Chicago: A home fit for wild parrots

How our region’s day-glo neighbors arrived and why they stick around.

August 29, 2013

It may be easier to listen for Chicago’s wild parrots than look for them.

If you hear this, look up. High in an elm tree — or maybe on a light pole — you’ll see an elaborate nest made of twigs.

The bright green parrots that live in these nests year round seemed out of place to Avondale resident Leanne Roddy. So she asked Curious City:

I heard there were wild parrots on the South Side of Chicago, and I was just wondering where they came from ... and how do they survive in the winter?

The raucous birds are monk parakeets. The species is native to South America and notorious there as an agricultural pest, chowing down on crops from corn to citrus fruits.

But the tropical transplants have found a friendlier reception from people in Chicago since they first showed up in the late 1960s.

Home, SQUAWK!, sweet home.

Leanne had never seen one of the parrots up close, so our first order of business was to spot one in the wild. Lots of you suggested locations to look. There are about a dozen monk parakeet nests in Washington Park, so we started there.

Leanne and I didn’t see any parrots on our adventure. Not one. But we did spot some nests. And we collected a diverse bunch of urban legends.

How did the wild parrots get here, according to people in the park?

So, to recap, Chicago residents think the wild parrots' origin story is:

  • A University of Chicago experiment went awry and the birds escaped
  • The birds escaped from a holding pen at O’Hare
  • A truck on its way to a pet store overturned and let the parrots loose
  • The government put them here
  • People who owned them as pets let them out of their houses

Those urban legends are fun — but we needed an expert. Lucky for us, Dr. Stephen Pruett-Jones’ office at the University of Chicago is just a block down from Washington Park.

As an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, Pruett-Jones has studied the wild parrot population for more than two decades. He’s writing a book about the birds now.
 
First, Pruett-Jones helped us sort through the many aliases at play. The bright green birds are monk parakeets. Parakeets are small parrots. In the pet trade, they’re often called Quaker parrots.

Pruett-Jones knows the urban legends well — the overturned truck, the daring escape from the airport — but says no one has been able to prove the specifics of the birds’ origin story in North America. He is sure about one thing, though.

“They got here through the pet trade and the pet trade really peaked in the mid to late 1960s,” Pruett-Jones said.

So it may be as simple as a few South Side kids leaving their windows open while cleaning a bird cage.

The first documented nest of wild parrots in the Chicago area dates back to 1973.

Now Pruett-Jones, along with colleagues at nearby universities, has mapped the location of almost five hundred monk parakeet nests in the region. The farthest north is near Milwaukee, and the parrot population swings south along Lake Michigan to Chesterton, Indiana.

The noisy birds have also established colonies on the East Coast, including cities such as New York and New Jersey.

Stayin' alive ... with some help from us

Plenty of pet birds get loose — but most parrots aren’t adaptable enough to survive so far from their natural habitat and climate.

“Birds need a place to live, a place to nest, and they need food,” Pruett-Jones said. “Monk parakeets solve the first problem because they build their own nest. Every other species of parrot requires a tree hollow, or a stump of a broken limb that is somehow hollow.”

Or a pirate ship?

“Yes, or a pirate ship,” Pruett-Jones said.

It’s a classic Chicago story: The city welcomes outsiders who are willing to work. And these little birds work hard. Every day they scour the landscape for good twigs and prune their nests.

Maybe it’s why Mayor Harold Washington liked them so much.

Of the thousands of bird species worldwide, the monk parakeet is about the only one that lives in its nest every day.

“Without trying to sound anthropomorphic, it basically is a house to them,” Pruett-Jones said.

House might be the wrong analogy to draw. But with giant nests cooperatively built among pairs of birds, condo development sounds about right.

Monk parakeets have gotten good at building these giant nests on man-made structures like light poles and transformers.

ComEd’s senior environmental compliance specialist Sara Race says it’s a perpetual problem.

The nests can cause a fire on utility equipment or outages. ComEd does sometimes proactively remove nests on its structures.

“They are unfortunately all over our system,” Race said. “We typically would leave a nest there unless there is a potential reliability issue. We will remove the nest and remove all the sticks and anything that came from the nest in hopes that they will find another place to nest.”

But they don’t usually get the memo.

“Many times they will actually start rebuilding right there,” she said.

Building nests on utility poles isn’t the only way Monk parakeets have adapted to their urban environment. They also completely change their diets depending on the season.

“If people did not feed birds through backyard bird feeders, I believe that monk parakeets would not survive the winter,” Pruett-Jones said.  

Fears that the introduced species would become an agricultural pest like it is in Argentina haven’t materialized in the four decades since the birds began to breed in the Midwest.

The seasonal reliance on backyard bird feeders might be part of the reason why.

The monk parakeets can’t find much to eat in the winter if they live out in the country. So they stick to areas with a dense human population, huddle in their condo-like nests and head to backyard birdfeeders for takeout.

Good work, gumshoes!

We asked for your help finding monk parakeets in the wild, and you didn't disappoint! Listen to voicemails from fellow Curious Citizens about where to spot the birds.

is a WBEZ web producer. Follow her @triciabobeda.