by Kim Calcagno

Rhode Island's little green aliens.

Bullocks Point Avenue, Riverside, East Providence

[Please see below for updates on the parakeets.—ed.]

Okay, they're green and gray, but whether you think they're endearing or downright scary, there is no doubt that if you've been invaded, you know it. These aliens are Monk parakeets, and they've been living in wild, slow-roving colonies in Rhode Island since 1973.

Standing twelve inches tall, these pudgy-cheeked birds are also known as Quaker parakeets, Quaker conures, and gray-headed or gray-breasted parakeets. Their religious-sounding names come from their coloration. The contrast of the lime-green back and forehead with the dusty gray of the chin and chest resembles a face peering out of the hooded robes worn by the religious orders in the South American countries from which these birds hail.

The birds are native to the eastern Andean lowland regions of South America, from Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay to southern Brazil. During the 1960s and '70s these cheery birds were imported by the thousands for the American pet trade. According to legend, the parakeets were accidentally released from a broken crate at JFK Airport in New York (although some Rhode Islanders believe that their birds arrived as the result of a similar accident on the tarmac at TF Green airport). Most experts will cite the New York airport release, but agree that the origin of most colonies is the result of irresponsible pet owners who, tiring of the noisy birds, release them into the wild.

A pair of monks warily checks us out. (July 2003).

They were first noted as an established population in New York in the 1960s. By the 1990s several states hosted stable populations, including New York, Texas, Delaware, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia, Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, and Rhode Island. Because they are a sub-tropical species, they tend to live in the warmer regions of the south and the coastal regions of the north, where winter temperatures are somewhat milder. According to the DEM, Rhode Island's first confirmed wild Monk parakeet was seen on Block Island in 1973.

When these first wild populations were established, there was a deep concern among wildlife biologists that these exotic birds would become serious agricultural pests. Their diet changes seasonally and encompasses everything from flowers and buds in spring to fruits and insects in summer to grains and seeds in winter. It was thought they would proliferate and decimate grasses and trees wherever they went. In the 1970s the US Fish and Wildlife Service mounted a determined campaign to eradicate the species from the wild in the United States, nearly extirpating them. Over the years, however, the predicted widespread destruction of orchards and crop fields never surfaced, and the efforts to control them fell off. Some states have laws prohibiting them from being sold as pets, but that is usually the extent of the control measures. Many of the colonies have bounced back and are living quite happily.

That's not to say that they are a harmless, "naturalized" species. They are certainly a very noisy lot, first vocalizing at two days of age, even before their eyes open, and pretty much never shutting up after that. They have a wide array of screams, squawks, and quieter social calls. The close-quartered colonial nature of these birds elicits a nearly non-stop chorus of social noise from dawn to dusk.

The nests are especially easy to spot when built on telephone poles and transformers. (July 2003).

They can also be lousy neighbors in other ways. Unlike their cavity-nesting brethren, they are the only parrot that builds a nest of sticks and twigs. The nests are impressive feats of avian architecture. They are round, dense condominiums constructed of finger-width sticks, sometimes reaching five hundred pounds, six feet in diameter, and housing colonies of up to thirty or more birds. Nests can dominate trees and envelop power poles. Nesting adults will clip branches from the surrounding trees to build their nests and strip bark to eat. Greedily emptying birdfeeders and consuming fruit from trees, they are found to be intolerably loud and obnoxious by many homeowners. Residents complain about the twigs strewn everywhere, the droppings, and the busloads of birdwatchers that come to view the colorful 'keets.

This nest almost engulfs the transformer it's built around. No wonder the utility companies are concerned. (June 2003).

Authorities from the electrical utilities are not very fond of them either. Their massive and heavy nests have repeatedly been the cause of power outages and pole damage. On one occasion, Narragansett Electric reacted to the complaints of outages in the Riverside area of East Providence by removing several colonies and placing most of the birds with zoo workers, veterinarians, and bird fanciers. It was a multi-day effort to capture and find homes for the birds and haul off the massive nests (so large, they could only fit three nests in a truck bed at one time).

