Parakeets are powerful problem in Fla.

Birds' substation nests being blamed for outages, but removal stymies utility

February 17, 2004|By Maya Bell | Maya Bell,ORLANDO SENTINEL

MIAMI - Demolish their nests, they build them back. Bombard them with lasers, noise or stink bombs, they shrug. Hang scarecrow predators in their midst, they ignore them.

So far, nothing but poison gas has dissuaded the monk parakeet, the state's most prolific and rapidly growing exotic species, from building its giant condo-style nests on power lines and high-voltage substations - a habit that occasionally triggers outages.

After spending nearly $300,000 to encourage the lime-green urbanites to take up residence elsewhere, Florida's largest utility is scratching its collective corporate head.

"We've been outsmarted by a bird," said Winifred Perkins, Florida Power & Light's manager for environmental relations. "We're really challenged by this problem, and we're looking for a solution, but we're stumped."

Natives of South America, the pigeon-sized monk, whose gray head seems to peer from a cleric's robe, was imported into the United States by the thousands in the 1960s. Accidentally or intentionally released by owners and breeders, the charismatic communal birds have established wild colonies in urban pockets across the continent. But they're thriving best in Florida. First spotted in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in 1972, monks - or Quakers as they're known by a legion of pet-owning devotees - can now be found in at least 16 counties, including Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Brevard. One state wildlife biologist estimates the state population in the hundreds of thousands.

While the majority in most locales still prefer living in palms or other trees, that's not the case in South Florida. Here, monks favor a more structured jungle. FPL counts about 1,500 high-rise parakeet condos along the South Florida power grid, some weighing hundreds of pounds and housing dozens of raucous pairs, each with their own entryway and three-cavity chamber.

For FPL and a handful of scientists, it's no featherweight question: Why don't these birds choose to live in trees?

"That's fundamentally what we've been trying to figure out," said Jim Newman, vice president of Pandion Systems, a Gainesville environmental firm testing deterrents. "We don't know what triggers them to move from trees to utility structures."

There are a number of theories: The only parrot that builds nests from scratch, monks love anchoring their elaborate twig piles in angles, and transmission lines and substations offer plenty of them.

They also like staying out of reach of predators, including humans. In 1999, a Pinellas County man was severely burned while trying to capture hatchlings in a Clearwater substation.

Then there's the bane of all city-dwellers, urban crowding. As monks grow in number - one study says the wild population doubles every five years - their nesting stock diminishes. As palms and other trees fill up, monks look for alternatives.

One theory offered by FPL blames Hurricane Andrew, which uprooted thousands of trees when it tore through south Miami-Dade in 1992. Displaced monk colonies might have resorted to the first tall structures to return - power facilities - then imprinted the new nesting habit on their offspring.

"They were in power structures before, but Andrew may have accelerated it," Newman said. "So if mom and dad became substation nesters, their young did, and their young, too, multiplying the problem."

However it spread, the word is out. At the Sample Substation in Pompano Beach, squadrons of Quakers dart around transformers and switches before descending on a perch.

In south Miami-Dade, a field of power lines off busy Kendall Drive, is Quaker heaven. Extending as far as the eye can see, the towering poles are topped with the telltale confusion of twigs and vines.

FPL officials say they can't tally the number of outages or "momentaries" - flickers of electricity - that they cause, but they're frequent enough to be bothersome, even dangerous. One outage blamed on a nest left South Miami Hospital on emergency power, FPL spokeswoman Pat Davis said.

The utility has tried dismantling the nests, and handing over eggs and hatchlings to birders, but to no avail. Their displaced parents waste no time in building anew, often three or four nests where there was one. Unsuccessful with repellents, scarecrows, lasers and noisemakers, FPL is ready to try trapping substation monks and send them to Pandion to test new deterrents.

FPL concedes that some birds may be euthanized, as they've been in the past. The utility uses carbon dioxide, a method approved as humane by the American Veterinary Association.

But not by Monique Levoy. The retired phone company worker has spent hours watching Quakers build a nest in the power pole behind her Miami-Dade home. She's surprised to learn FPL lists her address as a "problem."

"FPL may have a problem with them, but I don't," Levoy said. "I love them."

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