Guest article by Molly Morrow
It was a warm winter day in Austin, and the air carried strange avian and insect noises, the constant screeching and buzzing of a southern place. I looked up and saw a tree in the parking lot of Fiesta Mart off I-35, ablaze with parakeets. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of electric-green birds!
I stood in awe and watched them until the grocery bags started to slip out of my arms. I think it was then that I realized Austin had a big, beautiful problem with birds.
Monk Parakeets: Austin’s Beautiful Strangers
These birds are called monk parakeets and, though they seem to be everywhere now, they are not native to Austin at all. The first group of monk parakeets escaped from an RV park near a downtown YMCA sometime in the early 1970s. Because they were wild birds imported from their native habitat in South America (particularly Argentina), they were able to start a wild population here in Austin, where captive species would not have been able to survive.
Due to the fact that their native climate in South America was temperate low-land (not tropical, as I had wrongly assumed because of their bright, romantic coloring), monk parakeets can endure the colder winter season with greater success than other members of the parrot family. In this way, they survived, steadily, but slowly and in small numbers. This continued for decades, until the boom of cell phone towers at the turn of the millennium.
Unlike, say, grackles–which build their nests in the branches of trees–monk parakeets prefer to nest on tall wooden or metal structures that mimic the emergent trees of their native landscape. They like tall structures with clear vantage points and long horizons. Cell phone towers suit them perfectly, as do electric transmission boxes or, here in Austin, the towering light posts of UT’s Intramural Fields off 51st Street.
Janet Reed, a monk parakeet expert who followed her love of the birds all the way to a Ph.D, has studied the birds at the Intramural Fields with scientific and meticulous interest over the past year, as the fields were renovated last October. With the renovation came the demolition of the old light posts the birds had called home for so many years. Three hundred monk parakeets have now been displaced and forced to relocate their nests.
“The loss of the field lights is huge,” said Reed when I sat down with her to discuss the birds. “Monk parakeets nest year-round. Most other species do not. In human terms, it would be like a hurricane sweeping in and washing away your home.”
Rebuilding, One Nest at a Time
But the renovation is understandable, given that the fields had not been touched in over 30 years and were badly in need of repair. The looming question now, for Reed and others who follow the monk parakeets, is how and where these beautiful birds will begin to rebuild their nests. Reed suspects they will gravitate toward electrical and cell phone towers, as they have done in Dallas and Houston. They will use young green wood, supple enough to weave, and build their nests stacked tightly together, almost like a block of bird duplexes. Up to 30 mated pairs of birds can live in one group of nests.
“February is pairing month,” says Reed. Monk parakeets are monogamous, and this time of year always brings a flurry of nest-building. “They’re getting ready,” she says, sounding hopeful. Her enthusiasm for the birds is infectious.
Where to Experience Austin’s Monk Parakeets
Wherever and however they begin to rebuild, Reed knows the birds will continue to be a source of joy to the people of Austin, and to whomever has the pleasure of seeing them around town. “They are such fun to watch,” she says. “They bring joy to people.”
To see Austin’s monk parakeets, she recommends the Central Market on North Lamar Boulevard at 38th Street, and the Starbuck’s on Guadalupe at 38th Street.
To learn more about the birds, check out this insightful piece by Peter English (on page four) or visit the fantastic Facebook group, The Monk Parakeets of Austin, Texas, which Janet Reed created and to which she regularly contributes wonderful updates on the status of the monk parakeet population in Austin.
@theAustinot wants to know:
Where is your favorite place in Austin to see monk parakeets?
Molly Morrow is a writer based in Austin, Texas, who loves birds very, very much. You can find more of her writing here.