Jailbird Parrots Return to the Wild...As Fugitives

A parrot rehabber defies the law to set her birds free.

On a warm November afternoon, Brooke Durham paced outside the El Cajon Valley Courthouse in San Diego, her topknot of pink-highlighted dreadlocks bouncing as she strode back and forth. Durham was there to spring 18 prisoners, all temporarily held in pet carriers on the ground. She was less anxious about breaking the law than about how the captives—parrots that grew up on the streets of Southern California—would fare once they were set loose. Durham and her team of accredited bird caregivers had nursed these vibrant green birds (all from the genus Amazona and native to Mexico, Central, and South America) back to health from various injuries: broken bones, head trauma, even electric shock. Now that they were fully healed, she was setting the jailbirds free—an act both unprecedented among parrot rehabbers and technically illegal in the eyes of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—into a stand of trees where 500 or so Amazons regularly roost.

“I’m nervous as hell,” said Durham, who with her husband, Josh Bridwell, runs SoCal Parrot, a nonprofit naturalized-parrot rescue and rehab facility, out of their home in Jamul, California. Her anxiety didn’t show. But then Durham, 38, who rocks those colorful highlights, a nose ring, and dark eyeliner, has an almost supernatural stoicism. Although she’s a chronic insomniac, there’s no outward sign that she barely slept the night before, or that she suffers relentless pain from a dozen back surgeries. She’s laser-focused on splitting volunteers into release teams, her soft Kentucky accent lending a certain charm to her instructions. She obviously cares for the people around her (she often spends the wee hours making ice cream, with olive oil and other unusual ingredients, that she sends home with volunteers and staff). Still, there’s no question that the birds are her top priority. Once, while following a flock of exotic parakeets in her Chevy Suburban, she turned the wrong way on a single-lane dirt road and forced an oncoming car to veer to the side. “There was,” she recalled, “no other way to go.”

On this November day, there was nothing to do but wait. The time was drawing near to release the captives. But the previous night the hundreds-strong flock of Amazons had inexplicably roosted a mile away. Now, as the sun sank, there was no sign of the raucous crowd returning, and Durham had no Plan B if the birds failed to show up.

“We call this the Durham-Bridwell petting zoo,” Durham says of their sprawling two-story home, which sits on 1.8 acres at the end of a cul-de-sac. A couple of goats chew vacantly in their pen next to enclosures for ducks and geese, and a man-made stream feeds a 10,000-gallon pond where koi and rescued turtles swim lazy laps. Inside, a Bantam rooster undertakes self-appointed patrol duty, and three French bulldogs lounge on a leather couch. But the parrots clearly rule this roost. Bridwell, 43, a contractor who jokes that he can’t say no to his wife, converted the entire main floor of the house to a rehab center, complete with exam table, microscope, and stations for fledgling feeding. He also built an enormous enclosed aviary that holds about 50 parrots and parakeets. There are always dozens of volunteers about, cutting up mounds of fresh produce and cleaning out cages amid the cheerful barking, squawking chaos that’s occasionally punctuated by curses from the couple’s own potty-mouthed pet parrots. To Durham, it’s domestic bliss.

Durham first brought parrots home in 2007, when she’d been volunteering at Project Wildlife in San Diego for two years. She started that gig to get herself out of the house after her back surgeries (necessary to address years of impact from horse jumping and gymnastics). Word quickly spread. “These little green birds seemed to just keep falling from the sky and landing right in front of me,” says Durham, who officially launched SoCal Parrot in 2011 with the intention of releasing any birds fit enough to return to the wild. An encounter with a power line blew the feathers off a Lilac-crowned Parrot called Sparky (they’ve since grown back). Someone shot a Double Yellow-headed Parrot last summer with a pellet gun, shattering her wing. Figgy, another Lilac-crowned, was trapped and brought in after she was spotted in a Northern California neighborhood attempting to cozy up to some inhospitable crows.

SoCal’s sprawling aviary has been a godsend, says veterinarian Jeff Jenkins, who runs the Avian Exotic Hospital in San Diego. “We patch up [naturalized parrots], but to keep a bird until it can go back in the wild is a problem for us,” he says. “That’s why SoCal Parrot is so valuable.”

