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South American birds find home in Texas

By Michelle Christenson

Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Published: Sunday, June 12 2011 11:56 a.m. MDT

ADVANCED FOR USE MONDAY, JUNE 13 AND THEREAFTER Monk parakeets fly above their nesting site atop a large palm tree at the Gulf Way motel on Leopard Street. "They're very social," Jon-Marc Davey(cq), co-author of Parrots in the City said. "They like to fly togther, they like to eat together.. you rarely see them fly alone."

Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Michelle Christenson, Associated Press

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Despite controversy and threats of eradication, these tough little escapees from South America have adapted to life in the United States. Often they live atop light poles, communication towers and church steeples in carefully constructed communal nests. The monk parakeet, also known as the Quaker parrot, is here to stay.

"Our residents seem to prefer the palm trees," said Leah Pummill, president of the Audubon Outdoor Club of Corpus Christi.

Foraging among the achromatic tones of local doves, sparrows and grackles, flashes of bright green, blue and a hint of yellow accompanied by loud squawks indicate their presence. However, apart from the birding community, many people do not know that for more than 20 years Corpus Christi has had a wild population of tropical birds less than two miles from the refineries.

"It's one of those things that is a well-kept secret," Pummill said.

Every morning, Kanti Bhakta, owner of Gulf Way Motel on Leopard Street, feeds a large group of monk parakeets that nest in a palm tree near the office.

"Seven to eight years ago it was two birds and a baby," Bhakta said. "Right now it's over 20 birds."

And feeding the birds can get addicting.

Beverly Madden lives in the Dona Park neighborhood. While walking her dog Gus about a year ago, she thought she heard a parrot. She knew about the green parrots in the area so one day she put some bird food on her sidewalk, and a bunch flew in. She was delighted.

But they didn't come back.

"My neighbor behind me had them, and so I was getting kind of jealous," Madden said.

She asked her neighbor for the secret of attracting the pretty birds to her yard. The answer seemed simple: a hanging feeder.

Last month, Madden bought 160 pounds of seed.

Finding these birds in new areas could mean that the population is growing or they are flying farther to find food. "I'm hoping they're increasing their population enough to spread over to the other side," Pummill said, citing that people have seen them fly across Interstate 37.

The monk parakeet made its debut in North America in the late 1960s when broken shipping crates released birds in transit to pet shops. Later, pet birds escaped or were released by their owners. At that time the birds had a reputation of being an agricultural pest and many states implemented programs to eliminate the species to protect farmers.

But the population of the feral flocks didn't grow as expected.

"I don't think they've really become the nuisance they thought they would be," said Mel Cooksey, local birder and co-author of "A Birder's Guide to the Texas Coast."

"I think the population is stable."

The National Audubon Society counted 445 monk parakeets in Texas and 2,273 in the U.S. during its 2010 Christmas Bird Count.

Although monk parakeets can be found as far north as Chicago and New York, Florida and Texas have the largest populations of wild breeding parakeets. In 1991, the Texas Bird Records Committee officially added the monk parakeet to the state's bird list.

However, their fight for acceptance is not over. In Florida, power companies still see the birds as pests because of the large nests they build on utility poles and transformers. The nests can disrupt power, attract snakes and even injure the poachers who try to capture the wild birds. "They're not protected in any way, shape or form," said Floridian Jon-Marc Davey co-author of "Parrots in the City." Ultimately, the companies can remove the nests and the birds too.

And although there are cities that protect the birds, others do not. Davey works with several groups that try to rescue the displaced birds and educate the public.

"What's the future?" Davey asks. "It depends on whether man leaves them alone or not. That's the constant battle."

Information from: Corpus Christi Caller-Times, http://www.caller.com

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