Invasive Species in NYC highlighted in Gotham Gazette

Today’s Gotham Gazette highlights the issue of invasive species in New York City as their “Issue of the Week”:

Grounding their roots, literally, in our soil, invasive species come from far and wide, via barge or souvenir-stuffed suitcases, in what horticulturists and biologists across the city call a serious threat to our habitat. Deceiving to the common eye, these foreign born pests and plants raise significant challenges for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation: monitoring, controlling and even eradicating top the list.

For centuries, New York has been inundated by foreign-born plants and wildlife. Even creatures we now consider common — like our subway or sewer rat — are invasive species. We may have adapted to some of them — whether we wanted to or not — but other more contemporary wildlife pose a serious threat to the sanctity of our natural flora and fauna, say city scientists.
Invasion New York, Gotham Gazette, August 11, 2008

The article provides a broad overview of some of the most damaging, or visible, invasive species present in New York City. I especially commend Gotham Gazette for taking on what I call Brooklyn’s most charismatic invasive species, the Monk Parakeet, Myiopsitta monachus:

The birds have attracted the ire of Con Edison and other electric companies for building huge nest for their colonies on light poles. In Connecticut, a power company, United Illuminated, is seeking permission to kill the birds, while in Florida researchers have proposed mixing contraceptives in with bird seed to limit the parrot population.

The article itself doesn’t use the scientific names of the species mentioned in the article. They are, however, provided for many of them with an accompanying feature, the Know Your Invasive Critters “trading cards.”

Related Posts

My posts on Parrots, including my 2006 letter to the NY Times.


Gotham Gazette, August 11, 2008:


Monk Parakeet Munching on Young Apples

We had two parrots visit while I was gardening this afternoon. They were, of course, in our neighbor’s apple tree.

Myiopsitta monachus, Monk Parakeets, also known as Quaker Parrots, have established numerous colonies in Brooklyn. They are Brooklyn’s most charismatic potentially invasive species. They have expanded to other parts of the city and New York State. They are also now established in at least a dozen other states.

Monk Parakeet Munching on Young Apples

I only got good shots of this one of the pair. The other stayed in the foliage and was difficult to see. Here’s a view of both of them.

Two Parrots in Apple Tree

Unlike last year, when I saw the first parrot in June, I’ve been seeing parrots in the neighborhood this year for at least two months. I just haven’t seen them in my backyard this year until today.

The complete set of photos is available in a Flickr set.

Related posts:

Links (in alphabetical order by title):

Letter to the NY Times, Science section

[Updated 2006.09.14 20:41 EDT: Added Why I Wrote the Letter. Minor corrections.]

I wrote a letter last Wednesday to the New York Times in response to an interview with ornithologist Joseph M. Forshaw, a world expert on parrots, in last week’s Science section, “A Passion for Parrots and the Fight to Save Them in the Wild”. They published an edited version of it (under my “real” name”) today. Here it is in its entirety:

Monk parrots are now established in 14 states and spreading north in New York. In their native ranges, they are sometimes serious agricultural pests of fruit crops. We will see what economic damage they cause here as their numbers expand. We don’t know how much environmental damage they’ve already caused by competing with and displacing native species.

As the ornithologist Joseph M. Forshaw noted admiringly, “Parrots are such wonderful generalists.” This is a common trait of invasive species, including other generalists that New Yorkers are all too familiar with: starlings, pigeons, rats and roaches. Our admiration of these birds should not blind us to their potential impact.

I’m proud and excited about this. This is only the second time in my life I’ve had a letter published in a newspaper. (The first was a letter I wrote to Newsday when I was 16 years old in opposition to the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island. I wrote a letter to NPR several weeks ago. They were interested in it, but I don’t know if that ever aired.)

I’ll be coming back and updating this entry with the back-story about why I wrote the letter, and what I learned about writing letters!

Why I Wrote the Letter

The article, published in last Tuesday’s New York Times, was an interview with ornithologist Joseph M. Forshaw. Forshaw spoke about his experiences with parrots and humans’ relationships with them all over the world, and the dangers they face from exploitation and habitat destruction.

The photos accompanying the article showed Monk Parrots from Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. I already knew why those photos were there. Forshaw had accompanied Steve Baldwin on one of his “Parrot Safaris”, and Baldwin had blogged about it on his blog site, Brooklyn Parrots:

I recently had the pleasure of meeting an amazing Australian naturalist … His name is Dr. Joseph Forshaw and he’s widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on parrots. I had the honor of serving as his “guide” when he came to see the wild parrots of Brooklyn. … The New York Times wrote up a nice story on Dr. Forshaw … I am glad to say that there are some great shots of the “Brooklyn Boids!”

The problem was, the photos accompanying the article in this way associated an introduced species with the important issue of conserving parrots in the wild in their native habitats. The Times identified the parrots as “feral monk parrots.” A caption to one of the photos identified them as “nonnative New Yorkers,” but provided no further explanation.

