The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #78: Go Find an Exotic Bird in the U.S.

There are established populations all over the country, and some species even count toward your life list. They're also just thrilling to see.

Would you believe me if I told you that no matter where you are in the United States, you’re probably just a few hours drive from seeing wild parrots?

It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Thanks to the international pet trade—and some careless or lazy owners—this country is chock-full of colorful, exotic species eking out existences far from their native homelands. We’ve got free-flying populations of parrots, parakeets, lovebirds, munias, bulbuls, mynas, and other birds you’d only otherwise see in a zoo or tropical jungle.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a wild parrot in the United States 12 years ago. I was in Milford, Connecticut, in November—what felt like the least parrot-y time and place possible. I was on a birding high having just scored my lifer American Bittern and American Oystercatcher at the Milford Point Audubon Center when I heard some raucous squawking in the trees behind me. I turned to see several large green and pale gray birds I didn’t recognize. They looked a lot like . . . Monk Parakeets? I was amazed. I wanted to run up and shake people by the shoulders and point and shout, “There are parrots over there!”

I still feel that giddiness when I encounter exotic birds on American turf. After all, they’re not supposed to be here. Some of these species are tarred with the epithet “invasive,” but for the most part, they’re not doing any harm. Many of them have very small populations—usually in urban areas in the South—and aren’t expanding much or pushing out native species. I’m certainly not advocating for anyone to release their pet bird or take their literary-hero obsession too far, but now that these exotics are here, we might as well save on airfare and carbon emissions and take advantage of their presence in the States. Gawking at these wild exotics is a fun experience for a new birder, and I want to help you find them. 

First, though, you should know that we've lost two of our own native parrots in the past century, while two other natives can still be found in remote southern Texas. The orange-and-yellow-headed Carolina Parakeet once numbered in the millions and ranged from New York to Nebraska and along the Southeast coast. John James Audubon painted them and also wrote about how despised these birds were by the farmers and orchard owners whose crops they feasted on. Heavily persecuted, Carolina Parakeets numbers fell dramatically in the 19th century, and the last living specimen died in a Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.

Another species, the Thick-billed Parrot, used to wander into the American Southwest on occasion. Lime green with contrasting black-and-yellow underwings, the bird made an attractive target and was subject to indiscriminate shooting. Hunting pressure, along with loss of habitat from excessive logging, led to the Thick-billed Parrot being extirpated from the United States by the 1930s. Thankfully, it still persists in the mountains of central Mexico, though it is on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

Two species, the Red-crowned Parrot and the Green Parakeet, are native to Mexico, but their range sneaks over the border into the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. A birding trip to southern Texas is always special, and it’s your only chance to see native parrots on American soil.

If you can’t get down to the Rio Grande Valley, however, there are still plenty of exotic parrots, parakeets, and colorful escapees awaiting the adventurous U.S. birder. Here are what you should look for and where:

Monk Parakeet

Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

The most widespread of American exotics, this loud and attractive parakeet is able to tolerate much colder areas than many of its cousins by building huge communal nests that resemble floating haystacks on telephone poles or light posts. Legend has it that they broke out of a shipping crate at JFK Airport in New York in the 1970s and have been spreading ever since.

Native to: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia

In the U.S.: Established populations in Chicago, New York City, Long Island, Florida, New Orleans, Texas, southern California, and even Yacolt, Washington. See eBird map here.

See them because: These tough little buggers have amazing vocabularies and are pretty darn cute to boot.    

ABA countable: Yes, if the bird is from an established population. The “established population” requirement means you can’t count a species that just escaped from a cage; it needs to be a genetic descendant of a wild-nesting feral population. Determining whether a bird is truly wild can be difficult, so use the American Bird Association and local websites to get the scoop on certain areas. Also look for clues such as whether the bird is alone or with a flock or at a nest.

Scaly-breasted Munia

Photo: Lou Orr/Great Backyard Bird Count

This handsome little brown bird, which also goes by the stripper-like names Nutmeg Mannikin and Spice Finch, is a likely pet-store escapee that now has sustaining populations in the South.

Native to: Asia

In the U.S.: Florida, Southern California, Houston, Texas, and coastal Alabama. See eBird map here.

See them because:  You then get to tell people about the time you saw something called a Scaly-breasted Munia. Isn't that enough?  

ABA countable: Yes, since 2013, when seen in the areas mentioned above.

Northern Red Bishop

Photo: Jason Mrachina/Flickr CC (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This flamboyant black-and-orange species looks like a tiny fireball and represents the family of birds known as “weavers,” none of which are otherwise found here.

Native to: Northern Africa

In the U.S.: Houston and Southern California. See eBird map here.

See them because: They make Blackburnian Warblers look like dirt.

ABA countable: Only in your dreams.

Pin-tailed Whydah

Photo: Clive Reid/Flickr CC (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A smart little back-and-white bird unlike anything else we’ve got: Breeding males have tail feathers almost twice their body length.

Native to: Africa, south of the Sahara

In the U.S.: Southern California. See eBird map here.

See them because: Check out this video of the Pin-tailed Whydah’s twitchy mating flightYou don’t want to miss that!

ABA countable: Nope, not yet.

Rosy-faced Lovebird

Photo: Park Street Pro/Flickr CC (BY 2.0)

These adorable, pocket-size parrots are popular cage birds. But they’ve also made themselves at home in the parks of downtown Phoenix.

Native to: Southwestern Africa.

In the U.S.: Phoenix. See eBird map here.

See them because: They're actual lovebirds—you don't really have a choice. 

ABA countable: Yes, but only in and around Phoenix.

More Tips for Finding Exotics 

Florida is the epicenter of American exotics. The tropical climate and bevy of palm trees gives all kinds of escaped cage birds a fighting shot at swampy suburban survival. In fact, more than 60 different species of parrot have been recorded in Florida, including the Nanday Parakeet, Mitred Parakeet, White-winged Parakeet, and Yellow-chevroned Parakeet. Other exotics such as the Red-whiskered Bulbul, Spot-breasted Oriole, and Common Myna can also be found in the Sunshine State. Some species like the Nanday Parakeet are found throughout Florida, while others are most reliably encountered at just a few places in the Miami area. For example, the Kendall Baptist Hospital is reliable for spotting parrots, myna, bulbul, and other foreign goodies.

It’s also worth noting that not all exotics are songbirds or parrots. Sometimes they’re species that escape from private waterfowl collections such as Egyptian Goose, Purple Swamphen, and Muscovy Duck. (Yes, there are people who have private exotic waterfowl collections. Apparently it’s a posh thing to do).

Each of these three species are ABA countable in . . . you guessed it, South Florida. They’re all pretty funny to look at. Some Muscovy Ducks, especially, are legendarily ugly with their stumpy bodies and warty faces. Swamphens are super-sized versions of our gallinules, and Egyptian Geese are just kind of goofy. They might not be as beautiful as parrots and other exotics, but their size does make them easier to find and see, which is a plus. 

Despite their unusual get-ups, not all exotics are so conspicuous. The lovebirds and munia are relatively easy to find in particular parks, but certain Floridian parrots can be frustrating with their small populations and wide ranges. It’s difficult to peg some of these species’ habits and ensure that they’ll actually be where they’re supposed to be. To maximize your chances, make note of the observation times on eBird sightings to get a sense of when birds are feeding or roosting in an area.

Effort and uncertainty are staples in any kind of birding—but it's worth it. Seeing a wild parrot in the United States is a stirring experience, no matter where it came from or how you found it. 

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