Urban Invaders: Monk Parakeets

SANTIAGO – If legendary film director and producer Sir Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, he might be inspired to remake The Birds and trade Bodega Bay’s seagulls for Santiago’s monk parakeets. The monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus), also known as the Quaker parrot, is one of the best “talking” parrots, which makes it a beloved pet. It is also one of the most troublesome invasive birds, which makes it a detested pest.

It is believed that these gregarious invaders got their first foothold in Chile in 1972, when private citizens released some in eastern Santiago. Chile’s Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero (responsible for protecting agriculture and livestock) says that the initial naturalized colony was established in Santiago’s La Reina district in the early 1980s.

Thereafter, the birds gradually colonized neighboring districts; in addition, thousands were legally imported from Argentina and Uruguay for the pet trade, and this almost certainly resulted in other intentional releases or escapes.

Declared harmful and banned as an import in 1997

In 1997, Chile declared the species harmful and banned its importation, but by then the birds were firmly established in many of Santiago’s eastern districts and rapidly spreading elsewhere. Since then, the parrot population has only continued to grow and extend its range throughout central Chile.

The parrots are also now firmly-established in parts of North America, Southern Europe, and Asia. They show no signs of retreat—only advancement.

How a ‘thrifty Hollander’ introduced California quail to Chile over 150 years ago

Threats to other birds

The parrots can severely impact native birds. Among other reasons:

  • They multiply quickly. They lay up to a dozen eggs at a time, and breeding pairs can produce as many as six clutches per year.
  • They are aggressive, territorial, and dominate the avian food supply. They will even kill other birds to keep them away from food sources.
  • They can also spread diseases that are fatal to native birds.
In San Miguel Park, Santiago / Chile Today

Threats to humans

The parrots also affect humans. Significantly:

  • They form large flocks that can damage fruit and grain crops and ornamentals. In neighboring Argentina, for example, they reportedly cause over US $1 billion per year in crop damage.
  • Some of the diseases they spread can also affect poultry.
  • Many consider their boisterous and incessant chatter an aggravating noise pollution.
  • They are also a potential vector for diseases that affect humans. In a recently-published parasitic survey, the authors emphasized that “[t]his study provides the first description of Cryptosporidium sp. in monk parakeets” and that “[a]long with the presence of a mesostigmatid acarus [mite] in one parakeet, this serves as a public health warning, given that both of these parasites have zoonotic potential [i.e., the ability to spread from animals to humans].” The authors also concluded that “complete surveillance of pathogens in this bird and subsequent risk analyses are warranted for the sake of public health.”

Nest negatives

The most characteristic thing about the species, its nest, presents additional problems.

Parakeet nest / Chile Today

Breeding pairs usually nest together, creating massive multichambered stick nests in or on, trees and manmade structures, such as communication towers, utility poles, electrical transformers and substations, church steeples, and fire escapes.

Sometimes the nests become so heavy that they cause the supporting structure to bend, break, or collapse; and, where electrical structures are involved, the dangers also include fires and power outages. A common 2-20 chamber nest can weigh several (or even tens of) kilograms, and an exceptionally large nest might contain 200 or more nesting chambers and weigh over 1,100 kg.

Keys to their “colonial” success

In addition to being territorial and prolific breeders, the parrots’ penchant for open areas also facilitates their easy spread across urban and suburban landscapes.

The parrots’ nests also free them from the tree cavity dependence that limits other parrot types and keep them warm. In North America, for example, they survive winter temperatures as low as -33º C.

Finally, the parrots, themselves, have evolved an ability to tolerate temperature extremes.

It is therefore no stretch to say that if legendary film director and producer Sir Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, he might very well be inspired to remake The Birds and trade Bodega Bay’s seagulls for Santiago’s monk parakeets.

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