The scientific literature that exists on Southern California’s parrot populations documents their appearance in Los Angeles County going back as early as the 1960s. Eventually, Mabb and her fellow researchers recorded at least 13 species of tropical parrots that have traded the homeland jungles of Mexico and Central and South America for the West Coast of California. They include blue-crowned conures (some may recall that a blue-crowned conure nicknamed Connor starred in a 2003 documentary called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) lilac-crowned Amazons, cherry-headed conures, mitred conures, red-crowned Amazons, and yellow-headed Amazons, which may have been the first species to naturalize in Southern California. “A big fire in Pasadena,” Mabb says, “resulted in the release of several yellow-headed Amazons.”
On November 30, 1959, the Pasadena Star News reported that Simpson’s Garden and Pet Store did indeed catch fire. An employee named Paul Everett, 22 at the time, was overcome by smoke while attempting to save some caged birds. He was taken to an area hospital. He survived the fire, but upwards of 70 birds (mostly parakeets, according to the Star News) did not. Everett did manage to save Poncho, the garden center’s parrot mascot, but any other parrots that were released into those smoke-filled skies that day have become the stuff of legend over the years, a sort of California parrot creation myth that sometimes has the firemen themselves opening cages and setting birds free in the retelling of it.
“Now, those yellow-headeds [in Pasadena] are gone, and there are red-crowned and lilac-crowned Amazons in their place. And these are not migratory birds.” So why and how did they get here? Not under their own power, Mabb says. Nor due to habitat destruction or tropical storms or global warming: Mabb correlated the growing accumulation of wild parrots in California with the numbers of parrots that were being imported for the cage-bird trade. She saw a simultaneous increase in both. The Amazons in our skies, says Mabb, are not domesticated pets, but wild-caught birds with intact survival instincts, some of which were turned loose or escaped.
“The parrots are here as a consequence of our collective human culture. That is what I studied. We are changing our world on a massive ecological scale, and it has evolutionary implications,” of which Mabb reduces to two words: “biotic homogenization. Humans have removed a lot of barriers to animal dispersal, resulting in a shuffling of the ecological web house-of-cards, if you will. Most parrots are losers in their native habitat, and only some parrots are winners in our human-modified habitat.”
At present, wild red-crowned Amazons may number less than 2000 in their original home range of northeastern Mexico. They live in greater number here as well as in parts of Texas, Florida, and Hawaii, where the parrots have also naturalized. “The flock of red-crowned Amazons in Pasadena is close to 4000 birds,” she says. She thinks that as many as 1000 of them may be juveniles from that year’s hatch.
Naturalized parrots in California are considered non-threatened, according to Fish and Wildlife, because they typically nest in or consume non-native ornamental plantings throughout the region. Likewise, there is no agricultural damage on record as having been inflicted by the parrots.
“As an ecologist, I can’t advocate promoting introduced species, but human exploitation is the reason parrots are here. That’s also a large contributor to why parrots are disappearing from their native habitats. I personally like parrots, so I don’t encourage people to collect parrots.” She says she has seen poachers lifting chicks out of the nest. “It’s very unfair to the parrots — they are wild animals.”
There is no accurate head-count to date, Mabb says, of the numbers of parrots that live in San Diego County. Gary Nunn has an idea as to why the poverty of information exists on the local flocks. “They’ll die out. They’ve been regarded as cage-birds that escaped. That’s always been the attitude from academia and birders,” he says. Nunn is vice president of the San Diego Field Ornithologists. He lives in Pacific Beach, is 46, and works as a scientist in the field of genetics. He is quite aware of the parrots, and agrees with the designation of “naturalized.” “For them to be considered as a native species,” he says, “we’d want to see more scientific papers and an increase in parrot numbers from breeding here.”
Mabb says the various flocks here are species-specific, meaning the different varieties don’t mix. “There are maybe a half-dozen flocks total in San Diego.” She thinks that red-masked and blue-crowned parakeets inhabit Ocean Beach and Point Loma. In La Mesa, large flocks of red-masked and mitred parakeets are seen regularly. At Point Loma Nazarene University, Mabb says blue-crowned and mitred parakeets roost, and lilac-crowned and red-crowned Amazons swirl about Lakeside and El Cajon. Mabb knows of a new flock of red-crowned Amazons starting in Oceanside. She thinks the birds are here to stay.
“As long as we have parrots and an urban forest, they’ll persist. The ecological opportunity is here. And parrots can live for a long time. More than 70 years, in some cases, which means that some of those birds flying around here today could be the original escapees.”
The Parrot Man
“I know who let those birds loose, those parrots. It was, like, oh, maybe 40, 48 years ago.” Colin Cable sits in a van parked near the library in Lakeside with a woman he later identifies as his daughter. He speaks in halting sentences and scratches at his memory to put together matters of concern, such as street names and addresses. He may not remember exact coordinates, but he says he can lead a visitor to places of interest, such as where parrots roost. He’s been monitoring the local Amazons for decades, he says.
“It was Rios Canyon,” he thinks, turning the word “Rios” around and around in his mouth. “Out where Harbison Canyon is.” He is certain that’s where at least one flock of parrots got transplanted from Mexico to El Cajon.