SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
January 09, 1984
To the surprise and delight of their urban neighbors, a flock of parrots have forsaken their native Argentina and established a nourishing colony in the Windy City. How they got there, and why, nobody knows
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January 09, 1984

Look What's Holed Up In Chicago

To the surprise and delight of their urban neighbors, a flock of parrots have forsaken their native Argentina and established a nourishing colony in the Windy City. How they got there, and why, nobody knows

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As Anderson infers, not everyone has been pleased about the coming of monk parakeets to the U.S. In fact, what might be called the official reception of the species was on the hostile-to-violent side. In the 1960s, after the first feral monks began to appear—from Kennedy Airport or wherever—the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent an all-points warning about them to appropriate federal and state wildlife agencies and to some private organizations such as the National Audubon Society. The gist of the alarm was that these were potentially bad birds and that it would be a righteous act if those finding them, or particularly their nests, were to destroy them. The agricultural knock against the monks is that in South America they are known to eat a lot of corn, millet, sunflowers, grapes, apples, peaches and other fruits and grains. Flocks have been known to destroy as much as 15% of some crops in certain areas. In attempting to control the birds in the Argentine, farmers and government agents have had at them with guns, traps, fire and poison. In one two-year campaign, bounties were paid for nearly half a million dead parakeets; two legs of a monk brought the peso equivalent of one cent. Nevertheless, the population remains vigorous throughout most of its range.

Whether or not the monks could become numerous enough in this country to cause serious crop losses isn't known. Since feral monks that have been reported regularly during the last 15 years have always appeared in very small groups, it's possible that they may have the capacity to be only a marginal breeding species here. However, on the chance that it might be otherwise, the Department of Agriculture issued its warning.

The fears of agriculturists and their public servants about parrots may or may not be well-founded; at least they rise directly out of practical self-interest and deserve to be considered seriously when it comes to dealing with the species. But another reason for the cold reception the monks received in some quarters is an almost reflexive bias against species that have been brought to this country recently and which then start living freely here. In support of this, the trouble supposedly caused by imported starlings is often cited. (In fact, in many areas starlings are now the most interesting and ecologically significant elements in the avian community.) However, this judgment is essentially an esthetic one, having less to do with science than with zoological snobbery and chauvinism.

Much of this country is occupied and operated by immigrants, that is, species that didn't originate here. This is most apparent among ourselves, every person jack of us—red, white, black, yellow and mixtures thereof—having ancestors who came here from other continents. The same is true of a good many of the resident plants and animals. In thinking about this, we tend to make arbitrary judgments, based largely on time and manner of arrival, about good natives and undesirable aliens. The Everglades kite and black-footed ferret, which got here many centuries ago by their own devices (from the Caribbean and Siberia, respectively), are deemed to be fine, natural native Americans, altogether deserving of our support and sympathy. Another all-right category includes such things as the honeybee. It was imported, but so long ago—in the 17th century by English settlers—that it's now celebrated as a good old American bug. On the other hand, something like the monk parakeet is regarded with scorn and suspicion, as an impure, essentially not-nice creature, because it came (maybe) in the last 20 years by (perhaps) jet.

Underlying all this is a more pervasive and mischievous conceit: that we humans are the unnatural species. There are two versions of this notion. The first, chronologically and probably still in terms of popularity, is that we are unnatural because we are so far above and better than other living things. The second, which has gained ground rapidly in this age of exquisite environmental sensibility, is that we are unnatural because we are worse than everything else. The corollary of this is that other phenomena which are unduly affected by us and our works—say golf courses, Toggenburg goats, park pigeons and zoo chimpanzees—are no longer really and truly natural. These notions are supported by little but hubris and/or a kind of Peter Pan-Captain Hook romanticism. All the hard evidence points to the conclusion that we belong here and are as natural as anything else. In fact, at the moment, because of our numbers and energy, we are a force of nature on the order of fire, frost or flood. Some may prefer the Tribune Tower in Chicago to El Capitan in Yosemite, or vice versa, but both were created by natural powers.

