Home & Garden Columns
A few days ago, Ron and I were walking down San Pablo Avenue near Hearst when we heard a familiar screeching noise. We located the source in a leafless tree: a midsized green parrot with a long tail and a red face. It appeared to be a mitred conure, also known as mitred parakeet, the species that’s frequented West Berkeley for at least a couple of decades. And there was only one.
Last year I tried to piece together the history and status of the parrot flock, based on responses from Planet readers. It turned out that a lot of people had been paying attention to these birds. Most recent sightings involved a maximum of four individuals, although one correspondent recalled seeing a flock of eight a while back. I got reports on which bird feeders and fruit trees (especially persimmons) they frequented, and where they roosted.
It seemed clear that the flock was dwindling in size. Unlike San Francisco’s celebrated cherry-headed conures or their relatives in Southern California (see www.californiaparrotproject.org), the Berkeley flock was not reproducing; there were no observations of young birds, which lack the red feathering on the head. Several readers speculated that a couple of severe winters had thinned their ranks, and one wondered about harassment by our burgeoning crow population.
This year I’ve heard about a single parrot that was spotted at the Marina. That, and our recent sighting, suggests that the population may be down to one survivor. Most parrots are highly social creatures; their relatively large (for birds) brains evolved to navigate the complexities of living in groups. A lone parrot is like a lone monkey. It must be a hard life for that bird.
The parrot story is typical of the fortunes of exotic birds in the wild, or at least the urban wild. Some make it; most don’t. For every successful alien species, like the house sparrow or Eurasian starling, there are dozens that never really established a foothold, or flourished briefly before dying out.
Some years back an Asian bird called the crested mynah colonized Vancouver, British Columbia, of all places. They thrived for years, monopolizing the fast-food-joint-parking-lot niche. Then, for unexplained reasons, their numbers tailed off, and I understand that they’re all gone. Something similar appears to be happening with the spotted dove in Southern California: once ubiquitous, now hard to find. Budgerigars went through their own boom-and-bust cycle in southwestern Florida, as did a number of other exotics in Florida and Hawai’i.
Ring-necked pheasants, introduced for sport, are now scarce in the Bay Area. Other game birds, like bobwhite quail, were even less successful. Brooks Island off Richmond, now a unit of the East Bay Regional Park system, used to be managed as a hunting preserve; Bing Crosby, “Trader Vic” Bergeron, and their cronies would spend weekends there shooting exotic pheasants and partridges. A few stragglers were still around when the Park District took over, but they didn’t last long.
Aside from the mitred conures, Berkeley once had a colony of feral peacocks. The current site of Café Gratitude on Shattuck Avenue used to house an Italian restaurant called Il Pavone—“The Peacock.” Someone gave the owner an actual live peacock as a mascot. It seemed unhappy, so a mate was procured for it. And one thing led to another.
Within a few years, the immediate neighborhood had been overrun by the pair’s progeny. Peafowl are basically big glorified chickens, and predictable poultry problems arose. The birds scratched up gardens, defiled lawns, intimidated children and small dogs, and kept residents awake with their nocturnal caterwauling.
What to do about the peafowl became a point of civic controversy. Inevitably, they had their defenders. I believe the issue was taken up by the City Council, and at one point sterilization was proposed. In the end, the birds were rounded up and relocated to Marin County.
No one, with the possible exception of a few fruit-tree owners, had anything against the parrots. As exotics go, they were benign, and a lively addition to our urban avifauna. Some of us will miss them.
I could be wrong about the last survivor, of course. If anyone out there has seen more than one parrot lately, please let me know: