Santiago’s Green Dilemma

I heard them before I saw them. From the upper limbs of the towering araucaria tree came a strident clamour. There. In the tree’s prickly top notch. A blob of intertwining branches, like a giant, roughly woven basket. From several holes peered green and grey heads with beady eyes. It was a parrot condo.

In the forests of southern Chile I’ve often seen the emerald flocks of the choroy parrot. But parrots in Santiago, Chile’s capital? This was a first. A closer look revealed they were not the native choroy. These were invaders. Identified as Argentine cotorras (myiopsitta monachus), in English they’re known as Quaker or monk parrots. Locals speculated. How did they get here? Surely not by flying over the Andes from neighboring Argentina. Perhaps offspring of escaped pets?

When first sighted about 20 years ago, they limited their habitat to the trees of a golf course and a neighboring ham radio antenna. Now flocks of the gregarious marauders fly over my house every morning on the look-out for breakfast. They’ve discovered the plump persimmons on my neighbor’s tree, once the sole domain of austral thrushes. They snack on the seeds of the round, prickly liquidambar pods, where, other years, wild canaries performed acrobatics as they foraged for seeds. I’ve seen the parrots waddling across the grass of city parks. Reproducing at a rapid rate, when things get too crowded, they seek another tree, preferably a conifer, to install a new condo. Urban parrot sprawl or an immigrant seeking out an ecological niche?

Santiago is not the only parrot city. On Saturdays in New York City you can join a Brooklyn wild parrot safari to observe Quaker parrots. Apparently, in the 1960s, Argentina had enough parrots and shipped 60,000 of them to New York to be sold as pets, in what some have termed a “mass deportation.”

Reportedly, some were accidentally released at Kennedy Airport.

In at least ten States, the little green and grey parrot is considered an outlaw. It’s the old story of the farmers versus the birders. The parrots are cute and sociable but, say the detractors, they eat rice, corn and sunflower crops and decimate the indigenous birds’ food supply.

Adamant defenders refer to them as “the world’s most persecuted parrot,” as well as “comical, engaging, intelligent, escape artists and . . . easy breeders. They answer the critics that it impossible for these seed and fruit eaters to destroy large tracts of land as they seldom travel far from their base nest sites.

The Quaker parrot population has stabilized in New York City. Not so in Santiago. Though it’s impossible to calculate their growing numbers, I did count eighteen of them last winter gorging themselves on the liquidambar seed balls next door. They have no natural predators, although our neighbor’s grey cat was making a valiant effort to claw its way up the liquidambar. But the clever parrots took off in a green rush of chatter that sounded a lot like laughter.

Dire warnings that the parrots will displace the native bird population, that the huge nests will eventually kill the host trees, that the parrots will destroy the vegetation in the plazas have yet to be proven.

As an observer of this unfolding drama, I wonder about the uncertain future of the petite wild canaries, whose flute-like chatter and dainty ways contrast starkly with the bold, noisy presence of the green Johnny-Come-Latelys. Yet, I’ve noticed how the austral thrushes take turns with the parrots at the persimmon tree and how the neighbourhood canaries feed on other trees adjacent to the parrots’ preferred liquidambar. This gives me hope that the newcomers and the old-timers will work it out.

I’ll be watching.

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