Monday, February 13, 2012

The Wild Parrots of East Austin

Who knew? I sure didn't!

Alyssa and I were driving around East Austin on Saturday, looking for East Austin Succulents and Tillery Street Plant Company. I read about them on Michele's blog, Wabi-Sabi Home & Garden. Of course, we were getting there at at 5 o'clock and they were closing. Still, we'll be back!

We decided to cut through the Mueller Shopping Center and we noticed the grackles gathering as they do each evening at dusk. Alyssa asked me, "Since when are grackles green?" I immediately thought how sometimes really black feathers can look blue or green and I started to mention that.  But no, that is NOT what she saw.  We looked over in the grass and saw a flock of what seemed like really large parakeets. Or maybe lovebirds.  What??? It was kind of chilly for February in Austin, so we looked at each other in disbelief.

Alyssa immediately called Ron, who was at home. "Dad, can you get on the computer and google green birds in Austin?"  She didn't need me to solve the problem for her. And she only needed her dad because he could do it quicker from the computer at home. In seconds, he pulled up our answer: The Wild Parrots of East Austin.  Once again, the same question: What???

We laughed at the idea that maybe someone left the pet store door open, and they all got out. But that was clearly not the case. Ron told us that these birds have been roaming Austin for some time now.  When we asked if it was too cold for tropical birds to still be here for the winter, he said that the website he pulled up said they don't migrate out of Austin.

We drove through the shopping center to the other side and found even more of these lime green birds. They were on the grass, on the telephone wires, in the trees. They had all the same behaviors of grackles at this time of day. We tried to get closer to them to take pictures, but they fluttered away. Another car pulled over beside us and they got out of the car to look. They were dressed up for the evening, but couldn't resist checking out this very intriguing "wildlife" phenomenon.

We decided we needed to know a little more.

While they are known as the Wild Parrots of East Austin, they're actually Monk Parakeets. And they have been living here in the Austin area for over 20 years!  One site says they've been here since the 1970's! After a brief web search, we didn't find much; but we found several possibilities for why the birds are here. Some might be considered Urban Myths, but they're all interesting and amusing.

From  the Austin Chronicle:
According to an urban myth, the birds came from a pair kept as pets. Perhaps it is due to an account on one Monk Parakeet site, which quotes a July 1995 story by the Austin American-Statesman writer Ricardo Gandara:
In a city known from producing fake rain (remember the sprinklers on MoPac near 35th Street?) and celebrating Spamarama, it should be no surprise that Janet Gilles can stand under a light pole on Town Lake and chirp without causing much of a fuss. She calls out for monk parakeets seen grooming just before they leave their nests to eat. They chirp back. Gilles release 19 monk parakeets, natives to Argentina, in March of 1991 when they wore out their welcome as house pets.

Another story is that the first Monk Parakeets arrived at Kennedy Airport in New York City. Supposedly the crates broke and several of the birds escaped. Argentina gets cold, but I'm not sure it gets as cold as NYC! So evidently they migrated here. 

Erik Hueber, a University of Texas student from the 1990's, wrote a paper that is quoted in several places on the internet. While his paper appears to be gone from the UT website, his link to maps where he spotted nests is still available.  These nests were there in the late 90's, and we haven't checked them out if they're still there - YET!

Wikipedia offers this information about their nests:
The Monk Parakeet is the only parrot that builds a stick nest, in a tree or on a man-made structure, rather than using a hole in a tree. This gregarious species often breeds colonially, building a single large nest with separate entrances for each pair. In the wild, the colonies can become quite large, with pairs occupying separate "apartments" in nests that can reach the size of a small automobile. These nests can attract many other tenants including birds of prey such as the Spot-winged Falconet, ducks such as the Yellow-billed Teal, and even mammals. Their 5-12 white eggs hatch in about 24 days. has a page devoted to the Wild Parrots of East Austin.  You can look there to see where some of the latest sitings are. The most recent says there's a large nest behind the Frisco Restaurant on Burnet Rd.

So keep your eyes peeled! Look up at the tall light poles near Town Lake. Or at Butler Fields near the Zach Scott Theatre. Or drive around the outskirts of Mueller shopping center like Alyssa and I did. They can't be too far away; maybe you'll get a chance to glimpse these curious birds. And if you do, comment here and let me know where you found them.

Hmmm, it's getting late... maybe we should go to the Frisco tonight and see if we can catch a glimpse of these beautiful birds coming home to roost.

(Be sure to open the Comment section below. The Travis County Audubon Society sent a list of where some of these nests are. They're not just in East Austin. One could be in your neighborhood!! How cool would that be?)


Ron said...

I saw a half dozen or so on the telephone wire by the Taco Bell on Airport. Forgot to tell you earlier!

Mike said...

