There’s a certain charm to riding the 2 train from New York City's Penn Station to Brooklyn first thing on a Saturday. The subway car crawls down Manhattan and across the East River like a dog on its belly; 21 stops and 63 minutes later, it spits me out on Flatbush Avenue, the end of the line. I'm running behind, and only have 46 seconds to catch my safari. The directions take me past the typical corporate slurry of bad coffee, bad appetizers, and bad happy hour specials before I arrive at the Brooklyn College campus, where I join ranks with nine other disheveled-looking adventurers waiting in front of a playground.
It’s an unseasonable 90-degree morning, yet we’ve abandoned our beds and brunch plans to wilt on this sizzling curb for a very good reason: parrots. These birds aren't your typical domestic chatterboxes: They’re Monk Parakeets, living wild in the most-populous corner of New York City. The “monk” moniker comes from their saintly, foot-long bodies: a feathery green, white, and yellow robe with a shocking blue fringe on the wings. They’re also called Quaker Parrots, but the reason why is less clear.
Our guide for the day is Steve Baldwin, a life-long Brooklynite and leader of the Big Apple’s premier (and only) parrot safari. A digital marketer by profession, Baldwin didn’t find his parakeet calling until he was in his 50s, when he came across a study involving the local Monk population led by Brooklyn College’s Eleanor Miele. Intrigued, Baldwin had to see the birds for himself. Pretty soon he was commuting from his secluded waterfront neighborhood to the heart of the borough every month—first with a camera, then with friends, and eventually with an entourage of strangers summoned through the internet. He reconstructed the Monks’ story with news articles, research papers, and first-hand accounts, and started leading these free, year-round tours. It’s been a decade now, but the whole operation has been more than just a public service. For Baldwin, the tours are also therapeutic. The parrots have helped him fight depression, providing an escape and new perspective. “They add enormous psychic value to my life,” he says.
As Baldwin tells it, the Monk Parakeets arrived in Brooklyn long before it got so . . . Brooklyn. Their struggles at home in Argentina started in the 1950s, when the government kicked off an anti-parrot campaign to drive down the species’ expanding population. The birds were freeloading on sorghum, fruit, and all kinds of seed-based crops, and the country’s farmers were out for blood. So, the agricultural department stepped in, and to an equally violent end, launched a public rewards program: five pesos for each pair of feet dismembered from a dead Monk Parakeet.
The talons poured in, but not all of them belonged to parrots; people were lopping off other birds’ feet and collecting the bounty anyway. Eventually, word got out that the program was a bust. The government decided to take a different tack by rounding up Monks—alive this time. By the late 1960s, Argentina was deporting thousands of parrots each year, mostly to be sold to the U.S. pet trade.
Of course, some birds escaped. Wild parrot colonies sprang up along the East Coast, with some birds defecting to Chicago, San Francisco, Texas, and even Kansas. Overseas, Monks set up shop in Europe’s biggest tourist draws—Rome, Barcelona, Gibraltar, Amsterdam—as well as in Canada and Australia. The population numbers are tough to quantify given the birds’ rapid expansion. Here in New York City, there are hundreds scattered across the five boroughs. The first reported sighting was documented in the New York Times—a flock of about nine or twelve in Fort Tilden, Queens—but the species didn’t appear on a Christmas Bird Count list until 1989. Now, it’s surprising if it doesn’t.
From the moment he kicks off the safari, Baldwin is pumped about the parrots. He’s already scoped out the hotspots this morning and reports that there are plenty of Monks to stalk. We start by cutting through campus, past the shirtless football team, the concrete mixers, the clouds of samba and marijuana smoke. Our first stop is the college practice field . . . where there are no parrots. The grass used to attract large flocks of them, Baldwin says, but after the college swapped it for turf, the birds fled for less synthetic pastures.
Baldwin then points out a vacant nest that’s stuffed into a floodlight over the field. The Monk Parakeet is the only parrot species that builds its own homes, in addition to occupying holes, cliffs, and other crevices. The birds collect twigs and woody scraps and weave them into massive structures—an art they’ve been trained in since birth. They’ll keep adding to the same nests for months, even years, resulting in spiky balls that appear to defy the laws of physics. Some reports describe 400-pound nests the length of small cars. The biggest abodes can hold about 200 birds, though more typically, they’ll have 20 to 40. Each pair gets its own entrance, hidden at the bottom of the nest to protect from raptors, that leads to a two-room “apartment." The first chamber is for roosting and relaxing while the second is reserved for laying, incubating, and hatching the eggs. The structures aren’t made to be waterproof, but the parrots get by; Baldwin knows of a few nests that survived Hurricane Sandy.
Soon we’re marching into a tidy neighborhood—a bit east of the campus—past the birdbaths, the Chevrolet Camaros, the immaculate flowerbeds. A chorus of Rubber Ducky-like squeaks hits the air. Those are the parakeets, Baldwin explains. He’s led us right to the Brooklyn mother lode. A pair of nests, each about the size of an unplucked turkey, dangles over the sidewalk. About two-dozen Monk Parakeets pepper the street—shooting out of peoples’ yards, scurrying around the entrances of the nests, calling out alarms from the trees. Necks crane, iPhones come out, and Baldwin keeps narrating.
The colonies, he says, are like little clans, with different tiers of dominance. All the members pitch in to build the nests and keep guard. They’ll typically set up right next to a food source—in this case, a tree loaded with pinecones—and won’t migrate once they’re situated. Couples only raise one or two babies each year, taking their time to teach the chicks conversational and construction skills. Communication is key in the colony: The young birds have to learn to distinguish between different calls, such as the rolling distress cry and the frenzied chatter that signals an “all clear.”
In the pet-parrot business, Monks are one of the most-skilled talkers, especially when reared by hand, Baldwin says. That’s what makes the species so attractive to poachers. The birds on this street were once targeted by a bicycle gang that used long-handled nets to catch the parrots and sell them to pet stores. Because of that, Baldwin has sworn us to secrecy to the nests’ exact location.
The parrots can be poached quite easily given that they have no legal protection. Being an invasive species, they aren’t covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty. During winter, the Monks sometimes build their homes on top of power lines to channel the transformers as a heat source. Electric companies will send in crews to take down the nests and gas out the birds (though new technologies under development may soon yield a more peaceful alternative). In states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where Monks are classified as “dangerous,” possessing one is illegal. If fish and wildlife authorities in Pennsylvania find out, they’ll often seize the bird and kill it on the spot, Baldwin says.
But not here in Brooklyn. The Monk Parakeets in Flatbush have been coexisting with the locals for decades; many are fourth- or fifth-generation birds. As far as Baldwin can tell, they don’t have many conflicts with the native wildlife, either.
While Baldwin is talking, passersby stop in and spark conversation. One man from Panama, who’s been in the neighborhood for 36 years, remembers whistling at the Monks as a kid and having them whistle back at him. Others are simply happy that we’re checking out their unlikely stars and invite us to come back.
The city is a bubble—the perfect refuge for the parrots. It gives them everything they need to live their lives peacefully: trees, cozy streets, humans who aren’t trying to kill them. “Out there they don’t have too many allies,” Baldwin says. “But the neighbors in these houses are watching out for them. They call them ‘our birds.’ ” The Monk Parakeets have become ingrained with the community and its people; they’re all part of the same flock now. But much like the waves of immigrants that landed in this city before them, they had to earn their place, striving to adapt while creating a new existence for themselves. And in that sense, they are true New Yorkers.