In softer, more
moderate communities it might be regarded as an awful one, but in Chicago it is
a better-than-average November morning. There is some high brightness behind
the cloud blanket, and in consequence the urban landscape has a gun-metal
sheen. It stopped sleeting about the time the invisible sun is thought to have
risen. There is a skim of ice on the bean-soup-colored puddles of water in the
gutters and chuckholes, but the only precipitation is a little snow coming in
occasional hard, gritty flurries. The Hawk, which in southern districts of the
city is what some people call the wind that stoops and rakes in from Lake
Michigan, is no more than cruising. Bits of wastepaper and plastic are
scattering in front of The Hawk, like plovers fleeing a peregrine, and water is
being whipped against the pilings that protect Lake Shore Drive, creating
plumes of spray 10 feet high. However, on the streets of Chicago The Hawk is
just playing, not seriously trying to knock the citizens down.
In addition to
the wind Hawk, Chicago harbors the Black Hawks, the Bulls and the Bears. But
probably the most exciting and certainly the most attractive zoological gang in
town is the Chicago parrots.
The parrots are a
South Side outfit, and on this particular morning they are taking care of
business in a 10-block area that fronts Lake Michigan between 50th and 56th
Streets. The permanent center of their operations is a small park at the
intersection of 53rd and the Outer Drive, where they have built a large nest 25
feet above ground in a green-ash tree. They have been working on this structure
for more than three years, and it is now the size of two bales of hay and made
of found twigs, grasses, shards of Styrofoam, cardboard and other scraps of
These parrots are
colonial but not, strictly speaking, communal. It seems that there are now five
or six families in the flock, each with its own entrance (a hole about the
diameter of a squash ball) to a private apartment in the cooperative nest. At
this moment of observation five birds, using two different entrance holes, are
visible on the premises, poking their heads out, strutting around a bit on the
front stoops, then disappearing inside as if testing the power and inclination
of The Hawk.
Hard by some
tennis courts that separate the park turf from South Lake Shore Drive, eight
other parrots—traveling together, as they always do—are feeding in a grove of
ornamental Washington hawthorn bushes, gobbling up the frost-shriveled but
still moist berries. They continue to do so for 10 minutes and then, for no
reason apparent to an observer of another blood, they leave and take an aerial
turn around the park, flying in tight formation, rising and dipping in a
pattern reminiscent of goldfinches. As they fly they screech, very raucously.
Shortly, some admiring remarks about these birds will be passed along, but this
isn't intended as a puff piece on parrots. They do have their faults. The most
obvious one is their voice. Their flight call is piercing, grating and
unpleasant. They screech far too often in public.
By and by the
birds land on a patch of parkland that is largely bare of grass by reason of
heavy use by beer- and wine-drinkers and smokers of various materials. However,
the place does support a good crop of hardy dandelions. The parrots start
snipping off the dried fluffy heads with their heavy beaks and ingesting the
pods. They move from dandelion to dandelion at a slow, staggering waddle.
Without the results of an avian breathalyzer test, it's unfair to make formal
charges, but they look tipsy, and it's certainly possible that they are. The
thing is that hawthorn berries, like many other fruits, will, as they freeze
and thaw in the autumn, ferment. The process is the same as that which enables
one to make applejack by repeatedly freezing and skimming off the ice from a
barrel of sweet apple cider.
Those who've kept
a close watch on the Chicago parrots have noted that they sometimes get
pie-eyed on hard hawthorns. They appear to be on their way to such a state this
morning. Other birds—say, cedar waxwings in strong fox grapes—have this same
tendency, but there is a tradition that parrots (consider all the stories about
them hanging around with sailors in taverns) have a special weakness, or
sophistication, in this regard. It's not all gossip. I once lived in an old
house with a jungly garden high up in the Sierra Madre of southern Mexico. In
the garden was a small grove of mountain coffee trees and also a magnificent
parrot, a military macaw which went by the name of Siete Machos. He was a bird
of such age, girth and temper that before we became acquainted he had retired
from flying. It was probably a wise decision, for during the winter months he
lurched about in the coffee thicket eating fallen, fermented berries. There
were weeks when Siete Machos appeared not to draw a sober breath.
In any event,
these eight Chicago parrots crop for about an hour on the dandelions and then
rise and fly screeching back to the green ash, where they enter their private
apartments in the nest. There should be another flock someplace because the
most knowledgeable authorities believe there are at least 17, and perhaps as
many as 25, parrots in this community. A check, however, of some of their
favorite haunts—hedges around a synagogue, fire escapes on a high-rise
apartment—turns up no more birds. The remainder may not have gone out this
morning, preferring to wait out The Hawk in the security of the nest. Or they
may be doing something somewhere nobody knows about or can even guess at, which
would be in keeping with the natural history of these improbable birds.
All of which is
no fanciful tease. What we have on the South Side of Chicago, in the district
called Hyde Park, are absolutely real parrots. They are known formally to
science as Myiopsitta monachus and belong to the family psittacidae, the
parrots and cockatoolike birds, of which there are 339 species. The Chicago
birds are commonly known as monk parakeets but are not to be confused with the
little cage birds, budgerigars, which are often called parakeets. The monks are
about 12 inches long, nearly twice as large as budgerigars; they're trim,
slender birds with pointed, dovelike tails. There is a patch of gray plumage
set cowl-like over the forehead (thus the name monk), but otherwise their upper
parts are various shades of green, from new grass to spinach shades. The wing
coverts are dark blue and the bill is rosy.
are from Australia, the monks are natives of South America, a numerous species,
especially in the central pampas of Argentina. This, of course, raises the
obvious question: What are these birds doing in Chicago? The only truthful
answer is that nobody knows exactly how they got there, much less why. There
are, however, theories. One frequently mentioned by bird people and in
ornithological texts is that a load of monks was collected in the Argentine,
circa 1967, and shipped to the U.S. to be sold as pets. At Kennedy Airport in
New York a crate of birds was dropped and broke open, the captives escaping.
Not long afterward, a number of monks were seen in the New York City area.
During the next few years, individually or in small groups, monks were reported
in Asheville, N.C.; Plymouth, Ind.; Muskegon, Mich.; Dallas; Norman, Okla.;
Omaha; and Anaheim, Calif.