“They started building the nest around the end of November. A pair came over here. It was wonderful,” said Milton, one of several local anglers who fished near a Monk parakeet nest that hung like a massive lantern from the branch of an oak tree in Riverside Park until last week, when stunned passers-by found the refrigerator-sized nest gone.
Monk or “Quaker” parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus), which are native to Argentina, have been colonizing the Northeast for the last four decades. In New York, they are like a South American gang that has managed to carve out a niche for itself in every borough except for Manhattan. Several years ago, a colony that briefly set up shop in Central Park was driven out because it was thought to pose a threat to migrating birds. In other parts of the city, Monks have been persecuted for nesting on utility poles, obstructing line maintenance and causing power outages. The Riverside colony, which consisted of 8-20 individuals, appeared to have been the first to evade notice long enough to gain a foothold on the island. The colorful birds began to draw attention this summer as they went about the business of feeding, breeding and noisily nesting above a busy Greenway path near 155th Street.
Christopher Lyons, a local birder and blogger, was puzzled by the nest location.
“You wouldn’t think a bird would choose to live here. It’s kind of a public area. There’s bike traffic. There’s pedestrian traffic. There’s automobile traffic.”
The cause of the nest disappearance is unclear. One account casts a pair of stick-wielding boys as culprits. Another blames a crew of poachers equipped with lassos and ladders. Lyons allows that the nest could have fallen under it’s own weight. Most agree that it came down at night and the bulk of the debris was carted away by park maintenance staff.
“Even eagle nests (at least those in trees) will eventually topple of their own weight,” Lyons wrote in an e-mail message about the fallen nest. “It’s impossible to rule out vandalism of some kind, but I’ve been wondering for a while now how long that branch would hold.”
In a sense, this is only the latest chapter in a long immigration saga.
Steve Baldwin, a natural storyteller with a broadcaster’s baritone, is the Metro area’s ambassador to wild Monk parakeets. In addition to maintaining brooklynparrots.com, he leads frequent tours to Monk nesting sites. Baldwin believes Monk parakeets were originally brought to the area to supply the pet trade in the 1960’s. The birds’ pattern of distribution in New York indicates that they were part of a large shipment that escaped from Kennedy Airport.
“Way back in 1967 or ‘68 there was this huge shipment (of Monk parakeets from Argentina) that was coming through Kennedy Airport. You know that movie Goodfellas? It’s about the mob running things in Brooklyn and New York and they controlled the airport so anything that came through the airport they would sort of open up (and check to see if there was anything of value inside). It’s speculated that this big crate showed up and they opened it up and Boom! the parrots flew out.”
“(Monk nests) are basically like condominiums,” says Baldwin in the shadow of a large mass of twigs heaped on top of a stadium light pole on the campus of Brooklyn College. “There’s several holes in each nest and each one leads to a multi-chambered ‘apartment’ and inside there are multiple rooms. They call it the living room and it’s sort of like the main area where the birds live. And then there’s a little side room called the bedroom where the hens lay the eggs.”
Baldwin is speaking to a group of about twenty people who have gathered near the locally-renowned Brooklyn College nesting colony to take part in one of his wild Monk parakeet safaris. While the Monks are basically unfussy feeders who will eat anything from weed to weevil, Baldwin encourages the urban birders who take part in his free tours to bring along some good-quality bird seed. In return for these offerings, participants get to view the birds at close range and get a crash course in Monk parakeet ecology peppered with fascinating facts like the Monks’ habit of mating for life, co-rearing their young, and branching off into smaller colonies once large communities like the one at Brooklyn College have reached critical mass. Baldwin tends to keep the locations of new splinter colonies under his hat.
“I try to avoid telling too much about (the location of) these birds,” he says. “Back in 2006 I started getting reports that there was a small group of men on bicycles who were going through Brooklyn in the middle of the night. They would scare the birds out of the nests and capture (them) and my sources tell me that they would then sell these parrots to pet stores to use as breeders…disclosing the precise geographical coordinates of a particular nest is something that I don’t like to do anymore. It wouldn’t take much effort to decimate the population of parrots where they’re living in exposed locations.”
Whatever happened to the wild Monk parakeets of Riverside Park, a few of the birds remain in the area and there is still time for the them to build a new nest before winter. The precariously slung 155th Street parakeet co-op had reached two storeys and was tempting gravity even before it attracted human interest. The optimistic view is that it’s better that it came down in mid-August than in a mid-January snow storm. The Monks’ remarkable resilience and determination to keep on living in New York City despite obstacles ranging from blizzards to wilding boys is a true reflection of what it takes to make it here. Their industriousness, vivacity and charm have drawn legions of admirers to the park throughout the summer and with enough good will, a few well-placed feeding stations and a bit of luck, perhaps the Monks will rally and return to Riverside Park.
Meanwhile, wild parrot watchers eagerly await the passage of legislation currently before the New York State Senate to protect Monk parakeets from poaching and unnecessary nest takedowns.
POSTSCRIPT: As of January 11, 2011, wild Monk parakeet colonies have been protected by law in New York per A1718-2011.
Happily, Riverside Park’s monk parrots survived both the destruction of their nest and the subsequent fire at Harlem’s Northriver sewage treatment plant. They’ve relocated and at last sighting there was a healthy group of them in the trees near Washington Heights. 10/15/2011