That is too crazy!! First bats, now parots. What's next?

Sue said...

I just got an email from Laurie Foss, Travis Audubon volunteer. She has this on file for the Monk Parakeets in Austin.

Here is the information submitted by Cullen Hanks in January of 2011:

Monk Parakeets were first documented on Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) around 1970 for Texas, and in the early 80s in Austin. Starting in the early 80s, the CBC numbers for all Texas CBCs and the Austin CBC start increasing to the present day. In 2008 over 450 Monk Parakeets were reported by CBCs in Texas.

In 2009 almost 250 Monk Parakeets were reported during the Austin CBC. I think this is an underestimate, but I won't even hazard a guess as to the actual number in Austin.

With minimal effort we found 67 nests in Austin. Most were found when I was out biking on errands or to work. Through second hand information, many more nests are out there. I added a list below.

Most nests were in cell phone towers, telephone poles, or sports facility lights. At least with the Cell towers, and possibly the others, it appears the nests are cleared out every 6 months or so. Despite this, some colonies seem to keep coming back regardless. This seems to be the case with the nest across from the old Cafe Mundy location that has been active for close to ten years, maybe more. I did see a couple nests in a tree. I wonder about the regular cleaning out of the nests, and if results in more dispersed smaller colonies?

Sue said...

Cullen Hanks shares his findings (Part 1):
*Previously reported locations that currently have nests:*
Grove dr. near Roy Guerrero park- cell phone tower, 1 Nest, two birds Monks present. 2nd nest with one monk present 100 meters to the south on a telephone pole.

South 1st St. Deaf School next to the track and football field, 3 nests in light poles. 3 monks

Cafe Mundy - East 5th and Chicon, Big nest, 10 monks observed, some with nesting material.

UT intramural fields at 51st Street and Guadalupe, of 31 poles, 23 had at least one nest. Most nests are on the wire platforms under or beside rec lights. One pole was a com pole with three nests. 21 birds were present; three with nesting material.

South Lamar between Oltorf and Bluebonnet-celltower, One nest, active according to the mechanics working across the street.

Krieg Fields- (South Pleasant Valley Rd. by Longhorn Dam)- Largest colony-, 14 nests! One very big nest in powerline tower between athletic fields and town lake. No nests around athletic fields.

Pleasant Valley and Riverside - Taco Cabana, 1 small nest

Cardinal Loop (2 cell tours right behind Shell station on Hwy 71., 2 nests, 2 monks observed with nesting material

Across river from Hornsby Bend- School baseball field lights, nests on 5 poles, 10 Monks present

Martin Junior High School- (Haskell Ave.)- 3 nests., 3 nests on three poles.

Sue said...

Part 2:
*New Locations*
Com tower(resembles a candelabra) east of exposition and 35th st behind Casis shopping center in west Austin, five birds attending a small stick nest (15 Feb: R Doughty saw 16 Monks)

South Lamar and Manchaca, Cell tower, small nest, three monks flew by Amtrak station at Lamar and 5th street; cell tower, Nest with 6 Monks present.

Cell Tower near 5th street and Whole Foods, Nest was present

Ceasar Chavez and Pleasant Valley; wood telephone pole, 5 monks at a nest

Pleasant Valley and 3rd st., Large nest on telephone pole

Pleasant Valley and 4th st., Large nest on telephone pole

Broadway and E 2nd, 5 Nests; 3 in a tree, 2 in a telephone pole. Monks were present in tree actively building nests.

Cell tower behind Valero station on HWY 71 near Montopolis., 2 nests

Cell Tower at Koenig and Lamar, Some nesting material but no birds, either a small nest or the remnants of a nest.

North Lamar and Morrow St, Some nesting material but no birds, either a small nest or the remnants of a nest.

North Lamar and Powell, Some nesting material but no birds, either a small nest or the remnants of a

Robert Martinez and 7th street in a wooden telephone, two nests (one large one small) in two wood telephone poles. Birds were present.

Cell Tower at NE corner of I-35 and Oltorf, 2 nests
Cell tower just East of Del Valley and Hwy 71, 1 nest

