Parakeets merit respect from UI

By DANIEL HAMMER -- Connecticut Post
25 December 2005

Forty years ago, the bright-green South American parrots appeared along Connecticut’s coast, refugees of the exotic pet trade. Now, these hardy birds -- monk parakeets, in common parlance -- have carved out an ecological niche for themselves.

Connecticut has graciously made room for me, a Utah native; I, like any other member of my species, create more of a mess than a parrot. But now, the United Illuminating Co. wants to purge Connecticut of these birds. Rather than admit that this is for its own convenience, the company cites a factor that’s irrelevant to its operations: the presumed invasive status of parrots.

The parrots, although relative newcomers, don’t fit the federal definition of invasive -- according to a 1999 Executive Order, an invasive species is "an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health."

We’ve been harmful to the parrots, but they haven’t responded in kind. Experts who predicted 30 years back that the parrots would become an agricultural nuisance turned out to be wrong.

Nor do these birds harm the natural environment. Indeed, they’ve become a vibrant part of the web of life, comprising part of the regular diet of hawks and peregrine falcons. The parrots themselves are herbivores, and pose no greater threats to ourselves or other species than squirrels do. The birds feed on weed species: black locust, sycamore, sumac, shadbush, autumn olive. Gracing our ecologically diminished landscapes, monk parakeets help other regional animals -- such as great horned owls, which rely on abandoned nests -- to survive and thrive.

You could send me back to Utah and the ecology wouldn’t miss me at all. But it would be poorer without the monk parakeets.

Yet in mid-November, UI, with the support of the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Connecticut Audubon Society, the National Audubon Society and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, decided to wipe out this innocuous avian community. State statutes prohibit the capture and killing of wild birds, but in 2003 the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection requested an amendment to exclude monk parakeets from the law’s protection. Asked about the precise basis of the Department’s request, state lawmakers don’t seem to remember what it might have been.

UI insists that its treatment of birds is the "best solution to problem." Evidently the company thinks it need not demonstrate, first, that there is a problem. Estimates regarding problems with power lines indicate that only some 9 percent are animal-related, those mostly involve squirrels. The company hasn’t suggested a round-up and gassing of squirrels, but that’s what they’re doing to the birds.

The company’s "best solution" might suit its convenience, but that doesn’t make it best for the public or the biocommunity of which we’re a part. Rounding up and killing birds and snatching away their nests in the middle of winter, while described as "common practice," is as impractical as it is morally misguided.

It’s incumbent upon the UI to take prudent, intelligent steps to maintain utility poles year-round. Doing so would be in the best interest of public safety and would prevent the formation of nests, about whose weight and mass the company now complains. If the company can’t do that much, they’ve got bigger problems than nests.

The state legislature, for its part, should restore the provision that has protected monk parakeets for decades. It should acknowledge that monk parakeets have assimilated into the regional ecology. And it should understand and appreciate that public support for the birds shows Connecticut residents at their best.

"The bottom line," as U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays put the point, "is there has been an incredible outpouring of support for these animals, and we need to work with the USDA, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and United Illuminating Co. to find another viable approach."

Over time, if we ourselves are to continue to thrive, it will probably be because we learn to work with nature rather than against it. Conflicts arising from the pressures we impose on our environment will require us to gracefully weather unexpected changes in the habits and patterns of other species. The test before us is whether we can view monk parakeets not as exotic pets, not as inconveniences to be summarily done away with, but as the free birds they are.

Daniel Hammer is a staff writer at Darien-based Friends of Animals.