Our impact, like that of sun or wind, seems, at least in the short run, to be sometimes good and sometimes bad. We've played terminal hell with the passenger pigeon and the ivory-billed woodpecker. We have seriously discommoded the whooping crane, wolf and grizzly, the American chestnut and the elm. On the other hand, a lot of things—blackberries, locusts, white-tailed deer, crows, possums, skunks, woodchucks—are more numerous and vigorous because our activities during the past few centuries have improved the environment from their standpoint. Also, we have recently proved to be major dispersing agents, serving to greatly diversify the flora and fauna of given areas. If nature is thought of as what is, rather than what once was or should be, then it must be acknowledged that ours is much more various than it was 300 years ago. There are hundreds of species of plants and animals—herds of Herefords, flocks of pheasants, plantations of perennial flowers—that are now thriving here because of us. (As a matter of statistical record, there are certainly 39 species of birds, and probably 56 that were imported to North America by design or accident and have become naturalized. From this increase must be subtracted the six species we have exterminated.) In the process, we have done some dumb, cruel, malicious and wantonly selfish things that now do not seem to have been in our own or anybody else's best ecological interest. But we have committed no unnatural acts.

This and more bring the parrots back to mind. A 707, or whatever they arrived on, is a no more despicable form of transport than the southwest wind, which some centuries ago carried the Everglades kite to these parts. Somewhere down the road, the monks may become established here. If so, we may regard them as excellent additions; bright, pretty, useful birds that help to make up for the loss of their kin, the Carolina parakeet. On the other hand, they may turn into awful pests, making us wish they had stayed home to harass the Argentines. But that is nature for you. The most beautiful and comforting thing about it is that it is ultimately so complex as to defy even medium-range prophecy and too powerful to be controlled by any of us.

Now, as the parrots face their fourth Chicago winter, the colony is thought to be the largest established group of monks in the U.S. The location is serendipitous for the birds. The little park on 53rd Street, where the nest tree stands, occupies only a single block, but as genuine natural history goes, it is a fascinating bit of habitat. In times past it lay under the waters of Lake Michigan, then was a strand of dune and more recently prairie. Now it is about as heterogeneous in terms of life forms as any few hundred square yards on the face of the earth. In addition to the parrots, the most common birds in the park are pigeons (actually rock doves, natives of Asia Minor that were brought at some forgotten date to the British Isles and transported from there to here in English ships in 1621); house, or English, sparrows that originally ranged from the Atlantic coast of Europe to Lake Baikal in Siberia and were intentionally brought to and released in the U.S. in 1850 in hopes that they would help clean up horse manure from the streets of eastern cities; and the aforementioned starlings, which evolved in the East Indies, spread or were spread across Eurasia before being imported to this country as part of a romantically conceived plan to introduce all of the non-native bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. Growing around and in the park in Chicago there are hawthorns of a species first found by us in our South Atlantic regions, Chinese chrysanthemums, English ivies, French marigolds, euonymous. forsythia, the yews, privets and dandelions, along with the oaks, maples, ashes and other flora of Illinois. As for the human community, facing the park are the Hampton House and Del Prado apartment buildings, a synagogue, Congregation Rodfei Zedek, the Pierre Andre Hair Styling Salon and the House of Eng, a Thai restaurant. In the park is a brick comfort station. Its outer walls are inscribed with wonderfully exotic graffiti: ELIJA IS DEAD MALACHI 3-22-24. WATCH POLAND. WHO ARE THE JEWS. I KNOW NO PEOPLE OF EDOM THAT WHO THE JEW ARE.

The more you hang around this micro-niche the more ordinary the presence of green parrots from Argentina seems. There are all sorts of creatures that came as far to reach this park, and probably by means that were at least as unusual—beings within whom there are elements, if not memories, of far Cathay and Krakow, the South Downs and great steppes, the Spice Islands and Baltic forests, jungles and deserts, Seville and Samarkand. All along 53rd Street are epics and myths in waiting, tales and histories that would not suffer in comparison with the Chronicles of Narnia and the Shire. One might commence: "Sore pressed were the Green Screechers of the pampas. Beset by fell gauchos and game protectors, rent by shot, choked with foul fumes, their ancient high homes enflamed, the Company of Wanderers gathered and took wing. Oared they stoutly the air toward Farnoth, the great lake of frost and The Hawk, where it is said now lies their hopes and fates." Fear of anthropomorphism be damned!

Ordinary observation suggests that in terms of true ecology—in which human forces are properly weighed—the Hyde Park neighborhood is one of the most benign imaginable habitats for monk parakeets available in this country. By contrast, had they tried to settle in a national park, state game refuge, private sanctuary or other place managed according to fashionable and up-to-date ecological principles, they would almost certainly have been rousted. I have a vivid recollection of a federal naturalist explaining why he was going to cut down a Norfolk Island pine tree that once grew in the Everglades Park. The tree looked to be about 75 years old and was a fine specimen that provided shade, food and shelter for a diverse community of local plants and animals. The ranger said it was a species native to Australia, planted by some environmental ignoramus. It had to be removed to protect the natural purity and integrity of the park.

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