for National Geographic News
From Los Angeles to Montreal, London to Madrid, parakeets are moving up the urban pecking order. The wild ancestors of pet store imports, these small parrots are moving into cities throughout North America and Europe.
While the birds may pose a threat to a few native species, most people are glad to see them as they liven up the urban bird scene. It's hard to miss these exotic extroverts and they have a growing band of fans. Some people have even set up Web sites dedicated to their favorite flocks.
San Francisco resident Mark Bittner has gone one step further. He's writing a book about the parakeets. It will feature a colorful cast of characters that the former rock guitarist now knows by name.
Bittner lives in Telegraph Hill, close to downtown San Francisco. And so does a colony of cherry-headed conures Aratinga erythrogenys, also known as red-masked parakeets.
The birds first turned up in the early 1990s. They were wild-caught birds from Ecuador and Peru which either were released or escaped after being imported as pets. Bigger than the average parakeet, with plumage that flashes bright green and red, they soon caught Bittner's eye. He's been captivated by them ever since.
Biographies of those intrepid urban settlers appear on Bittner's Web site, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. The stories document the trials and tribulations of an intriguing range of characters, just like a television soap drama.
There's poor old Scrapper, for instance, henpecked for years by an abusive mate that plucked out all his breast feathers. In the end he split with the old bird and set up home with a younger, nicer female. He still bears the scars of his former pairing.
Then there's Patrick, who shies away from long-term commitment. Bittner's biography of him adds: "He's had a few tentative short-termers that lasted a few months, but never a relationship that lasted years. That's extremely unusual within the flock. He seems a reasonably contented parrot."
One of Bittner's favorite birds is Fanny who comes to sit on his shoulder and take seeds from his mouth. It shows the closeness of Bittner's relationship with these wild birds, which are naturally wary of humans.
Noisy and Funny
"Generally the birds are pretty popular," Bittner said. "They are colorful, noisy and funny. They do a lot of acrobatics, things you don't usually think of a bird as doing. They hang upside down from the power lines. They chase each other and fight. Yet they also make devoted pairs. You often see them preening each other and being, well, 'lovey dovey'. People enjoy seeing all of that."
Urban folks also enjoy the performance of a parakeet flock in full display mode. Bittner recalls a day when the birds were gathered in a park and "screaming like lunatics" until they reached fever pitch. Suddenly they lifted as one from the trees and spiraled into the sky. Everybody nearby broke into spontaneous applause.
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