With bird tower, TXU's winging it
Dallas: Utility to feather prolific parakeets' nest to protect its equipment
March 31, 2006
By KATIE MENZER / The Dallas Morning News
They've been outlawed in California and gassed in Connecticut, but in Texas, we're building them penthouses.
The monk parakeet – those gorgeous but controversial green birds increasingly seen soaring through North Texas skies – are the bane of power companies across the nation. TXU Electric Delivery has struggled for decades to keep the prolific, non-native birds from building tangled nests in sensitive equipment.
While utilities elsewhere have garnered the unwanted attention of local animal-rights groups by killing birds or destroying nests, TXU is earning notice for today's planned construction of a 40-foot platform near White Rock Lake designed exclusively for the monks' sanctuary.
So is it Southern hospitality that's won the bird a rent-free, high-rise home overlooking the lake? Or just good PR?
It depends on whom you ask.
"They're one of the good guys," Brenda Piper, president of the Quaker Parakeet Society, said of TXU.
"We don't want to paint them with the same brush as we would the Connecticut folks."
In Connecticut last year, power company United Illuminating outraged residents by removing 119 monk parakeet nests from its equipment, capturing 186 birds and handing them over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be euthanized.
Although the company's methods were approved by federal officials and the Connecticut Audubon Society, a nonprofit animal-advocacy group known as Friends of Animals took the power company to court to stop the birds' destruction. Lawmakers in the state have proposed a bill to outlaw the capture or killing of monks, also known as Quaker parrots or parakeets.
"There was a huge cry when it was found out that UI was eradicating the birds on transformers," said Connecticut state Rep. Dick Roy, who wrote the bill. "We hope to find a way to adapt to them as they have adapted to our environment."
But the question of how to deal with the bright green birds – known for their social natures and penchant for building nests in high places – is not black and white, said Marcy Brown Marsden, department chairwoman of biology at the University of Dallas and former president of Audubon Dallas.
The monk is originally from South America and was introduced into the wilds of the U.S. accidentally, either by people keeping them as pets, through crates of birds breaking during shipping, or through other mishaps.
Dr. Brown Marsden, who studies local endangered bird species, said she's watched as the monk population has exploded in North Texas in the past 15 years. While she's seen no evidence that the monks are pushing out native species or having a dramatic effect on the area's ecosystem, she said, there is always a concern when a new species – known in the environmental world as "invasives" – flourishes outside its native lands.
Kudzu, zebra mussels and Africanized honeybees are all examples of invasive species.
So should the monk invaders be protected with parakeet platforms at White Rock?
Audubon Dallas is taking no stance, said president Larry Sall. The lake's advocacy group For the Love of the Lake also has no official platform on platforms.
"The problem of monks as a non-native species has been one that people are worried about," Dr. Brown Marsden said. "Non-natives can create a quick problem that can be hard to deal with once it's out of control."
But unlike kudzu or killer bees, the monk parakeet – almost the bunny rabbit of the sky – is hard not to love.
Monks build multichambered nests, often several feet high and weighing hundreds of pounds, that are the avian equivalent of apartment complexes. And while they live in tight communities – some monks mate for life – they allow other species of birds to nest and play with them.
"They are not aggressive toward other species," Ms. Piper said. "They live in harmony."
That's why Mari Anne Mourer, a White Rock area resident who admits she's no animal expert, found herself blocking the entrance of one of TXU's substations with her car this month.
Ms. Mourer and her children enjoy watching the birds, and she said she was distraught to see TXU workers removing the monks' nests from the power equipment on St. Francis Avenue.
"We love them," she said. "They make a beautiful sound."
She called her neighbors and City Hall and set up a meeting with power company officials to complain.
TXU officials agreed to erect a separate, 40-foot tower out of wood and steel – a design they had been planning since other community members protested the nests being disturbed last year – at the St. Francis substation today.
They also said they'll place nonlethal deterrents, such as insulation, around their equipment to prevent the birds from nesting in the electricity towers. Officials said the nests grow large enough to cause fires and interruptions in power service.
"We certainly understand the sensitivity of the bird population of White Rock Lake, and we are working with the community to resolve their objections," said Carol Peters, a TXU spokeswoman.
If the parakeet platform works, TXU officials said they would consider placing them at two other stations plagued by parrots near White Rock Lake, although they aren't yet sure they have room.
But officials said they'd like the community to begin erecting its own platforms for the birds.
"We do feel this is a community issue, and we want the community to take ownership of it ultimately," Ms. Peters said. "Our business is not birds. Our business is to deliver safe, reliable electric service."