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Dear EarthTalk: what are the conservation implications of all the wild colonies of escaped pet parrots that have turned up in and around some major U.S. cities?

At least three dozen different parrot species are now considered threatened or endangered in their quickly shrinking native tropical and sub-tropical habitats (mostly in South America). As such, the health of wild flocks in the U.S. and other developed countries around the world may well be key to preserving these birds that could otherwise go extinct.

Today wild parrot flocks thrive in urban and suburban areas of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Texas, Washington State and elsewhere. San Francisco and Brooklyn each host particularly large flocks, especially considering their relative lack of green space. Wild parrot flocks are also reportedly thriving in cities across much of Western Europe. Most of these parrots, of course, are not former pets themselves, but the descendents of birds that long ago may have escaped during transport from their jungle homes to pet stores generations ago.

Parrots are among the most intelligent and adaptable birds, so it is no surprise that they've done so well in North America and other regions, despite colder temperatures. Indeed it is not uncommon in the Northeast to see large groups of parrots perched in winter on deck railings piled with several inches of snow. The regions they inhabit, despite the cold weather, provide enough food and shelter to meet their relatively modest needs. And once the parrots were able to establish themselves in their new habitats, they got on with the business of breeding. Therefore, their offspring, though born in the city, are wild birds nonetheless, carrying on lifestyles not unlike those of their ancestors back in the jungles of South America (though their predators are different).

Conservationists are optimistic that the parrots' successful adaptation to more northerly urban environments bodes well for their future, despite the loss of much of their ancestral rainforest habitat. According to Roelant Jonker of the non-profit City Parrots, encouraging the formation of wild flocks of urban parrots promises to be a much more effective conservation tactic than trying to raise more birds in captivity where they would not so readily pass on their genes or learn the survival, adaptation and social skills necessary to survive. To Jonker, the proof is in the pudding: Some 2,500 wild red-crowned Amazon parrots (a quarter of the world's total) are thriving in and around California's biggest urban areas at the same time their population numbers are plummeting back in their native rainforest habitat.

The 2006 Judy Irving documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, shadows wild parrot crusader Mark Bittner and his efforts to care for a wild flock of Red-headed Conyers living in San Francisco. Bittner feeds birdseed to the Conyers and gets to know each individual bird and its idiosyncrasies. The film's shots of parrots interacting with one another and with Bittner really drive the point home how much we have in common with the wild kingdom of animals all around us, whether we live in the city or the country.

CONTACTS: City Parrots, www.cityparrots.org; The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, www.wildparrotsfilm.com.

--Mike Gifford, Kirkland, WA
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Author:Gifford, Mike
Publication:EarthTalk: Questions & Answers About Our Environment. A Weekly Column
Date:Mar 23, 2008
Words:508
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