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However, as serious birders will admit when pressed, the idea that adventuresome parrots, splitting from JFK, flew purposefully westward, passing over the orchards of Pennsylvania, attractive parks in Cleveland and the cornfields of Indiana, to settle in the Hyde Park district of Chicago, goes a long way beyond belief.
Dr. William J. Beecher, the Director Emeritus of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a distinguished ornithologist, has given considerable thought to the matter. He says, "The Kennedy story as explanation for the birds in Hyde Park isn't plausible. It's contrary to everything we know about how imported species, as for example the starling [which was introduced to this country in the 1890s and about which Beecher is a world authority], become naturalized and expand their range. Such species disperse in a continuous pattern, establishing themselves as breeders in suitable habitats and then pioneering farther. They don't hopscotch, turn up in widely separated population pockets as the Kennedy theory suggests the monk parakeets have done."
Doug Anderson is a resident of the Hyde Park area and a passionate, well-regarded amateur birder who is a past president of the Chicago Ornithological Society and currently the vice-president of the Chicago chapter of the National Audubon Society. He has watched the 53rd Street parrots longer and more closely than any other expert. Anderson says he has repeated the JFK escape story himself because it has become more or less the official one, and he believes there may be a connection between the airport escapees and the birds nesting in Hyde Park. Both he and Beecher, however, point to the fact that breeding populations in the 1,000 miles between New York and Chicago are, if existent, rare and isolated.
Anderson feels it is also possible that the Chicago parrots escaped directly from pet suppliers or private owners in the city, or were intentionally released. This sort of thing, as hundreds of stray dogs and cats, occasional white rats, once-tame raccoons and alligators attest, is a common occurrence in urban areas. (Last summer, a 7-foot boa constrictor was roaming freely about western Chicago, and a fisherman snagged a piranha out of the artificial lagoon in a municipal park. The former was accidentally run over and killed in a shopping-center parking lot, and the latter, after being caught, was sent to the Shedd Aquarium, where it was dissected for purposes of accurate identification.) Certainly, it's conceivable that having come by a pair of monks and having sat around listening to them screech in, say, a small apartment, a disenchanted birdkeeper might open the cage door and shoo them out of the nearest window into the world. Even so, the local escapee explanation has its weaknesses: Monks have been common in the pet trade for decades. Why would they suddenly and only recently show up in Hyde Park? Also, why did they appear as a flock? Was there a mass release, or did birds that had gained their freedom individually or in pairs flap around the city until they found each other?
There is another theoretical possibility: that for inscrutable reasons, a crowd of monks left the Argentine, started flying north and didn't stop until they reached 53rd Street, which they found especially attractive. This is not altogether fantastic; smaller and less robust birds travel twice a year between the very northerly and southerly parts of the hemisphere. Nevertheless, the idea of the monks making a mighty one-way emigration is so much at odds with current zoological knowledge that it is virtually unmentionable in serious bird circles. Also, it's impolite, even cynical, for anyone outside those circles to suggest that theory because, like the one concerning the Kennedy escape, it can't be factually disproved, and the only answer can be, "Everybody knows that something like that can't happen."
However and from wherever they got there, the monks first appeared at their present location in Hyde Park in the spring of 1980. They have been in continuous residence ever since and have raised at least five, and perhaps a dozen or more, young birds in the green-ash nest. As far as most experts now know, they are the most northerly breeding colony of their kind to be found anywhere in the world. A question that has occurred to many on first seeing or hearing about these birds is, How have they survived the harsh Chicago winters, especially the one of 1981-82, the most ferocious the area has had in decades? The answer seems to be, rather easily—better, in fact, than many other creatures, including people. In the worst part of 1982 Beecher found the frozen carcasses of two monks, but he cautions that other factors, injury, for example, may have been the primary cause of death. Beecher feels that having made it through three winters the Chicago birds have demonstrated that climate alone isn't a bar to them. This isn't particularly surprising, since in the southern parts of their natural range in Argentina, winter weather is brisk, if not quite as frigid as it is along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Anderson reports that the monks have made at least one adaptation to the climate. In the worst weather, when The Hawk is raging, the birds will temporarily abandon their nest to seek shelter provided by buildings, which are more effective windbreaks than their own twig-and-grass structure. Among the most popular refuges are the fire escapes on a large South Shore Drive apartment building, which is fittingly, in this context, called The Flamingo.
For many animals the scarcity or absolute lack of food during the winter is more crucial than low temperatures and is the reason they migrate or hibernate or, if they don't, sometimes perish. The Chicago parrots have coped reasonably well. From early spring until late fall, local parks and ornamental plantings around nearby buildings seem to provide plenty of food of the hawthorn-dandelion sort. Also, there are several residents who enjoy feeding pigeons on neighborhood streets. The monks have learned about this and congregate for these handouts. In the dead of winter, the time when natural foods have disappeared or are covered by snow and ice, the parrots visit—and probably survive because of—private bird-feeding stations, which are surprisingly numerous in Hyde Park.
David and Sylvia Smith and Bob and Rita Picken are next-door neighbors on 56th Street, and both couples have feeders in their backyards. Late in 1980 Sylvia was the first to see one of the parrots. She was astonished. "It was fairly early in the morning and I got David out of bed because I knew unless he saw it himself, he wasn't going to believe we had a parrot on our feeder," she says.
Since then the Smiths and Pickens have had parrots regularly during the winter, often as many as 17 around a feeder at the same time. Both couples are pleased, enjoying the exotic birds for their own sake and also for the incredulity of those who haven't previously known about them. Sylvia Smith says, "We have people stop and knock on the door to tell us they think we have parrots flying around the yard. A lot of them seem to think we should do something about it; catch the birds and put them in cages, or at least report it to the authorities. We say, 'Oh yes, those parrots live around here. We just watch them.' "