The state leaves the decision to remove or capture the birds to the landowners. Unlike native birds that enjoy the protection of the federal government, Monk parakeets fall under the category of "invasive exotic" and are in the company of several other alien birds, including pigeons (aka rock doves), European starlings, and English house sparrows, none of which are protected by law.

These monks were spotted chowing down at a feeder in the Narragansett Terrace neighborhood of East Providence in the late 1990s. Photograph courtesy of Janet Egan.

On the other hand, the monks certainly have their fans. Many residents fiercely protect "their" colonies and encourage them by adding birdfeeders to support the birds through harsh winter weather. While birders and gawking tourists are being shooed off some people's property, they are being welcomed by these parakeet "promoters" who will even bring visitors binoculars, or perhaps a glass of lemonade. They are happy to tell passers-by all about their precious birds and the best spots to watch them.

A parakeet performs some simple nest maintenance. (July 2003).

Over the years, colonies have been sighted at different times in Warwick, Cranston, Cumberland, Bristol, Barrington, Lincoln, and East Providence. After searching old newspaper articles, we went looking for them at Sabin Point, where one famed colony was supposed to reside. We could find no sign of them. Confused and frustrated, we drove around the close little streets of the Point with our heads out the windows, eyes cast skyward, looking for the tell-tale nest condos. The one thing we did not know was that the colonies will shift over time as nests get damaged in storms or simply collapse under their own weight. The mated pairs will disperse and begin constructing new nests in different spots. It turns out that the colony, now consisting of four nests, resides at the top of Bullock Neck, just south of the Crescent Park Carousel, and a short distance away from Sabin Point proper.

The soapbox part

As a naturalist and biologist, I am constantly educating people about the impacts of invasive exotic plants like forsythia, purple loosestrife, European bittersweet, and Japanese barberry. There are lists and lists of plants that have been introduced to this country that outcompete our native species.

There are fewer species of animals that have been so introduced. The birds mentioned, as well as insects like the wooley adelgid and the Asian ladybug, are representative of some of these alien animals. Some of these invasive species get media attention when they have a negative impact. Hogweed is a good example of this. You may remember the news coverage about people breaking out in horrific inflammatory dermatitis from contact with this spreading invader. There are many more species that homeowners or municipalities purposely introduce onto their land, completely unaware of their noxious tendencies. Burning bush (winged euonymus), which spreads freely from landscaped areas to wild areas, is a good example.

The dark spot in the middle of this nest is an entrance hole. (July 2003).

Monk parakeets are one of the few examples of invasive exotics that have gotten a lot of media attention over the years, but have as much positive as negative coverage. Reporters love to play the parakeet lovers and haters off each other. There's nothing like stirring up controversy every once in a while to plump up the headlines on a slow day.

From my point of view as a biologist, they are indeed an invasive exotic. I sort of cringe at the idea of introducing non-native flora and fauna. I mean... look at the cane toad, kudzu, and phragmites! EEK! Haven't we humans learned our lesson yet?

A 'keet flies off toward Bullock Cove, probably to find food. Or a kegger. (June 2003).

The naturalist in me, however, can't help being amazed at these incredible birds. They are cute. They build amazing structures. They are survivors, and they help each other build nests and feed young. Truly they are fascinating. They are what we, in the environmental education field, call (dramatic chord) "charismatic megafauna." Nobody ever pays attention to the scuttling carrion beetle or the shiny lemon ant, but show us a colorful bird in a giant nest, and everyone will have an opinion.

Whatever you feel about them, Monk parakeets are part of Rhode Island now. Hopefully you will catch sight of one of these jewels or their colossal condos on your "ultimate Rhode Island road trip."

Updates

Late April 2006: On our last visit we found only one nest, with at least four residents in evidence, on one of the telephone poles. We wonder if the disappearance of the other nests is due in part to the thinning out of the woods on the west side of the street, now part of Larisa Park.

