Dozens of parrot species are establishing permanent homes in almost half of the United States, according to a new analysis published in the Journal of Ornithology.
At least 56 different parrot species have been spotted in the wild in 43 states. Of these, 25 species are now breeding in 23 different states. But how did they get there?
The US originally only had two native species: the now-extinct Carolina parakeet and the thick-billed parrot, a Mexican species that moved into the southwestern states but has since been extirpated. But during the 1950s and '60s, tens of thousands of monk parakeets were imported from South America as pets. Over the years, many escaped or were released. By 1968, monk parakeets were found breeding in the wild in 10 states and the numbers have continued to climb ever since.
"Many of them were escaped pets, or their owners released them because they couldn't train them or they made too much noise – all the reasons people let pets go," said researcher Stephen Pruett-Jones in a statement. "But many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they've established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay."
In order to track naturalized parrots across the country, researchers took to historical records, comparing them with data from the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count and citizen science platform eBird that together include bird sightings from 2002 to 2016. They found more than 118,000 unique observations across nearly 20,000 locations, most commonly monk parakeets, Red-crowned Amazons, and the Nanday Parakeet. Other species include several species of Amazon, Parakeet, and Macaw.
Not every state where these tropical birds are found support breeding, but the most concentrated populations in warmer climates like Florida, Texas, and California likely are reproducing and increasing their population given the fact that most species don’t migrate but solidify their established range. Birds found in colder environments, such as the cities of Chicago and New York, are surviving brutal winters by turning to backyard bird feeders.
The researchers note that there is no evidence that feral parrots in the US are invasive or compete with native birds but monk parakeets build nests that can damage utility lines. Regardless, many flocks may be on their way to becoming a valuable part of the ecosystem. In fact, many local bird colonies have become somewhat of a mascot to the communities in which they live. The red-faced Parrots of Telegraph Hill have become an icon in San Francisco during their 30-year tenure through San Francisco’s waterfront. It's thought there are now more Red-crowned Amazons living in California than their original habitats in Mexico.
"The entire conservation focus for these species is now on a non-native, introduced, naturalized population," Pruett-Jones said. "The survival of the species is most likely going to come from efforts to save it someplace where it never existed before."