Accounts of parrots thriving in North American cities date back to the late 1950s. The birds, including the thousands of naturalized individuals from 13 species living in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Orange County, are widely considered to be remnants of the exotic avian trade, descendants of birds smuggled or imported years ago from their native Mexico, Central and South America, and India. Until the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, the United States was the largest importer of exotic birds (a trade that’s since gone underground here). Some of those exotics escaped, were released accidentally, or were intentionally set free by overwhelmed owners or smugglers looking to avoid punishment, says Kimball Garrett, an ornithologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “My pet peeve,” he says, “is hearing people claim that parrots in Southern California flew here or were blown in by storms.”

Durham points out that while populations of such psittacines as the Lilac-crowned Parrot and the Red-masked Parakeet are thriving in the United States, their wild relatives in their native ranges are in trouble, due largely to the pet trade and deforestation. “We could be the future of these species,” Durham says. “They’ve figured out a way to survive despite all the odds stacked against them.”

That includes a lack of legal protections, aside from a Fish and Wildlife Service proviso that prohibits the disruption of nesting birds (except chickens). Both the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the Wild Bird Conservation Act protect wild parrots from international trade, but the birds aren’t covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

In early 2013 Durham contacted federal and state wildlife agencies to discuss a possible release. The agencies initially balked. “In a strict reading of Title 14, releasing parrots into the wild is illegal,” California Fish and Wildlife public information officer Andrew Hughan told Audubon.

The state’s main concern was potential damage to native flora and fauna (never mind, said Durham, that rehab groups regularly let loose patched-up House Sparrows, European Starlings, and Rock Pigeons—all introduced species).

“They said we could keep the birds, adopt them out as pets, take them back to Mexico, or have them euthanized,” says Durham, who was outraged. “These are not pets. These are wild birds, and they don’t do well in captivity.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the parrots pose little, if any, threat to native birds and plants, says James Gilardi, executive director of the World Parrot Trust, an international conservation group that has a Florida branch. “They’re living on, and in, nonnative ornamental and street trees in developed areas,” says Gilardi, including walnut, fig, palm, and eucalyptus trees (where they nest).

Durham wrote, emailed, and called various state and federal wildlife agencies for a year before they came around to her way of thinking. “If the people at SoCal Parrot feel it’s best for the animals to be released into the wild, and that their quality of life will be better,” Hughan said, “then we will not enforce [the law], and we wish them the best of luck.” The only stipulation was that no Monk Parakeets could be let loose (the birds are banned as agricultural pests).

Other parrot rehab centers are watching closely to see both how the birds reintegrate and whether wildlife agencies crack down on SoCal Parrot after all. “The regulatory system is very complex,” says Michelle Yesney, CEO of Mickaboo Companion Bird Rescue, which serves most of Northern California. “I’m a little uneasy about this, but I’m optimistic that it can become an acceptable practice.”

That is, of course, assuming the birds adjust to the wild again after their time in captivity.

Outside the courthouse, the harsh cackle of Amazons finally cuts through the hum of traffic. Six bright-green parrots circled overhead, then settled on some power lines a block away. Good enough. Durham wouldn’t wait for more of the flock to appear. A volunteer asked if it wasn’t too soon. “Don’t worry,” Durham said, calmly pulling on her leather gloves. “They can all fly.”

She carefully removed a Red-crowned Parrot from a pet carrier. It protested mightily while she held it firmly, allowed its eyes to adjust, and let go. The parrot noisily gained altitude, circled, and then melted into the foliage of a eucalyptus tree. The Amazons on the power lines screeched at the spectacle but stayed put. One by one, Durham set her captives free.

Suddenly, after the final bird had settled in, about 500 Amazons dropped out of the sky. They swooped, calling to one another in a deafening chatter before settling in the pines and eucalyptus, transforming El Cajon into an urban jungle. As the sky went fully dark, every parrot fell silent. The birds—rehabbed and otherwise—were in for the night. “None of this has really hit me yet,” Durham said, walking back to her car, “but I’m sure the tears will come later.”

As of this spring, all 18 Amazons were still with the courtyard flock (each bird has an ID chip). Durham had also released another batch of birds, eight parakeets, elsewhere in San Diego; only one, it seems, didn’t have a taste for the wild. That Mitred Parakeet landed at the San Diego Zoo—in the condor flight enclosure exhibit, of all places—a few days after it was set free, and is now back at the SoCal Parrot aviary. All of them, it seems, have made their way home.


Dave Good writes about American life for San Diego Magazine, the San Diego Reader, and the OC Weekly.