Garden News Blog

Birds of Brooklyn: Monk Parakeet

Few birds lend an exotic flavor to Brooklyn like the monk parakeet. So how did this brightly colored South American bird end up in Brooklyn? It’s not unusual for such migratory birds as the Blackburnian warbler to make it here from Central and South America in the spring, but the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) is not migratory. It got here in quite a different way.

In the 1960s, this small fruit- and seed-eating parrot was considered an agricultural pest in its native Argentina. After undertaking a huge, and ultimately unsuccessful, extermination program, the government tried a different tack to control bird populations that would also make some profit. Monk parakeets, which tend to be an attractive bright green with light gray head and breast feathers, were collected and exported to the United States and other countries as pets. As one story goes, a shipment of these birds somehow got loose at John F. Kennedy International Airport and flew into Brooklyn. They arrived, liked the neighborhood, and stayed.

Another story has it that an Argentinian steamer with a large shipment of monks found itself in distress in the Verrazano Narrows. A seaman aboard the ship freed the birds, which flew to Seagate, near Coney Island, and moved in. Yet another story tells of a Brooklyn couple going through a divorce, with one spouse releasing the other’s pet birds as revenge. I think the JFK story is probably correct.

In any case, monk parakeets seem to be here to stay, and they prefer Brooklyn and Queens over Manhattan for a simple reason. The birds are communal nesters and build huge stick nests like condominiums with many apartments. They find the warmth generated by the wiring and connectors in utility poles perfect for their nests, raising the internal temperatures closer to that of their native Argentina. Brooklyn and Queens have utility poles—Manhattan has only underground wiring.

The monk parakeet’s name comes from its gray forehead, suggesting a monk’s hood. The Brooklyn monks are sometimes called “parrots,” and since parakeets are indeed part of the parrot family, this is not incorrect. But it is more precise to refer to the monk specifically as a parakeet because it has a long tail and is fairly small.

You will see their nests not only on utility poles but also in trees and nestled into built structures with lots of crevices and ledges. This brings us to probably the most reliable spot to see monk parakeets in Brooklyn: the grand Gothic Revival archway entrance to Green-Wood Cemetery. The birds build their huge nests in this structure. Why haven’t the groundskeepers removed the nests? It is believed that if the nests were removed, pigeons would move in. Pigeon droppings would be harmful to the archway structure, but monk droppings are not.

So the monks remain a fixture there. There is also a large population in Midwood, near Brooklyn College. If you spot a monk parakeet in the same vicinity over many years, it could very well be the same bird—they live 20 to 30 years. The tale of the monk parakeet is great Brooklyn story, and the species is a fascinating addition to the avifauna of our borough.

The Birds of Brooklyn series looks at some of the most familiar and fascinating birds that call Kings County their habitat.

Joe Giunta has led bird walks for the Nature Conservancy and the South Fork Natural History Society and taught a beginning birding course for Summer Fest. He has birded extensively in the U.S., Panama, Belize, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.

    Discussion

  • Joi July 18, 2017

    I have always found the story of these parakeets, whichever is true, to be fascinating. Does anyone know approximately how many parakeets are living in Brooklyn and Queens? It seems that residents don’t seem to mind their colonies, thank goodness. What do they eat and where do they find it in the big city? I hope they stick around forever!

  • BBG Staff July 13, 2017

    Donald: Through BBG’s Continuing Education program, Joe Giunta offers seasonal birding excursions around New York City. Naturalist Bradley Klein also leads nature walks featuring birds, bats, insects, and other wildlife at BBG, free with Garden admission. Visit BBG’s Event Calendar for upcoming tours.

  • Katherine Wagner-Reiss July 11, 2017

    In answer to Donald’s question, there is a wonderful bird group led by Debbie Becker for all levels that meets at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, every Saturday at 11 a.m. It is free with Garden admission. In the summer they call it Butterflies, Dragonflies, and Birds.

  • Donald Beckman July 8, 2017

    Is there a birds for beginners group/class at BBG?

  • Liz Farrell June 28, 2017

    About 20 years ago, as a volunteer with NYC Audubon, I tried verifying the JFK cargo story, and not only could I NOT verify it, I spoke with a man from Port Authority who had himself spent years combing the records for evidence but found none. I think the likeliest explanation is an illegal pet trade, with escaped—or released—birds thriving on our apple orchards (the reason for the extermination drive on the 1970s).

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Image, top of page:
Monk Parakeet
The monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus ) has a mostly green body and a gray forehead. Photo by Bernard Dupont.
Brookly Monk Parakeet Nest
Monk parakeets at home in a nest in Midwood, Brooklyn. Photo by Lynn Stabile.
Brookly Monk Parakeet Nest
Monk parakeets nest on utility poles and in trees. Photo by Lynn Stabile.
Brookly Monk Parakeet Nest
A monk parakeet flies to its nest in the Green-Wood Cemetery gate. Photo by Rhododendrites.