Ed Henry has been watching parrots for two years from his balcony in La Mesa. For reasons unknown to him, small flocks began paying visits to the 45-foot rubber tree that shades the entire east side of his house. Now, he can almost set a watch by their comings and goings. “Right on time,” Henry says as a trio of bright green birds lands in the uppermost branches above the roof. “They eat the berries that the tree produces. And I’m sure they feel secure up there.” It is 5 p.m. on the nose.
No one knows for sure how they got here, but non-native exotic green parrots have occupied California for so long now — more than 50 years, by some accounts — they are considered by Fish and Wildlife to be naturalized. They live here in increasing numbers, and their squawking sounds like coughing or bird laughter, depending on where you line up with their presence.
Henry observes the birds from a small bedroom patio (a ledge, really)that juts out two dizzying stories above ground level. It’s like being in a tree house. (Most of the homes on his side of the street are built on a down-slope.) The thin patio boards creak and bend under our combined weight. A visitor tests the handrails. They seem secure enough.
“They’re a mixed flock. They might even be hybridized.” Henry, who serves as president of the San Diego chapter of the Audubon Society, has identified the birds as being both red-masked parakeets (also known as cherry-headed or red-headed conures) and mitred parakeets (or conures). Parakeet seems to be something of a misnomer, since these birds are large. Henry points out how to tell the difference between the two mostly green birds. The red-masked possess the reddest coloration on their heads, while the mitreds have patchy red crowns and a few red feathers on their wing covers.
“You see flights of 6, and you see flights of 30. They group together for a few moments and then they split apart for whatever reason. It’d be interesting to see if we could put a little GPS locator on one and follow it around town and see where it goes.”
Henry suggests I speak with San Diego Field Ornithologists. They may have more field information, he says, regarding our naturalized parrot species. “But it seems they have a certain disdain for these birds. Maybe because they’re not recognized by the ABA as residents.” (The American Birding Association caters to recreational birders and supports bird-habitat conservation.)
Do the parakeets ever roost (sleep) up here in Ed Henry’s giant rubber tree? Do they nest and produce offspring here?
“I’ve never seen it. But I have seen roosting in the palms along Fresno Avenue in the [La Mesa] Village.” A king bird’s distinctive call rakes the afternoon air. A hummingbird dive-bombs the parrots once, then gives up. This is mocking bird country: has Henry witnessed any resistance to the parrots — and the parakeets — from others of East County’s native and migratory wild bird populations?
“I’ve seen stand-offs between the crows and the parrots,” he says, “large flocks of each. Mostly, they just yell at each other.” Henry, a former professor of anthropology, retired from San Diego State University in 2004. He and his wife have lived in the same house overlooking La Mesa to the north and Spring Valley to the east for going on 25 years. Birding, he says, is a fairly recent avocation. “I started in 2007.”
Then, one of the birds begins feeding a smaller bird with a series of convulsive beak-to-beak spasms as if jackhammering food into the younger bird’s throat. It seems a tremendous effort. “A lot of the psittacine [Latin for parrot family] species are monogamous]. He offers me a look through his field glasses. “I’ve never seen them stick around when they weren’t eating the berries.” The birds in Henry’s tree do not appear to be the least bit timid. “It’s funny,” he says about their apparent tranquility in the relatively close proximity to humans who are staring at them, “they seem like happy birds.”
At the end of our time together, we stand out front in the street for a few minutes comparing notes on parrot sightings and locations and such. He tells me about a “pet” crow that used to steal cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. Suddenly, the parakeets in his rubber tree take wing and vanish into the breeze in a raucous outburst.
“That’s always how they leave” he says. It is a sudden and very noisy exit. “Maybe my voice was too loud.”
The Parrot Scientist
“The first thing neighbors give you is their version of how the parrots got here.” Karen Mabb is one of a handful of scientists who have spent an appreciable amount of time studying the naturalized flocks in Southern California, which means spending time in their preferred habitat: the suburbs. “No,” she says, “I did not hide out in trees. I walked through neighborhood streets with my spotting scope and a camera, and I wore a field vest and a field hat. I’m sure the parrots became habituated to me. I looked for parrots during the day to find out where they foraged, nested, and so on. I walked, because I didn’t drive then. I am a partially sighted person. I was 35 when I got my first car.”
Mabb, 41, is a biologist by training who works as an ecologist for the U.S. Navy. She now lives in Vista. She thinks she may have logged thousands of hours looking at parrots. “I went out a couple times a week between 1995 and 2003. The parrots flew by in the morning. I’d come home, have dinner, the parrots would fly over again, and I would know it was time to go to the roost. I’ve done parrot field-work across the country,” she says, including time spent studying thick-billed Amazons in Mexico. “The irony is that most parrot species in the wild are threatened or endangered, yet, here in our urban jungles,” Mabb says, meaning the fruited backyards of suburbia, “parrots are flourishing.”