Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Wild Parrots of Carteret

New Jersey currently has two wild and self-sustaining populations of Monk Parakeets. The better known (and longer established) one is in Bergen County. The second is in Carteret, in the northeastern corner of Middlesex County. I would not be surprised to see colonies start in more of the state's urban areas as their population grows. These colonies are the descendants of birds that escaped from the pet industry. One story I have read is that workers dropped a crate full of Monk Parakeets at JFK Airport, the crate broke open, and the birds escaped to found nesting colonies around New York City. That initial introduction may have been supplemented by subsequent escapes, but the populations in New York and New Jersey have been established long enough to pass muster as self-sustaining, and thus countable for birders under standard listing rules (unlike say, Budgerigars, another popular caged bird that often escapes but has not established a population in the area).

In any case, I knew about the New Jersey populations of Monk Parakeets but had not gotten around to seeing either of them. As long as they were there, I figured I could go see them some other time and focused on more seasonal birding or (occasional) rarity-chasing instead. That changed yesterday, however, and the Monk Parakeets in Carteret became a new life bird for me. They are, in fact, the first psittacid species on my life list.

I have read a bit about Monk Parakeets over the years, so I was prepared for their behavior, but it was still interesting to see it in person. Their nests are very prominent – even unmissable – and the birds screech and chatter loudly. Between their screeches and bright green, they are very noticeably different from the other common urban birds, most of which are marked in shades of gray and brown. When they flew and when they foraged on the ground, they reminded me of the Budgerigars my family kept when I was a kid.

Yesterday, the parrots were actively engaged in nest construction. I could see them breaking twigs off a sycamore or London Plane tree and carrying them back to stick into the nests. There are currently two and possibly three nests in Carteret, all in a one-block area. The largest nest (shown above) sits under the transformer of a utility pole on Washington Avenue. A second, smaller nest (the next image up) is around the corner on High Street, across an empty lot from the Washington Avenue nest. This nest also sits on a utility pole just below the transformers. In the wild, Monk Parakeets usually build their large colonial stick nests in trees, but in urban areas of the U.S., utility poles serve as a substitute. Building stick nests on utility poles is probably useful to the birds in another way: the heat from the transformers may help keep them warm in cold northern winters. Monk Parakeets are already somewhat adapted to cooler weather as they are native to Argentina rather than the more tropical climates usually associated with parrots.

The third possible nest is in a hole in a building on Atlantic Street. Monk Parakeets were carrying twigs to this building in addition to the other two nests. Just before I took this photo, one parrot had its head sticking out of the hole, and another was sitting on top of the cornice. The building houses a pizzeria that at one time had a Monk Parakeet nest above its door (until the restaurant owner took it own). What will happen with this nest remains to be seen.

Finally, I took a short video to give a sense of how the Monk Parakeets act and sound around the nest. If the video does not embed, you can view it here. I have several more photos of the Monk Parakeets, which you can view in my set on Flickr.