THE CONCRETE JUNGLE: UNCOVERING THE MYSTERY OF WILD PARROTS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
It was a mild and clear winter day some two or three years ago. I had set out on a hike with a friend in Malibu’s renowned Escondido Falls trail, just off Pacific Coast Highway near Point Dume. A well-traveled trail, Escondido Falls did not present us with many wildlife species that day other than a couple of squirrels and a few crows. Right as we were nearing the end of the trail and about to re-enter the access road, a cacophony of squawks echoed through the canyon. Overhead, a flock of some ten or fifteen iridescent green birds fluttered about in a rather raucous and ungainly fashion. From their vibrant plumage, brash vocals, and distinctive body shape it was indisputable that they were parrots. But a flock of wild parrots? In Southern California?
I was actually quite excited to catch a glimpse of these infamous birds that I had heard tales of from friends and acquaintances. They had become somewhat of an urban legend in the LA area. No one could tell me however, how they arrived here or how they managed to survive and procreate in a land far from their home.
As a child I had always associated parrots with rainforests and other tropical places. It turns out that parrots, a group of 372 species comprising the order Psittaciformes, are found around the world in tropical and subtropical regions. A few select species, however, occupy alpine and temperate regions including the kea and kakapo of New Zealand. The United States once boasted its own native parrot: the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet. Yet the only parrots that called California home were the ones with clipped wings, complacently perched on large sticks with their cage doors open, playing with toys and mimicking human voices. However in the 1960’s, that changed. Around that time people started reporting sightings of flocks of green parrots in various urban and suburban areas of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties. Today there are thirteen different species of parrots living free in Southern California.
Almost anywhere you go, domestic animals will escape or be released from captivity from time to time. If the animal is lucky and resourceful enough, it will manage to live out the rest of its life in the wild. It is not often that it encounters another escaped individual of the same species and is able to reproduce. So now, some fifty years later, how is it that we are still seeing wild parrots in Southern California? Did numerous people keep these birds as pets and coincidentally, enough of them escaped and managed to find each other and procreate? To some degree, yes, but if that were the only source of these wild parrots the flocks would be much smaller and some would not even exist. Many people believe that a few large-scale release incidents contributed to the proliferation of these birds.
The first suspected large-scale release incident was the Bel Air district fire of 1961. Many residents of the area engaged in aviculture, or the practice of keeping and caring for birds, many of them exotic. It was reported that homeowners and firefighters set the birds free in their haste to evacuate the homes. The escapees, being mainly Yellow-Headed Parrots (Amazona oratrix) are suspected to have formed the local population of that area.
Many residents of the San Fernando Valley attribute the flocks of parrots to the late Busch Gardens theme park at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in Van Nuys. This theme park, which drew in patrons with free beer, bumper cars, a lagoon boat ride, live entertainment, and a bird sanctuary amidst its tropical oasis atmosphere, operated from 1966 to 1977. The bird sanctuary, with over 1500 birds of some 180 different species, became very popular among families. Eventually the rides were shut down to cut costs, yet the bird sanctuary prevailed. When the United States government seized a flock of 250 Amazon parrots smuggled from Mexico, the sanctuary was deemed a perfect new home for the birds. However, in 1979 the popularity of the birds dwindled while that of the beer continued to grow. Anheuser-Busch eventually decided to end the bird sanctuary’s stint at the park and use the land to expand the brewing operation. Therefore, the birds had to be shipped off to new homes, including the LA Zoo and several East Coast Busch Garden theme parks. Some thirty years later, however, Amazon parrots can be seen and heard all over the San Fernando Valley, although no one is quite sure how they made their way out of the park. Some speculate that several of the birds, born in the wild and eager to fly free again, departed the sanctuary on their own accord by prying the cage bars with their powerful beaks. Others believe that perhaps there were some leftover birds when the sanctuary shut down who became too burdensome to find new homes for.
How the parrots emerged from captivity and formed wild flocks is less perplexing than the question of how they have been so successful and their populations have continued to grow. To put it simply, how would birds adapted to life in a tropical environment survive and proliferate in a Mediterranean climate? The answer is, they wouldn’t. However, Southern California’s Mediterranean ecosystems are far from pristine. Most have been fragmented and altered by cities, agriculture, and highways, or invaded by foreign plant and animal species. Southern California residents’ affinity for lush landscaping and horticulture have made it possible for these tropical parrots to survive. The parrots are opportunistic feeders, meaning that they utilize a variety of food sources; often ones that they would not encounter in their native habitat. Non-native fruit and nut trees have provided an ample food source for them, while palm trees, American sweetgum, Silver-leaf maple, and Sycamore trees have served as safe nesting sites.
Many Southern California residents are amused and intrigued by the parrots, and enjoy having them around. One of the dangers of a naturalized exotic animal however, is its potential to become invasive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines an invasive species as “ a species that is non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration, and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Many people have speculated as to whether these naturalized parrots pose a threat to the native ecosystems. Although these birds are not sufficiently studied, so far it appears that they are a benign addition to the natural habitat. No ill effects on native vegetation and bird species have been reported in response to the introduction and population growth of the wild parrots. This is most likely due to the fact that the birds sustain themselves off introduced plant species, and therefore do not utilize many resources from the native habitat. It so appears that these quirky little critters may be here to stay for years to come. Curiously, two of the species, the Red-crowned Parrot and Yellow-headed Parrot, are endangered in their native habitat. Perhaps they have found a safe haven in which to rescue their species here in the urban jungle of Southern California.
The parrots can be spotted virtually throughout Southern California, however flocks have been known to frequent particular areas. High concentrations have been reported in Pasadena, Arcadia, Redlands, Riverside, San Bernardino, Malibu, Palos Verdes, Van Nuys, Northridge, Bel Air, Brentwood, San Gabriel Valley, Ventura, Redondo Beach, Long Beach, and San Diego. The best time for viewing is around sunset in the winter months when flocks congregate at roosting sites.
Visit Havasi Wilderness Foundation’s webpage for more interesting information, images, and news about our local wildlife.
Curtis, Aaron. Question of How Wild Parrots Flew the Coop is up in the Air. LA Times April 9th 1991.
Duncan, Steve. Wild Parrots of California. Avian Resources. www.avianresources.com/Wild_Parrots.htm
Garrett, K.L. 1997. Population status and distribution of naturalized parrots in southern California. Western Birds 28: 181-195.
Hardy, J.W. 1973. Feral exotic birds in southern California. Wilson Bull 85: 506-512.
What is an Invasive Species? United States Department of Agriculture: National Invasive Species Information Center, September 21st 2011. www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/whatis.shtml
Williams-Ross, Lindsay. LAistory: Busch Gardens in Van Nuys, July 18th 2009. http://laist.com/2009/07/18/laistory_busch_gardens_in_van_nuys.php