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UI, monk parakeets get along uneasily


By KEN DIXON dixon.connpost@snet.net

Connecticut's monk parakeets have recovered from last year's eradication program and have settled into a tense, if nonviolent, relationship with The United Illuminating Co.

The green birds that are native to South America and have colonized Connecticut's coast since the early 1970s are showing at least partial interest in man-made nesting platforms erected over the last year.

And while it seems unlikely that a law to protect the birds — proposed in the General Assembly, where it failed last May — will be revived, the Darien-based Friends of Animals has a lawsuit pending against UI to permanently stop the tactics that slaughtered 179 birds last year.


A monk parakeet pair sits in a tree near the home of Jim and Julie Cook in West Haven. (Christian Abraham / Connecticut Post)

Two months ago, UI crews tore down 76 nests in utility poles in West Haven, Milford and Stratford.

Unlike last year, there were no U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel working with UI to kill birds on the spot. The parrots immediately went back to building nests in about a third of the utility poles. Most of the parrots, however, built nests in trees, not poles.

There are about 1,500 monk parakeets in the state, officials said.


Jim and Julie Cook built a platform in West Haven to house displaced parakeets. (Christian Abraham/Connecticut Post)

"They're doing fine," said Julie Cook, of Ocean Avenue in West Haven, who was the first to allow the erection of a nesting platform for parrots left homeless by last year's capture-and-kill program.

The platform has been up for about a year and parrots have come and gone and come back, she said, adding that starlings and sparrows have also found room in the platform,

which stands about 12 feet above her sidewalk.

Cook's stretch of Ocean Avenue has nests in trees and utility poles. Those bird colonies are among the region's most aggressive as they reclaim their homes.

Since the October destruction, she said, the birds are re-creating their homes one twig at a time.

"Some of these nests are being rebuilt very fast," said Cook, who a year ago was arrested by local police after a confrontation with USDA crews. The charges were dropped.

Michelle Slowik, who lives with her husband and young son on Crown Street in Stratford's Lordship section, said last week that she's witnessed the same transient occupancy in the nesting platform erected in her backyard last year.

"They are kind of 'on-and-off' birds," Slowik said. "Some days we don't see them at all." After putting up the platform last Christmas Eve, at the end of UI's parrot roundup, it took until April for the birds to begin nesting there. On a side of the platform opposite the birds, a young family of squirrels lived.

"The parrots are always at my birdfeeder," said Slowik, noting they eat apples, bananas, sunflower seeds, corn on the cob and safflower seeds, but don't seem to like bread.

The neighborhood's parrot colonies add a welcome bit of local color.

"I was outside the night they came and killed them," Slowik said. "I think people have an attitude that if it's bothering you, get rid of it or kill it."

Dwight Smith, chairman of the biology department at Southern Connecticut State University, who with his students has studied the parrot colonies for more than a decade, said last week that pairs of parrots that survived last year's fatal roundups re-nested and have had a full reproduction cycle during the summer.

"They're bouncing back," he said. Two of the 14 documented nesting-platform alternatives in southwestern Connecticut have been colonized, he said.

"Other surviving birds that immediately re-nested in trees and power poles were also successful," Smith said. "I can say that if they're left alone, they will recover fully.

"If UI dismantles nests at an appropriate time, neither UI nor animal enthusiasts will have confrontation issues."

He hopes the utility will consider the construction of artificial nesting platforms, "but so far, in four years I've tried to work with UI, no one has contacted me."

Albert Carbone, spokesman for UI, said last week that the utility remains committed to nonlethal remedies.

After crews cleared nests from 76 poles in October, birds renewed construction on 26 of the poles. Carbone said UI does not believe the birds readily take to the manmade nests.

"Monk parakeets are not platform birds," Carbone said. During last year's roundup, more than 100 nests were targeted from West Haven to Fairfield.

"Many of the birds were right at the same place in the immediate days afterwards," Carbone said of the recent nest-clearing effort. "We've been monitoring the nest rebuilds to see how many come back and see how big they grow."

A pretrial conference in state Superior Court is scheduled for April and a trial date set for mid-October of next year in the Friends of Animals case against UI.

"Obviously, with the court case ongoing, UI has acted within the guidelines of the law and will continue to do so," Carbone said. "In prior court conferences we said we have no plans to capture birds."

Priscilla Feral, president of the Friends of Animals, said last week that with the trial so far away and the discovery period of the case just ahead, she believes the utility might have some interest in settling the issue to avoid a public airing of the planning that led to the 2005 killings.

"We've heard that UI is intent on avoiding the kind of public-relations fiasco of last winter," Feral said.

"What we really need to do is go forward with a statutory change in the Legislature to get protection for the parrots as wild birds," Feral said. "I don't think we want to leave it up to UI on whether they'll get clobbered again. There is still keen interest in a remedy and I think it's going to come through the Legislature rather than the goodwill of the utility company that's intent on posturing who won and who lost."

Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Environment Committee, said last week that as long as the parrots aren't being captured and killed, he doubts there's a chance for another bill to protect the birds.

"I don't know if anything is going to be done this year," Roy said. "I think we will hear from the animal-rights people, but I don't know if we have to do anything at this point as long as UI does not capture them and turn them over to the feds for euthanizing and use for experiments."

In May, the bill to protect the birds died on the House calendar because, Roy said, there wasn't enough support in the Democratic majority. "I think what we did do is raise the consciousness of all involved," he said. "UI took steps to mitigate the large number of deaths of the birds."

He said that if the capture and killings were to resume, then he'd push for a new law. "I'd be more than happy to submit a bill and commit to telling everyone this should stop, but since UI responded with a program that's not killing them, let's see how this program is working," he said.

Roy said UI suffered from bad public relations. "This year, I think they want to avoid the sideshow," he said.

Cook and other bird lovers say that it was years of deferred maintenance that led to UI's controversial solution of 2005. But, she said, there should be a way for bird lovers to enjoy the tropical touch of the squawking flights of parrots and for UI to deliver power to customers.

"As long as they maintain their poles, there should be a balance," Cook said. "By clearing away the nests in November, their young bird can fly away and then they all come back and build fast, because they need shelter for the winter."

"We're very lucky that we can get to enjoy them," Slowik said. Ken Dixon, who covers the Capitol, can be reached at (860) 549-4670.

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