Published Wednesday, Feb. 16
IN THE SPRING, A YOUNG MAN'S FANCY LIGHTLY TURNS TO THOUGHTS OF ... PSITTACIFORMS?
Q: Every Spring, I see parrots all over town near places like Hyde Park, Town Lake, and Seton Hospital. Are they native to Austin or just visiting? Did someone have them as a pet, then set them free?
A: The birds you are seeing are Monk Parakeets. These lime-green birds, also known as Quaker Parrots, have been in Austin for at least the last 20 years.
Although you might not see them during the winter, they are probably still in the area, living in the countryside and looking for food. They're native to places like Argentina, which can get pretty chilly, so they're well-adapted to cool weather.
You ask where they came from. Obviously, they came from mommy and daddy Monk Parakeets! But seriously, there seem to be two schools of thought. According to an urban myth, the birds came from a pair kept as pets. Perhaps it is due to an account on one Monk Parakeet web site, which quotes a July 1995 story by Austin American-Statesman writer Ricardo Gandara:
In a city known for producing fake rain (remember the sprinklers on MoPac near 35th Street?) and celebrating Spamarama, it should be no surprise that Janet Gilles can stand under a light pole on Town Lake and chirp without causing much of a fuss.
She calls out for monk parakeets seen grooming just before they leave their nests to eat. They chirp back.
Gilles released 19 monk parakeets, natives of Argentina, in March 1991 when they wore out their welcome as house pets.
But that doesn't explain the fact Monk Parakeets were seen in Austin before 1991. By the way, it is thought that the first Monk Parakeets in the United States may have come from an incident in 1967 at Kennedy Airport in New York City where crates carrying the birds broke and several escaped.
The first person in Austin to write extensively about Monk Parakeets seems to be Erik Huebner. He once wrote that Monk Parakeets were first spotted in Austin in the 1970s. Although his former UT Web site is down (guess he must have graduated!), you can still find it at the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. In 1996, he noted that there were about 100 Monk Parakeets living in six nesting sites:
When Schlotzsky's opened up at its 218 South Lamar location in 1995 (the site of a former Fresh Plus/Cash-Carry), they promoted the location as a place to watch parrots from the restaurant's outdoor deck. There have also been stories about a colony in the mid-1990s
at the Paggi House restaurant across Lamar from Schlotzsky's.
- Krieg Fields – (South Pleasant Valley Road by Longhorn Dam) – Largest colony – 14 nests!
- YMCA – Town Lake (Corner of West Cesar Chavez and North Lamar) – nine nests.
- Butler Fields – (Toomey Road off of South Lamar) – eight nests.
- Martin Junior High School – (Haskell Ave.) – three nests.
- Taco Bell – East Oltorf Road
Since Huebner, I'm not aware of anyone having detailed the location of Monk Parakeet nests in Austin. I have seen them near the UT Intramural Fields near 51st and Guadalupe (they like to hang with the grackles), so I guess there must be a nest nearby. I have also seen more recent references to nests near the Bouldin Creek post office (78704).
According to John Kelly of the Travis Audubon Society, there are about 720 Monk Parakeets living in the Austin area.
"Monk Parakeets are the only parrots which build free-standing nests (all other parrots build their nests in tree cavities and similar places)," says Kelly. "Some of those nests can be impressively large and one in South America weighed almost a ton. Local nests are never that big, but they're still pretty sturdy. The parakeets' actual living space lies in the middle of a bushel or more of twigs, so when really cold weather hits, they've got a nice, cozy home to retreat to."
Kelly adds that Monk Parakeets got their name because as far as parrots and parakeets go, they have relatively unflashy plummage. But he adds, "When the birds fly, you might be able to catch a glimpse of blue in the wings."