*Old Locations with no nests observed*
YMCA- Town Lake (Corner of West Cesar Chavez and North Lamar)- 9 nests., No nests observed
Butler Fields- (Toomey Rd. off of South Lamar)- 8 nests., No Nests observed
Behind Zachary Scott Theater near Live Oak tree on a power pole, No nests observed
S. 1st st, just north of Oltorf - cell tower, No nests observed
Between Matt's El Rancho and the church on the east side of Lamar, No nests observed
Taco Bell- East Oltorf Rd. (In telephone pole in front of restaurant)- 1 nest., No nests observed
IH 35 and Oltorf at the back baseball field of the school, No nests observed
Elmont Drive (just east of Pleasant Valley) cell phone tower, No nests observed
*Old location not checked or not located.*
Front off the HEB at 7th and Pleasant Valley
51st and Manor Road Cell phone Tower next to BP Gas station
Shepard that runs north off Del Valle St. - Baseball fields
Hy 290 & Sprindale Rd -Telephone Pole
HEB at William Cannon and IH35
Winters Building in the large lighting towers at 51st and Lamar
7th and Chicon - cell tower
E.M. Franklin St one block south of the intersection with Manor Road
Pershing Drive- Platform tower
Corner of Airport Blvd and Bolm Road -telephone pole
South First and Ben White - cell tower on the west side of the road, just north of the EMS station and water tank.
Manor and Airport cell tower
Comal Street directly across from Disch/Falk baseball field - two utility poles on the east side
East 51st Street and the South IH-35 (frontage road)cell phone tower
Burnet and Justin lane in the Curra's parking lot cell tower. 6801 Burnet Road, Austin.
in front of a gas station on Cesar Chavez near Red Bluff in a telephone pole

Anonymous said...

I live in Pflugerville and have bird feeders in my back yard. There has been a couple of these birds in my back yard. I thought they had escaped from someones cage. Now that I know what they are and where they come from its really neat. They are at my bird feeders every morning.

Sue said...

Really? All the way up here in Pflugerville?? I haven't seen them in our neighborhood (north end of Heatherwilde).
I thought the same thing when I first saw them - or some poor pet store had left a door open or something!

Anonymous said...

There are huge nests at the baseball fields near Austin High on Town Lake. I have also spotted them near Intramural Fields off 51st street. I also spotted one this week on the lawn of the fire station on Windsor Road. They realy love dandelion fluff and you can find them on the lawn at the state agency across the street from Intramural fields eating the dandelions when they are all blooming.

Anonymous said...

There are huge nests at the baseball fields near Austin High on Town Lake. I have also spotted them near Intramural Fields off 51st street. I also spotted one this week on the lawn of the fire station on Windsor Road. They realy love dandelion fluff and you can find them on the lawn at the state agency across the street from Intramural fields eating the dandelions when they are all blooming.

Anonymous said...

The story about Janet Gilles is true. She had a backyard aviary all screened in and she cut it open and let them all go in the early 90's or late 80's. She had many exotic birds. They all made their home here and that is how the parrots got here - from her bird collection in her backyard.

Anonymous said...

veterans park south side the tracks huge nest

Jeremy Sweredoski said...

We have a pair of them that live in my neighborhood off Banister and Redd Street near South Austin hospital. I'm not sure if its more than one pair because every time I see them its just two. I'm not sure where they are nesting but they are around my back yard every day during the afternoon. They like to eat the sunflower seeds that are from out sunflower plants.

Anonymous said...

Today saw them on pole near Sonic in Manor, TX. They have a HUGE nest on the Manor water tower - right behind Sonic. It's condor-sized! REALLY interesting

Anonymous said...

They are cruising in the mornings along Walnut Creek near Parmer Lane.

Anonymous said...

They are cruising in the mornings along Walnut Creek near Parmer Lane.

Anonymous said...

I saw a group of these little guys feeding outside of Samsung where I work.

Mike said...


Three monk parakeets have been hanging out around the Austin Regional Clinic on Hesters Crossing in Round Rock.

Anonymous said...

I work in the Winters Building next to the IM fields on 51st street where I get birds eye view of their activities. They have nests in just about every light pole, and they like to feed on the front lawns of the building. I saw a group of them defend their nests from a Red Tailed hawk. Fascinating. I could watch these birds all day, and do from my office window.

Whitney Self said...

I have seen 6-8 of them at my house every summer; they feed on a neighbors pear tree. I haven't seen them in a few years but spotted 4 on a walk this morning with my dog. So happy they are still around my area! I live in South East Austin, just south of William Cannon.

Brad Feuerbacher said...

The first time I saw Monk Parakeets in Austin was late 2012. There were about a dozen of them at Butler Park near the Palmer Event Center. Shortly after that I started to notice a pair of them hanging out near the A+ Federal Credit Union on Hwy 290 near Cameron Rd. I would see that pair almost daily up until I stopped working there in June 2013. In January 2014 I saw at least a dozen at the Austin Animal Center on Lavender Loop which is close to the Hwy 183 and Airport Blvd.

Mott Leonino said...

So Cool !!!Today,I saw over 15 in my backyard in South Austin Off first street!
I have lived here for 15 years,feed birdies regularly, and this is the FIRST time
ever to have the Monk Parakeets in my yard & had such a colorful visit!
I hope they become regulars!

Anonymous said...

This is so interesting! I don't live in Austin tho. I'm in Texas City, and spotted 2 of them on the dike here.