MILFORD, Conn. - When Jeffrey McFadden was looking for a new home along the Connecticut coast, he found almost all the places he looked at offered an intriguing natural neighbor. Amid the robins, sparrows and cardinals traditional to New England were birds of an altogether different feather.
"Just about everywhere we looked, the birds were there," says McFadden. They were monk parakeets, and now he gets a steady stream of the sociable birds at the feeder in his front yard. "They're great to have around."
For several decades, the parakeets, also known as Quaker parakeets, have spread steadily along the Connecticut coast, stretching from the New York border to Branford, east of New Haven. How the birds got here is unknown, although urban legend tells of a mass escape in the 1960s from a shipment to Kennedy International Airport, after which the birds flew across Long Island Sound.
At first they were concentrated in a few trees in Bridgeport, but a storm a decade ago destroyed a tree that held 40 of their communal nests, with 200 parrots, including many fledglings. Rescuers scrambled to save the survivors. Subsequently, the birds spread out, settling into new neighborhoods, where they are welcomed by some as a novelty but viewed as intruders by others concerned about noise and native species.
In Bridgeport, the parakeets gather around Bridgeport University and throughout Mountain Grove Cemetery, perhaps a tribute to circus king P.T. Barnum, who was laid to rest there. Fairfield residents can also find the birds up the road from Town Hall, where several dozen have built a huge nest in a tree in the divider of Beach Road. These settlements are similar to those in such states as Florida, Texas and Maryland, where the bird has also gained a beakhold.
Experts "thought they would be transient and wouldn't be able to be successful," says Linda Pearson, who is working with the Connecticut Audubon Society to survey the state's colonies. "They've proved everybody wrong."
At latest count, about 49 nests have been built in Mountain Grove Cemetery. The birds' first destinations were evergreen trees, but they soon adapted to deciduous trees.
The hardy South Americans have been popular pets in the United States for years because of their sociable personalities and talkative nature. Grey-chested with green backs, they measure about 11 to 13 inches and are quick to mimic phrases and sounds.
Among parrots, they are unique in that they build nests rather than settling in holes in trees. Each generation adds to the nest, transforming the bundle of sticks into an ever-expanding condominium. Their squawks can echo through neighborhood blocks as they congregate by dozens in trees and fly overhead in masses not unlike starlings and pigeons.
"It's nice to have some colorful birds here," says Robert L. Singletary, chairman of the University of Bridgeport's biology department. "They've been very successful here, and we've gone through some very cold winters."
Students, on the other hand, occasionally grumble about the noise the birds make outside dormitory windows, Singletary says.
Alan Lurie, co-director of programs for the Connecticut Association of Aviculture and a member of the World Parrot Trust USA, says the birds have been opportunistic no matter where they have landed, expanding their nests and colonies rapidly.
"They just keep adding on as babies are born, and they recruit new mates," says Lurie, who has studied the parrot in its native environment. "They're very smart and resourceful birds."
He has seen them nest on everything from palm trees to barn stalls.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the parakeets' presence. The monk parrots' noisy squawking and indiscriminate feeding habits have led some residents and agricultural officials to view them as small green gremlins with wings. Connecticut classifies them as pests and does not permit them to be kept as pets.
"We're certainly not doing anything to encourage their spread in the state, because they do have habits that can lead to a nuisance situation," says Jennifer Dickson, a wildlife biologist at the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. Their nests can become fire hazards if built near power lines, and their droppings and bark-stripping habits are unfriendly to the environment.
"The people who really, really like them are the ones that don't have them in their back yard," Dickson says.
The environmental department has not undertaken any effort to eradicate the bird, as its New York counterpart did in the 1970s. But, as with starlings and house sparrows, it will not offer any protection for the parakeet, because it is not a native species. Massachusetts has strict controls, and officials will remove bird nests when they are reported.