Forty Acres Field Guide: Monk Parakeet

UT is an urban university in the heart of the city, yet the campus and its environs teem with fascinating plants and animals—from tropical parakeets to the world’s weirdest cactus.


Monk Parakeet or Quaker Parrot
(Myiopsitta monachus)

Travel two miles north from UT’s main campus to the Whitaker Intramural Fields, and you’re likely to see students playing soccer or ultimate Frisbee. But look up at the 50-foot steel light poles that illuminate their games, and you might do a double take. In a scene more tropical than Texan, hundreds of green parakeets flit back and forth above the fields, squawking as they build enormous nests atop the poles.

Lime green with sapphire-tipped wings, orange beaks, and cheeky little faces, the footlong parakeets are undeniably cute. And they look nothing like any other bird in Central Texas.

Brian Stillman, RecSports’ assistant director of facility operations, says that 2,000 UT students pass through Whitaker Fields on a busy day. He estimates that they share the fields with nearly that many parakeets—a huge flock by any measure. Stillman has seen students pause their softball practices to snap photos of the eye-catching creatures.

Unlike most invasive species, monk parakeets don’t pose a threat to native plants and animals. UT biologist Peter English wonders if the Carolina parakeet, a U.S. native that was hunted to extinction by 1900, paved the way for the monk parakeet. “Not many people know that the United States did once have a native parakeet,” says English, who studies biodiversity. “Maybe this species has filled its ecological niche.”

Native to Argentina, monk parakeets were imported to the United States as pets in the 1960s. Escapees bred in the wild, and thanks to their ability to tolerate cold, monk parakeets now live everywhere from New York City to Chicago to Spain and Belgium.

They’re not always welcome. Because the birds roost atop power lines and light poles, they can sometimes cause power outages. In Leonia, New Jersey, a particularly large nest on a utility pole cut power to more than 3,000 homes.

Thankfully, the Whitaker Fields flock hasn’t shorted any circuits so far. UT maintenance workers even go out of their way to avoid disturbing the nests,  Stillman says. Instead of simply climbing up the light poles to change bulbs, workers now use a boom lift so they can hover near the nests without touching them. “Then the guys wait to change the bulbs until the birds fly away,” Stillman says. “They respect them.”

To read the rest of the Forty Acres Field Guide, click here.

Photo courtesy Thinkstock.


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