Happy 40th Anniversary to the Parakeets of Hyde Park

Monk parakeets are celebrating four decades in the city—thanks to Harold Washington, a threatened lawsuit, and the habitat of Hyde Park.

monk parakeet

Terry Harris/Chicago Tribune

So many of Aleksandar Hemon’s reasons he’ll never leave Chicago are familiar to me, as they’ll be to even those who are fairly new in town. But one in particular resonated with me, since it was one of the first things I saw in Chicago, and one of the things that helped get me through to spring:

The Hyde Park parakeets, miraculously surviving brutal winters, a colorful example of life that adamantly refuses to perish, of the kind of instinct that has made Chicago harsh and great. I actually have never seen one: the possibility that they are made up makes the whole thing even better.

They are, disappointingly or not, real (and celebrating their 40th anniversary in Chicago) though the sight of the squat little monk parakeets is always a surprise during Hyde Park’s monochromatic winters, when they’re the only green in sight. They make up a small percentage of the monk parakeets in America—a couple hundred out of some 20,000—but the Hyde Park winter is probably the most difficult environment the birds inhabit.

But it’s not an entirely unfriendly environment. The massive green spaces and old trees maintained by the university have given the birds a modest habitat to survive in small numbers:

The species has thrived largely because it is the only parrot that doesn’t nest in cavities, enjoys a wide diet, and survives harsh northern winters in those bulky roosts, which are shared by up to 10 pairs of birds. Pruett-Jones and his students have found that one could scarcely design a better place for monk parakeets than Hyde Park. “We’re creating and maintaining habitat—large mature trees interspersed with open lawns where they feed—that they have readily adapted to,” he says. “They can eat pretty much any vegetative material, and in the winter they can switch to backyard bird feeders.”

Those roosts can be massive, growing up to six feet in length, and are architectural wonders. Here’s one in Burbank:

monk parakeet nest

Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

And what the construction process looks like in a controlled environment (the video depicts ten days worth of work for the parakeet).

But the parakeets might never have survived the U.S. Department of Agriculture were it not for a late, legendary mayor and the Hyde Park community, which stayed the hand of federal intervention:

Hyde Park residents are fiercely protective of their parakeets. That’s partly because Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, lived across the street from the best-known colony and called the monks a “good luck talisman.” After Washington died in 1987, the USDA called for the parakeets’ removal. Local residents formed a defense committee and threatened a lawsuit. The birds stayed.

Why would anyone want to deprive the northern climes of such wonderfully exotic birds? One of their adaptations to the cold winters of the north—including New Jersey and New York—is a propensity to build the nests next to heat-giving transformers, a habit that can literally backfire.

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1 year ago
Posted by Laura Erickson

I took this photo of one pair of Monk Parakeets in Hyde Park several years ago. It also appeared in an issue of Birder's World magazine (now BirdWatching). I have a better camera now and can't wait to come back to spend time with these wonderful birds!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/lauraerickson/3366685132/

1 year ago
Posted by JoseSanchezMBA´83

Aren´t these parakeets Argentinean ones,cotorra or Myiopsitta MONACUS? if this is the case, believe me , they are nearly immortal. Tough and smart they slowly but surely shall gain space at the expense of other birds.they are extremely common in eastern Argentina ; Paraguay ; Uruguay and southern Brazil.
First time I heard of them so far away from their original environment. Regards

1 year ago
Posted by Laura Erickson

They are well established in Florida and Texas, and the Chicago population is pretty robust--I've seen groups in Elmhurst and Bensonville, too. There are also some groups in New York City. But so far they are so urbanized that they center on ornamental plants in cities rather than expanding to agricultural lands. That IS a risk, though, so many states prohibit keeping them as pets. This species is marketed as "Quakers" as well as "Monk Parakeets," which is the name assigned them by the American Ornithologists' Union.

1 year ago
Posted by NatsuSora

Although these parrots are hearty, they are not in their own habitat and are not spreading rapidly. They have been in Chicago for forty years and all still a relatively small flock. They have beaten all odds and should be applauded and not condemned. I am worried about what will happen to them now that Chicago has chosen to plant community gardens. In all, they should still be protected. Besides the Indians, all of our families bloodlines started somewhere else. They should be taken off the invasive species list and be left alone to survive.

1 year ago
Posted by Jah Sky

Three of these lovely birds appeared in my yard yesterday; last seen last autumn. They are sight to behold. I grabbed my camera and snapped a few fotos. When I told my family of these birds last year, they look at me as if I perhaps had a bit too much absinthe! I live in the Midway Airport area.

9 months ago
Posted by anthony1

FYI. These parakeets are not just found in the Hyde Park area. I have seen them on the south side of Chicago and nearby surburbs.

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