticks. Tunnels run deep inside them, protecting the birds from harsh New England winters—which is why there is such a thing as a monk parakeet population 5,000 miles from their native sub-tropical habitat in South America.

As for the “Friends of Animals” claim that the nests are used by other birds, such as “song sparrows, house finches and great horned owls,” I’m guessing that “Friends of Animals” just made that up.

Anybody who knows anything about birds knows that no two types of birds build the same type of nests. The really obsessive birder can identify not just birds, but bird nests. I know about this unfortunate obsession, because I own a book about bird nests.

The finches and sparrows identified as users of parakeet nests do not shelter in giant stick tunnels. They build loose, spherical nests from grass and twigs, with a soft inner lining. They reuse the nests, rebuild them, and refit them season after season—like an old New England couple in a salt box colonial. And old New England couples don’t up and move into a McMansion just because one happens to become available.

Now, it is true that some birds occupy other bird nests. European Starlings, for example, (an aggressive, intrusive and destructive species brought here by a “Friends of Animals” type group dedicated to—and I am not making this up—introducing to America all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare) evict native woodpeckers from their nests.

Great Horned Owls—mentioned in the press release as possible parakeet nest-renters—sometimes occupy nests of herons and other birds. Therefore it would be possible that a Great Horned Owl might be interested in a monk parakeet nest, except for the fact that horned owls do not climb through tunnels. Owls perch on branches because they eat living things: they do not sleep in caves and emerge to feast on seeds, like parakeets.

Besides, the notion that other birds might make use of a parakeet nest ignores the central fact of the issue: monk parakeets are highly aggressive and they flock together, like crows and starlings.

Anybody who has watched the parakeets drive away flickers, sparrows, chickadees, goldfinches and cardinals from a bird feeder knows that monk parakeets—colorful though they may be—are not “benign” as the press release claims.

They are, in fact, destructive—potentially with catastrophic effect. How, you might wonder, can a bunch of cute green parakeets be so destructive?

As the members of “Friends of Animals” appear not to realize, we have a beautiful native North American bird species that nests every summer in the very same type of oak trees the monk parakeets now monopolize.

These birds arrive from their winter feeding grounds in mid-April, roost high up in oak trees and build beautiful, simple nests out of the same sized oak-branches used by the monk parakeets. These birds are the size of hawks, only with elongated bodies and stick-legs. They nest so high, and keep so to themselves, that most people fail to notice them.

These birds mate, lay eggs and raise hatchlings which they feed regurgitated crabs picked out of Long Island Sound and the marshes nearby. The hatchlings grow over the summer into large, beautiful, birds. Late in the summer they all fly south, leaving behind a bowl-shaped nest of sticks high on an oak branch.

They are Yellow-crowned Night Herons. And Yellow-crowned Night Herons are infinitely more “colorful” and more “benign” and more integral to the Southern New England ecosystem than a bunch of squawking, intrusive parrots.

But because the monk parakeets favor the same oak trees used by the herons year after year, these herons may well, over time, be crowded out by a bunch of South American parrots released from home bird cages.

Back in the 1890’s, a bunch of well-meaning but badly informed Shakespeare admirers set loose 100 European Starlings in Central Park. There are now over 200 million starlings in North America—displacing hundreds of millions Blue Birds, Flickers and other native birds over the last century.

As a Friend of Birds, I’ll side with United Illuminating over “Friends of Animals” on this one. Get rid of the monk parakeets now, while we still can.

Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up © 2005 Jeff Matthews

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations.

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