Feral” is incorrect to describe these populations. Neither the species nor the individuals are domestic parrots “escaped” into the wild: they are breeding and reproducing in the wild. So I wrote the letter hoping to address, and correct, a misleading absence of information about their status here.


Related posts

My other posts on Parrots and Invasive species.


The letter as published

Invasive Species News, July 20, 2006, Brooklyn, NY: “Brooklyn” Parrots Taken from the Wild

Monk Parakeet Munching on Young Apples

On his Web site, Brooklyn Parrots, Steve Baldwin reports that Brooklyn’s most charismatic potentially invasive species, Myiopsitta monachus, Monk Parakeets, have been poached from at least one, possibly two, locations:

Several residents of Marine Park [a neighborhood in southeastern Brooklyn, adjacent to JFK Airport] have approached me recently, asking what happened to their once-thriving colony of wild parrots. I have been able to verify through a source that these parrots have been stolen by thieves. According to this source, two men, one with a long pole, have been taking live parrots from the pole nests in Marine Park. They work at night, and have been seen by residents. If this is the same operation that has stolen parrots in Midwood [a neighborhood south of me], their MO is to sell the parrots to local pet stores for $25 a piece, where they have value not as pets, but as breeding pairs.

Baldwin goes on to urge people to report suspicious activity to the police, and to ConEd, the power provider for New York City, since the birds commonly nest around transformers.
He continues:

The Monk Parrots of Brooklyn enjoy no special protections under New York State Law. They are classified, along with pigeons and starlings, as birds that can be “taken” at any time, unlike protected species. They are vulnerable to poaching, and because Quakers are legal in New York, there is a ready market for captured birds.

There’s a good reason Monk Parakeets are not “protected”: they’re not native to the United States, let alone Brooklyn. They were introduced, accidentally or deliberately, a few decades ago.

This is an emotional issue. Monk Parakeets are attractive, gregarious (with each other, at least), big, loud birds commonly sold as pets. They’ve appeared in my backyard, and whenever I see them, I find myself crying out “Parrots!” But make no mistake: Monk Parakeets are a potentially, at least, invasive species. They are reproducing, and spreading, in the wild. Not just in Brooklyn, or the NYC Metropolitan Area, but in over a dozen states.

To get a taste of how emotional this is going to get, read on:

They are considered unworthy [of] protection because they are classified as “introduced.” This stigma is equivalent to “illegal alien” in the human world – “introduced” species don’t have the same rights, protections, and privileges. When bad things happens to them, society feels free to turn its back. Do the wild parrots of Brooklyn, which have been in the borough for 40 years, have a right not to be captured and sold into captivity? I think so.

Sturnus vulgaris, the European Starling mentioned earlier, was deliberately introduced to this continent by Eugene Schiefflin in the 19th century. His “acclimitization” society wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. The epicenter for this invasion was in New York City’s Central Park. You probably know the rest. They compete with native species for nesting cavities, and have been known to displace the residents of active nests.

Before we get all teary-eyed about the plight of the parrots, we need to understand the impact they’ve already had, and what will happen as they continue to expand their range. What native species have the parrots already displaced? What species might be able to get re-established, if the parrots were not already here? What ecological niches are they occupying?

I’ve seen the parrots mobbing and driving off crows, which are twice their size, so I know they can be aggressive towards other birds. I’ve observed them eating apples from our neighbors’ tree, which reaches into our yard. Are there no native fruit-eating birds which could be supported by such bounty? I’ve never seen them here, but Orioles come to mind. I’d rather see Orioles eating the apples. But that will never happen as long as the parrots are around.

Baldwin also announced that he will be campaigining for protective legislation for the parrots. As much as I am also fond of the little darlings, I will oppose such legislation.


First parrot sighting of the season!

I just heard, and then saw, a pair of the Brooklyn Parrots. This is my first sighting this season. They were flying down the adjacent road, just below rooftop level. I saw them as they passed between our two back neighbors’ houses. They’re easily identified. They are large (about the size of a blue jay), bright green, loud birds. Their flight is also distinctive: straight, strong, and fast.

Myiopsitta monachus, Monk Parakeets, have established numerous colonies in Brooklyn. They are Brooklyn’s most charismatic potentially invasive species. They are also now established in over a dozen other states.

Monk Parakeets are the only parrot species which build their own nests, rather than nest in existing cavities. They create large, communal nests of twigs and other materials. This is one of the characteristics which enables them to adapt to our winters. That, and they like to build their nests around the transformers of power distribution towers.

Links (in alphabetical order by title):

The Fourth Gardens: Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York

I’m writing this from my tree fort. Actually, it’s the rear porch on the second floor of our house, roofed and screened (mostly). Seated at the table here, my line of sight is about 17 or 18 feet from ground level.

