text and photography
by Rex Sample
You cannot ignore them. They are loud, exotic and graceful in flight. They instantly bring your thoughts to a distant rainforest. They seem totally out of place in Southern California unless they are in a pet store. Yet, adapting to a new home is the name of their game. It seems unlikely that they could do it, but these remarkable creatures are now part of our urban forest.
Parrots have found an unlikely new home, taking to the area’s subtropical climate. Southern California holds 12 established colonies of naturalized parrots, spreading across more than 40 different cities. Our feathered friends have taken to new skies, fighting back against deforestation and exhausted resources, making the most of California’s temperate climate. The city of La Verne lies squarely in the subtropical zone, allowing for tropical plants and animals to thrive. La Verne presents an oasis for the naturalized population that forages in residential yards in a never-ending search for food.
Parrots and parakeets call the United States home partially because prior to 1992 the United states was a big contributor to importing exotic birds. When the United States passed the Bird Conservation Act in 1992, it banned the import of exotics birds into the country. Nevertheless, by then these intelligent birds had created their own “pandemonium,” as a flock of parrots is called. Many of these feral parrots are direct descendants of pets, or first generation pets themselves. Surprisingly, these animals have successfully adapted to their new, non-natural habitat.
The illegal bird trade started it all, taking these birds from one ecosystem to another. The illegal trade harmed wild populations, pushing them toward extinction in their natural habitat. Some, like the beautiful blue spix macaw, is now extinct in its natural habitat. About 160 exist in captivity. And while the illegal trade of these birds is a major contributor to Southern California’s thriving feral populations, deforestation has stripped natural food sources in the tropical rainforests, putting immense pressure on those wild populations across the equator. Deforestation – the act of removing trees to make room for agricultural or industrial use – has caused the loss of roughly 17 percent of natural rainforests. The deforestation percentage is accelerating.
Referring to these birds as “parrots” or “parakeets” is interchangeable, and that has created confusion. Although they are very different animals, “Parakeets,” which are very popular pets in the United States, are a highly specialized species of parrots that are small to medium in size. One species of parakeet commonly known as “budgies” or “budgerigar,” an aboriginal name meaning “good bird,” is a small seed eating parrot native to Australia. The main difference in the groups of birds is their size, although parakeets are smaller, but by no means are they lacking in personality.
Parrots are a highly adaptive animal and thrive in the majority of the environments they call home. Sarah Mansfield, operations manager of SoCal Parrot, says they are very talented at thermoregulation, giving them the ability to adapt to changes in weather. Mansfield tells about a pandemonium of 60 Yellow-headed Amazons that call Stuttgart, Germany their home, where the average winter temperature is around 45 degrees Fahrenheit unlike the subtropical climate of La Verne. “This flock is proof that as long as parrots have a safe, warm spot to nest and ample food supply, they can withstand colder temperatures,” she says.
The wild parrot population in Southern California ranges from Los Angeles County to San Diego County and now includes 12 different species of parrots and parakeets. Some of these threatened species have taken to suburb backyards to feast on fruit trees.
Even if you cannot see the parrots as they feast in our backyard fruit trees, you may hear their squawks, trills and whistles. Their ear blistering calls are sure to help you get up in the morning. In the early evening, their combined cacophony will bring a smile to your face or make you bury your head back into your pillow. Their pandemonium twists and turns in a synchronized motion, acting as if they are the same brain. They think alike and are on a constant search for food, causing havoc wherever they go. “They are here now because of the year-round abundance of fruit and nut trees which covers their main diet,” says Jeff Burkhart, University of La Verne biology professor and Fletcher Jones Chair emeritus.
The parrots’ biggest limiting factor to surviving is food. If you are planning on planting a new fig tree, do not be surprised when you get a visit from our feathered friends, as this is one of their favorite foods.
Southern California has become their home away from home. Some of these species are: Rose-Ringed Parakeet, Lilac Crowned Parrot, Yellow Headed Parrot, Yellow Chevroned Parakeet, and the Nanday Parakeet. A pandemonium of Yellow Chevroned Parakeets call La Verne one of their many homes. They sometimes dive bomb unsuspecting students and feast on local fruit and nut trees. These birds are not hard to miss with their bright colors as they swoop and squawk through the suburban neighborhood sky. Shut your eyes, and you are instantly transported into the depths of the mysterious Amazon.
Have you ever wondered why you hear the incessant calls of birds at the crack of dawn? It is called the dawn chorus. Of course, birds can sing at time of the day, but during this time it is especially important since they are calling out to their mate or to the pandemonium. Their voices can start as early at 4 a.m. and can go on for hours. Much of the commotion is caused by males calling to attract their mate or warn away other males from their territory.
These remarkable birds’ range in size and color, and may call many places home, but they have found sanctuary at the Los Angeles Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia, where they live in harmony with migratory and permanent aviary residents. The Arboretum is the Hilton for four species of parrots and six species of parakeets where these exotic birds socialize with geese and falcons, among the many feathered residents calling the Arboretum their home.
One of the adaptations allowing parrots to thrive in many different settings is their ability to scout for food. Parrots are zygodactyl, meaning they have two forward facing toes and two pointing backwards. This adaptation helps them turn a tree into their jungle gym, and they climb and forage with ease.
Parrots and parakeets have a strong curved beak that gives them the ability to crack walnuts with ease. The beak of a parrot has a bite force of about 500 to 700 pounds per square inch whereas a human has about 160 pounds per square inch.
Besides their highly adaptive skills, they also have the ability to imitate human speech, sounding very human at times. You may call them one of the best impersonators. This is often one of the many reasons that they are sought as highly desirable pets.
But these are not pets. If you see these remarkable birds flying through the air, relish in the thought that you are seeing and hearing a bird that flies free in tropical rainforests. Now, they fly free in Southern California, connecting us in so many ways to our natural world, both here and in the tropical rainforests that are our responsibility to protect.