If you think you’ve seen a wild parrot in Brooklyn, don’t worry — you’re (probably) not crazy: The borough is home to a few hundred Quaker parrots (also known as monk parakeets). No one knows for sure how these clever little green birds made their way to New York City, but some trace their arrival back to a shipment of pet-store parrots that escaped from Kennedy Airport in the late 60s. These days, they can be found at Brooklyn College, in the Greenwood Cemetery and in a few other spots around the borough.

Steve Baldwin found out about the parrots back in 2005, and he was so taken with them that he started visiting them regularly. By day, 50-year-old Baldwin works as a marketing manager at an advertising agency, but in his spare time, he’s preaching the parrot gospel, running the BrooklynParrots website, and leading free monthly “Wild Parrot Safaris.” Plenty talked with Baldwin about why parrots are great guests, how they’ve learned to love Brooklyn, and where else in the U.S. they live.

Plenty: Parrots are an invasive species. 

Baldwin: Wait, whoa, those are fighting words!

Well, what I mean is, parrots aren’t native to this area.

That’s right. But I think “introduced” is a kinder word. When you think of invasive species, you think of these nasty creatures like the Asian longhorn beetle and the snakefish. I guess you could say parrots are invasive, but it doesn’t sound very nice.

Okay, then — parrots are an introduced species. Have they affected the ecosystem at all?

Not to my knowledge. Besides, a lot of the other birds around are introduced, too. Starlings, for example—they’re everywhere. I know a lot of people who would prefer that there be no starlings around because of what they do to native bird populations.

How has the ecosystem affected them? These are birds that are used to living in much warmer climates, right?

Yes and no. They’re subtropical, not tropical. They’re from a temperate climate — the bottom of the world: Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil. Most of them are from the foothills of the Andes Mountains, where there’s snow, just at the opposite time of year from us. They’re used to cold weather — maybe not quite as cold as it is up here — but it doesn’t seem to bother them that much.

What do they eat?

They’re great guests. They eat almost anything. Their diet—in Brooklyn anyway—is diverse. They’re great grass eaters. They also eat leaf buds, which bloom right through December. They eat acorns and chestnuts. They’re able to get along quite well unless it gets really snowy or icy—then they go to plan B, which is to hit every birdfeeder in Brooklyn.

Do they talk?

Yes, but only to each other in their own language. Ornithologists have isolated at least 11 different calls that indicate different things. If you get one of these Quakers as a baby or hand raised, they’re the second best talkers out there. They’re really very intelligent, affectionate, and endearing as pets. That’s one of the other reasons that there are so many of them — they’re delightful cage birds.

We’ve heard they’ve developed different nesting habits from their counterparts in South America.

Where they come from originally, they nest in large trees where they can build these condominium-style, multiple-unit nests. Now we do have trees in Brooklyn, but we have even more manmade structures, such as high stadium light poles or power transmission poles. Sometimes they’ll also build nests on air conditioners outside buildings. They will build in a tree sometimes, but they seem to prefer the manmade structures, since they’re much more resistant to being blown around in the wind. From a distance it will look like this big floodlight pole is wearing a beard or something, and of course that’s the nest.

Are these parrots in other parts of the U.S.?

They’re in 14 states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois (in Chicago by the lake), Virginia and Florida, to name a few. They were in New Orleans, but I’m not sure they’re still there after Katrina.

Actually, I think I saw them there last year. Months after the storm, I was in New Orleans, walking around by the museum and all of a sudden I came upon this tree full of parrots.

That’s incredible. To think they could have survived all that — drinking from polluted water and all the rest. They’re very tough. I’m so glad to hear that — I was really very concerned. It just makes me really happy to know that.

Story by Kiera Butler. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Polly want a hipster?
The story behind the Quaker parrots of Brooklyn.