The Monk Parakeet: A Jailbird Who Made Good

There's a legend that holds that Monk Parakeets became established in the United States after escaping a broken shipping crate at New York's John F. Kennedy airport in the 1960s. They were on their way to pet shops, destined for a life in a cage. When the opportunity struck, they made a break for it.

As with any good legend, the details are murky. Some sources place the accident in 1968, others 1969, still others in the early ‘70s. The supposed number of escapees ranges from a dozen to two thousand birds. In Connecticut the birds have their own origin tale, except in theirs the crate falls off a truck on I-95. There seems to be no first-hand account of any such accidents, and the airport isn’t returning my calls.

Despite its factual fuzziness, I choose to believe the gist of this story. It’s just too vivid in my imagination to be a lie: the coverall-clad airport worker shouting “Fuhgeddaboudit!” as he dives out of the way of the falling crate; the bright green birds bursting out in a squawking frenzy; the hippie in bell-bottoms watching from the terminal, wondering if he’d smoked a little too much pot. Why risk the truth when the myth is so much fun?

Whatever happened, Monk Parakeets are here to stay. If they were indeed in that crate at JFK, they’d probably just come off a plane from southern South America, where the birds are native. Monk Parakeets are popular cage birds, and they were imported by the thousands between 1960 and 1980. Importing wild monks is illegal now, but they’re still bred in captivity.  (For those who choose not to believe in the broken-crate theory, another holds that owners sprung them from their cages to escape their relentless, raucous calls.)

Just as interesting as how monks got here is how well they’ve adapted to their new country. The temperate and subtropical climates of the species' native range aren’t too different from climates in many southern parts of the U.S., and the birds have established colonies across the country. Nearly 100,000 live in Florida, and all the major cities in Texas host established populations.

Monks are in good company in southern cities, which often host several species of introduced parrots, but in colder northern cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston, they are often the lone tropical bird. That's because while other parrots make their homes in tree cavities, monks build communal stick nests—multichambered, insulated structures that can span five feet in diameter and keep dozens of birds warm through even the nastiest Northeastern winters. (They can also cause full-blown power outages when the birds build the nests on electric lines, which they have a habit of doing.) A mid-January visitor to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery can simply follow the squawks to find one of the twiggy orbs sitting atop the Gothic arches at the main gate. Colorful and vivacious, the birds seem completely oblivious to the miserable day that surrounds them.

The parakeet's flamboyant plumage seems at odds with its name, which comes from the markings on its neck, which someone, somewhere, apparently thought looked like a monk's hood. And while the Monk Parakeet isn't exactly a hedonist, it has other qualities that place it firmly in the non-ascetic camp, such as its extraordinary reproductive rate—though to be fair, that's due less to constant mating action than to the size of the female's clutch, which can contain up to eight eggs. And then there was that time a Monk Parakeet gave a Bald Eagle chlamydia . . .

The monk's bon vivant approach extends to its eating habits, which are best described as indiscriminate (an advantage when you're adapting to a new home). In the summer, when plants are in bloom, they'll eat buds, weeds, and the fruits of all kinds of shrubs and trees; in the winter, they descend in rapacious flocks on backyard bird feeders. (That appetite for grain actually gave them a bad reputation in their native South America, where during some seasons they were said to be responsible for crops losses of up to 45 percent.) So maybe it makes mores sense to call the monk by its other common name, the Quaker Parrot, which, though it has similar connotations of simplicity, most likely comes from the bird's habit of bouncing its head up and down.

When Monk Parakeets first began colonizing U.S. cities, some scientists worried they might proliferate and become an agricultural pest in the same way they can be in South America, which prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct eradication programs as early as the 1970s. Yet thankfully, and for reasons that remain unclear, they’ve never become a threat; American populations are stable, not exploding the way scientists feared in the '70s. Today the birds live peaceably among us, just another immigrant trying to make it in the big city after landing at JFK.