Early December 2006: We received an email letting us know that the above mentioned nest had fallen and that no birds were in evidence. That's too bad, but we're confident the parakeet colony has set up housekeeping elsewhere in the state. All we need is for you to let us know where. If you've seen parakeets nesting in other parts of the state, please drop us a line at stuffie@quahog.org and fill us in.

October 18, 2007: Sydney from Barrington spotted a pair of monks chowing down at her birdfeeder. The location is on Annawamscutt Road near Allin's Cove in Barrington.

Feeding in Barrington, October 18, 2007. Photo courtesy of Sydney from Barrington.

April 2008: Toby from near the carousel in Riverside reported that his birdfeeder was also being regularly raided by the "giants." We took a look around the neighborhood and found one parakeet gnawing a twig in a tree in Larisa Park, and a pair building a new nest on one of the telephone poles in front of the condominium complex just south of the Crescent Park Carousel.

Hey there, pretty bird. (April 2008).

December 23, 2008: Sydney from Barrington "saw a monk parakeet on a bridal wreath bush right next to my feeder, which was full of other birds. It flew away; I never saw it get to the feeder. Again, this was on Annawamscutt Road in Barrington, near Allin's Cove."

February 16, 2009: Chris from the Brookfield Road neighborhood in Riverside spotted a pair of 'keets chowing down at her backyard feeder. She noted to us that these were the first she'd seen since one dropped by for a bite over the summer.

June 2012: No sightings have been reported to us since 2009, and when we last drove by a few months ago there were no nests to be seen at Bullock Neck. One reader just emailed to say he heard that National Grid chased the birds off and destroyed the nests to prevent electrical fires on the utility poles. If that's true, we hope the parakeets have found a safer home somewhere along our shores.

September 2012: There have been a few random sightings over the past couple of months. Audubon Rhode Island received notices of sightings in Johnston (near Cherry Hill Manor, corner of Cherry Hill Road and Greenville Avenue) and in Lincoln. And we just received an email from Angela H.: "I saw a parakeet in Providence last week which led me to your website. There was only one little guy, singing on a telephone wire. Not sure if he escaped from somewhere or if he's one of the monk parakeets. He was on the west end of Providence over Service Road 2." And another from Pompeo D. from Johnston: "I spotted two Monk Parakeets on Irons Avenue in Johnston RI on September 7, 2012."

October 2012: From Paul in Lincoln: "Been watching a pair of them across the street from me along the path of the Blackstone River in Lincoln. They are very loud... kind of surprised me, and to date have a nice nest built on a telephone pole structure. Interesting how the hole in seems to be from under the structure. Was watching them this Sunday 10-21-12 for 1/2 hour or so, they work feverishly on their nest. They then got startled actually by a deer that came out of the woods and off they went."

December 4, 2013: This morning, Mike from Scituate spotted a monk at his birdfeeder in Hope.

April 13, 2015: A correspondent named Tich reported seeing six parakeets on Rock Avenue in Warwick.

July 13, 2017: Blue in Coventry reports: "I've recently seen and heard the monks in the Rt. 116 area... the area they are at is close to the bike path behind Dave's Market... many ppl have seen them walking the path... around the back of the golf course... but have not seen the nest... as I used to see in the Rocky Point area of Warwick in the 1980s..."

Kim Calcagno is a naturalist and environmental educator. She received her BS in Biology and Environmental Studies from Tufts University, and her MS in Environmental Studies and Education from Antioch New England. Kim has been working in the environmental field since 1988 and is currently employed as a refuge manager with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Information

Cost: free

Time required: allow 5 minutes or more, depending on your level of fascination

Hours: dawn and dusk are the best times to find these colorful birds near their nests.

Finding it: from Route 195 take exit 4 toward Riverside; bear right at the split onto Veteran's Memorial Parkway; drive approximately 4.5 miles to the Crescent Park Carousel near the corner of Bullocks Point and Crescent View Avenues; continue past the carousel and look for the nests in utility poles and trees on your right.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to highways or man-eating pirates. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited July 18, 2017

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