Avoid Leap to Ruin on Monk Parakeets

BY DANIEL HAMMER

In one of Aesop's fables, a fox trapped in a well convinces a goat to leap in. Then the fox climbs over the goat and escapes, leaving the goat trapped instead. The moral of the story: Look before you leap.

Understanding the background of the monk parakeets' lives in our state should come before any serious call to action. Otherwise, we may suffer the same fate as Aesop's goat. Half-following the controversy and guessing about validity of information should be carefully avoided.

The lawsuit initiated by Friends of Animals challenges those who have leaped, or would leap, before they look. It challenges those who would work to eliminate the monk parakeet because a real-world version of the fabled fox says the birds are noisy, invasive or dangerous.

Until 2003, the monk parakeets were protected by Connecticut statute, along with other wild birds. But three years ago our state lawmakers blindly leaped into legislating an exemption that would permit the killing of Monk Parakeets. This suited the wishes of the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Supposedly dangerous or unfairly competitive with native species, the monk parakeets were lumped together with starlings and other birds routinely targeted for removal. Soon, federal agents from the Agriculture Department were called in to destroy the birds in gas chambers.

A reader and veteran birdwatcher in these pages last week urged the company to hurry it up and do away all with the parrots now, invoking starlings to underscore the point. Whatever one's perspective on starlings might be, they are not the issue here. Anyone who looks at them can tell monk parakeets are not starlings. And expressing a preference for yellow-crowned night herons, as the aforementioned reader did, fails to prove that monk parakeets are invasive, or cause irredeemable nuisances. Neither claim is correct.

Friends of Animals requested, through the state's Freedom of Information Act, that the Department of Environmental Protection provide evidence that monk parakeets unfairly compete with native bird species. The files provided by the DEP contain no research to justify such claims.

Monk parakeets are unique in the parrot world for their custom of building nests. But others birds also build large stick nests, yellow-crowned night herons included, and no one has made a federal case of it. The claim that monk parakeet nests weigh 200 or even 400 pounds is a gross exaggeration, and it is also beside the point. Bald eagles aren't gassed although they're famed for the ability to create nests weighing up to three-tons, averaging about 6 feet across and 3 feet in height -- the largest towering 20 feet high.

What's important from the perspective of an integrated biocommunity isn't the size of monk parakeet nests. It's how the nests provide other species with nesting sites, refugia and nesting material. And they do. This does not mean other species use the nests the way monk parakeets do. Great Horned Owls, for example, will use what the parakeets build as nesting substrates, while disregarding the tunnels.

All species of birds, from blue jays to gulls, could be considered intrusive or objectionable on some level. The point here is that monk parakeets have become integrated into the regional ecology. More than just another species to be slapped on a list, they are ecological relevant in that they contribute to the health and stability of other species. Even in the unlikely event that eradication is possible, it would rule out food sources for several species of raptors -- a deleterious ecological effect in itself.

Apparently unmindful of all of this, the United Illuminating Co. and a herd of supporters recently leaped into collaborating on a plan to capture and gas monk parakeets found nesting on utility poles in Bridgeport, Milford, Stratford and West Haven. The utility captured 179 and had them gassed.

The company's "Monk Parakeet/Nest Removal Communication Plan" states: "People no longer make decisions based on rational analysis of facts. Instead, they decide based on the stories they're told. This is an opportunity to tell a story about how much UI values public health and safety and its ability to provide reliable electric service to its customers."

What United Illuminating's communication plan tells us is that people don't look, so tell them a story that will make them leap. In contrast, we at Friends of Animals consider it important to make decisions based on rational analysis, which is exactly what a fair and sensible court will insist that we do.

For its part, the state legislature should restore the provision that has long protected monk parakeets, along with other free-living birds. It should acknowledge that the birds have become integrated into our state's ecology. The Legislature should also maintain the provisions that wisely shield wild birds from becoming pets. Bringing wild birds into homes is unwise, even with the best of intentions. And it's not necessary, given that alternative outdoor nesting sites are now proving entirely workable.

The best idea, then, is the simplest one, and by far the most ethically sound: Let's empower these birds get back to the business of living.

Meanwhile, Friends of Animals, working in collaboration with Professor Dwight Smith, an expert on Monk Parakeets, will continue to provide the company, the communities of southern Connecticut, and the state Legislature with the means for understanding the ecological role of these birds. This knowledge can put Connecticut's government and industry in the best position to avoid another trip to the bottom of a well.

Daniel Hammer
is a staff writer for Friends of Animals. Information for this article was provided by Dwight Smith, head of the biology department at Southern Connecticut State University.