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Parrots in Urban Areas

Expert Question

Do you think that it is a hopeful/useful developement that certain parrot species are living successfully in cities? Should conservation biologists support and aid these developements? If so would this be world wide or only in the birds natural ranges? If not, what are your reasons?


Expert Answer

Dear Dot, I believe that would be three questions - actually four because the first is really two bundled together.

First, is it hopeful?  Absolutely.  It's great to see these parrots showing us how flexible they can be, sorting out all sorts of new challenges and solving the many problems of urban live.  To paraphrase ol' blue eyes, if they can make it there...

Is it useful?  Sure, if we're observant and resourceful, we can learn from parrots regardless of where they dwell, whether that's in our living rooms, in New York City, or on some lush tropical island.  Last time I was watching some of the Amazons in Los Angeles, a small sub-flock was demolishing some dark green, very unripe persimmons with relish.  If you've ever tried to eat a slightly unripe persimmon, they are extremely astringent, about the nastiest thing you can imagine putting in your mouth!  I've also had the pleasure of watching some of the famous "Parrots of Telegraph Hill" in San Francisco.  Among their many interesting behaviors, they were consuming impressive quantities of the outer bark of a huge elm tree (that wasn’t very tasty either).  There are a lot of useful things to be learned from watching and living around these birds, things that should help us better care for our captive charges and in some cases even inform our work with wild parrots in their native habitats.

Should conservation biologists support and aid these developments?  Conserving nature is always a complex and difficult task. The fact that some parrot species can live and even thrive in developed areas is well known, it is hard to ignore, and oftentimes these birds are impressive spectacle to experience.  That does not necessarily mean that 1. these populations are a positive development for conservation, or 2. that precious conservation dollars should be spent on them.

As you know, most urban parrots are found well outside their natural ranges and most are recently introduced.  Often, what we're looking at is the first couple of decades after they've become established, and sometimes less.  What we do not know, and in many cases can not predict, is where these populations are going to go 50 or 100 years from now in terms of numbers of birds, where they will live, and what they will eat.  Will they expand their ranges well beyond the developed areas, much as Ring-necked Parakeets have done in parts of the UK and on the continent, and as Monk or Quaker Parakeets have done in many places?  Some species clearly do expand, whereas others may not. 

When they do expand, their populations create at least two serious issues, conflicts with native birds and conflicts with agriculture.  The first can be a conservation concern, particularly since native birds which nest in cavities are often limited by nest site availability (humans and loggers like to cut down dead trees and remove dead branches and other non-natives birds are a problem here too).  The second issue -- conflict with agriculture -- is more likely to be a welfare concern because when dollars/pounds/Euro are involved, people are bound to start killing parrots by the thousands (think Australia and Florida).

In parrot conservation, there is always a lot more work to be done than there is funding available to do it.  Ideally then, we would all be extremely careful about how we spend these limited funds, and to be sure that we prioritize our efforts to save the most threatened species first.  And given that there are over 100 species considered globally threatened by the IUCN, we clearly have our work cut out for us.  So, let's just say, we're talking about a high priority species -- is it worth studying, supporting, or otherwise investing in individuals of this species living in a city.  In most real-life situations, there will be many options available to help support the recovery of a given species, and some of these will include the possibility of saving them in their native habitat.  In every case we've encountered in our nearly three decades of saving parrots from extinction, conservation cash has always been far better spent helping these birds in the wild, in their native range, and in their native forests, wetlands, deserts, mountains, or wherever it is the parrot naturally occurs.

And of course, conservation of a parrot species involves more than just making sure there are X thousands of birds of a given species on the planet, it involves understanding and resolving the threats to the species in the wild, ensuring that each species has ample healthy habitat, and that its prospects for the foreseeable future are secure.  This can only work when we are able to save the bird and the bird’s natural habitat.

There is yet another important benefit from focusing our conservation effort on the birds in their natural ecosystems.  Because parrots are among the most spectacular and compelling inhabitants of nearly every place where they naturally occur, they make outstanding ambassadors or conservation ‘flagships’ which can encourage the preservation of these natural places, including of course all the plants, animals, fungi, etc. living there. In the end, saving a parrot where it belongs saves more than just that one species, it saves the whole ecosystem.

It is maybe worth mentioning as an aside here that in recent years we have encountered some unique situations where parrots have been released in to urban and suburban areas, sometimes with success and sometimes with local conservation consequences.  In most cases, these are birds which have been confiscated from traders, rehabilitated and released.  Anytime this occurs and the birds establish populations in an area where they have been extirpated, that action is clearly beneficial to those individuals involved as well as the biodiversity of that area.  We've supported some of this work in past years, including the release of confiscated Grey Parrots in a number of African countries, and parakeets and Amazons in South America.  When done right, these efforts can generate substantial welfare benefits, sparing thousands of birds' lives, and also send shockwaves through the trafficker and trapper networks.

While we at the Trust more than open to creative approaches to conservation of parrots, for the time being, it appears unlikely that urban parrot populations will make a truly significant contribution to the recovery of a threatened species in the wild.  For these reasons, when we work to save wild parrot species, our efforts are nearly always focused on doing so in the species natural range and in their natural habitat.

All best wishes,


Jamie Gilardi, PhD
About Jamie Gilardi, PhD

James Gilardi has been the Executive Director of the World Parrot Trust since November 2000. His work includes developing and implementing field conservation initiatives. He is a conservation biologist specializing in behavioural and physiological ecology with special interest in tropical forest birds and marine vertebrates.

Following undergraduate studies at UC Santa Cruz, he earned a Ph.D. in Ecology from UC Davis studying parrot social behaviour, foraging ecology, and soil-eating in south-eastern Peru. James has also worked on parrot field conservation in Guatemala, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Mexico.

In the fall of 2000, James Gilardi became the director of the World Parrot Trust, where he is inherently involved in carrying out parrot conservation and education programs around the world.