It’s dusk. Most of the birds have settled in for the night. I hear, but can’t see, a cardinal calling out from high in a neighbor’s tree. To my left is our next door neighbors’ apple tree; its apples are showing color now, so maybe we’ll have parrots at the end of the summer again like last year. In front of me, in our backyard, are two Norway Maples towering overhead and our flowering cherry tree barely reaching my eye-level. Behind us, our back neighbor has another flowering cherry. On the other side of us, to my right, our other next door neighbor has in their backyard a cedar, a spruce, a dogwood, and something else I don’t know. Behind them is a birch. Beyond, more distant and all around, are more maples, oaks – everything.

This neighborhood is all about its trees. Our lot is 50′ wide at the street and 100′ deep, like most of the lots in this area. For New York City, that’s huge; most townhouses are 20′ wide or less. The houses are fully detached, wood-frame homes built at the turn of the last century, mostly late Victorian in style as ours is. No two of the houses are exactly alike. From up here on the back porch, you can see nearly every style of roof and dormer: shed, gable, hipped, gambrel, and eyebrow.

This leaves lots of room for trees, and gardens. Here, at my fourth garden in New York City, for the first time I can have multiple gardens: front, back, and two sides. I’ve watched and weeded and planted and watered them over the year since we moved in. My ideas for them, for what they will all become, have shifted a little over the past year.

The front yard faces West. It’s shaded by street trees for much of the day during the summer, which limits the varieties I can grow there. There is a sunlight gradient from the south side of the front yard, which is open and sunnier, to the north side, which is more shaded. There is also a small lawn. When we first moved, I thought I would eliminate it. But when I walk along the sidewalk on our block, I see the arbor of trees along the street on one side, and the sweep of lawn uniting the properties on the other. It is a parklike setting, and when this view is interrupted by hedges, walls or fences, I miss it. To preserve this, I can live with a little bit of lawn.

The front yard will be the heirloom/antique garden. All the plants there will be species and varieties which were available over 100 years ago, 1905 or earlier. Our house was built in 1900, so this is the “Neo-Victorian” garden referenced in this blog. No elaborate bedding plant schemes or anything like that. There will be heirloom bulbs, perennials, annuals, a shrub or two, and at least one old rose. Victorian gardeners were eclectic, fascinated with the new and bizarre, while embracing the old-fashioned and comforting. Which describes me pretty well.

On the south side of the house is the driveway. During the summer, the sun is high enough to clear even the three stories of our next door neighbor’s house. The bed along this side of the house gets full sun. It runs nearly the depth of the house, for 35 feet or more. Its width varies: it’s about 8′ at the deepest and tapers to a point at the rear corner of the house.

This will be the cutting garden, the rough garden, the wild garden … the garden for anything I want to grow that doesn’t fit anywhere else. This will be a mixed border. Variations in height, color and texture will make the beds seem longer, and deeper, than they actually are. There will be a place here for at least one other old rose and some other shrubs. There’s enough room here for them to grow large enough to partially shade the first floor of the house and keep it cooler in summer, while allowing sun in the winter to warm it. These will also visually anchor the house to the property, connecting it to the land and making it seem smaller than it is.

(I’ve moved inside for the rest of this. It got chilly and started raining as it got dark outside.)

The backyard will be a sanctuary garden, for people and wildlife. It will be separated from the side yard and driveway by a fence and gate. Visitors will pass through a deep trellis, providing a transition to mark the entry into the sanctuary. Vines on the trellis will shield the backyard further, providing a feeling of enclosure and reinforcing the sanctuary.

There will be seating back here, and a porch swing suspended from another trellis. The backyard will be all native plants (save for the Norway Maples, about which I can do little for now). I’ve had bird feeders up, but these attract junk birds – European finches, starlings, even the occasional pigeon – as well as native species. So I’ll be planting the native shrubs I’ve collected over the years. The tallest will grow up to 15′ in time, providing an understory. These will provide berries as well as shelter, and possibly nesting sites. At ground level there will be ferns and wildflowers. There will be a mix of things growing from the ground up into the lowest reaches of the canopy provided by the trees.

The north side of the property is narrow, maybe 6′ wide. Native plants, especially ferns, will continue onto this side of the house. There will also be other shade plants: hostas, astilbes, and so on. A narrow path will lead to another gate and trellis to demark the transition between the backyard sanctuary and the front, public side of the property. On the front side of the gate will be more shade plants, merging with our next door neighbor’s mixed bed along their driveway, blurring the line between the two properties. The path continues to the front of the house, to the front steps, and back to the heirloom garden.

While I could walk around the property in a minute or two, all these transitions, shielded views and sheltered places, changes in designs and textures, and the sheer number of different species of plants all have a larger purpose. I want visitors, and me, to slow down, to view, to feel, to smell, to listen to the gardens. The gardens will invite us to stretch out time and space, to connect, however briefly, with other rhythms and beats. The gardens will allow us to synch with the pace of the minute, the day, the seasons, the years.

It will take years to accomplish all this. But I’m hoping to be here a long while. I hope that things will be in good enough shape in two years that I can add my gardens to the Victorian Flatbush House and Garden Tour. Visitors to this blog will be able to watch my progress over the next two years. And if I get on the tour, you’ll be the first to know.