2012-03-22 / Community

Uncovering the mystery of wild parrots in Southern California

Environmentally speaking
By Madison Most
Special to The Acorn

AT HOME HERE—Black-hooded parakeets, one of 13 species of parrots that have naturalized in California, can be spotted in Malibu Creek State Park and other areas nearby such as Latigo Canyon. 
Photo courtesy Sandor Havasi AT HOME HERE—Black-hooded parakeets, one of 13 species of parrots that have naturalized in California, can be spotted in Malibu Creek State Park and other areas nearby such as Latigo Canyon. Photo courtesy Sandor Havasi On a mild and clear winter day some two or three years ago, I 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 squirrels and a few crows.

As we neared the end of the trail, a cacophony of squawks echoed through the canyon. Overhead, a flock of some 10 or 15 iridescent green birds fluttered about in a rather raucous fashion.

From their vibrant plumage, brash vocals and distinctive body shape it was indisputable that they were parrots, but what on earth were wild parrots doing in Southern California?

I was quite excited to catch a glimpse of the infamous birds that I’d heard about. They had become somewhat of an urban legend in the L.A. area, and Malibu residents have grown particularly familiar with them.

No one could tell me, however, how they’d arrived here or how they managed to survive in a land far from their native home.

I had always associated parrots with rainforests and other tropical places. It turns out that parrots are found primarily in tropical and subtropical regions, with a few unique species occupying alpine and temperate zones.

The United States once boasted its own native parrot: the nowextinct Carolina parakeet.

In the 1960s there were sightings of flocks of green parrots in various areas of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Today there are 13 different species of parrots living free in Southern California.

So now, some 50 years after those initial sightings, 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, managed to find each other and procreated?

To some degree, yes, but if that were the only source of these wild parrots, the flocks would be much smaller or not exist at all.

Many people believe that a few large-scale release incidents contributed to the proliferation of these birds. The first suspected large-scale release was during 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 are suspected of forming the parrot population of that area.

Many residents of the San Fernando Valley attribute the parrots in their area to the former Busch Gardens theme park in Van Nuys.

This theme park operated from 1966 to 1977. The bird sanctuary, with more than 1,500 birds of some 180 different species, became popular among families.

Eventually the park 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 L.A. Zoo and several East Coast Busch Gardens theme parks. Thirty years later Amazon parrots can be seen and heard all over the San Fernando Valley, but one can only speculate as to how they made their way out of the park.

It seems odd that these birds have managed to thrive in a foreign environment so far away and different from their native Central and South America.

California’s lush landscaping practices have made it possible for these tropical parrots to survive and nonnative fruit and nut trees have provided ample food.

One danger of a naturalized exotic animal is its potential to become invasive. It’s unknown whether these 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. This is most likely due to the fact that the parrots sustain themselves with nonnative plant species and do not use many resources from the natural habitat.

It appears that these quirky little critters may be here to stay.

Curiously, two of the species, the red-crowned parrot and the yellowheaded parrot, are endangered in their native habitats. Perhaps they have found a safe haven in which to rescue their species in the urban jungle of Southern California.

Madison Most works in publicity for the Agoura Hills-based Havasi Wilderness Foundation. Visit www.havasiwf.org. This article is reprinted from the website with permission.

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