Wild Macaws in Miami
By: Daria Feinstein
It’s not science fiction. There are aliens among us that live right alongside of us, right here in our cities. A staggering 69,000 were counted by volunteers in cities in 26 countries in a world wide study sponsored by Roelant Junker and the University of Leiden. These amazing aliens weigh less than 2 pounds, have a measurable intelligence of a 4 to 6 year old child (Irene Pepperberg MIT), have a prehensile grasp, and the ability to fly.
Parrots because of their keen intelligence have adapted to city life and global warming and they are not only surviving but thriving in downtown urban environments, through out the globe and have managed to gain a toehold on the ladder of survival because they are smart enough to interact with humans in our complex urban civilizations. It is heart warming to watch a flock of 400 plus critically endangered red crowned amazons fly over the city of Monterey California when they are practically wiped out in their native Mexico. Here in Miami we are fortunate to have a flock of 80 plus macaws and hundreds of other parrots. You have no idea how thrilling it is to see wild blue and yellow macaws with a wing span of over 5 feet hover like colorful helicopters over my back yard feeder.
These macaws have been showing up every day for 15 years and I still get goose bumps every time I see them descending from the sky onto by backyard palm trees.
In spite of parrot’s beauty, there is widespread ecological xenophobia towards these urban parrot populations, probably because people are familiar with the environmental havoc produced by the introduction of alien exotics such as pythons in the Everglades.
Fortunately, here in Florida parrots are beloved by our knowledgeable birders and environmentalists although work needs to be done to educate the general population. Even though parrots can be considered an introduced species, they do not compete or interfere with our native bird populations according to published research. Their diet consists solely of introduced palms and plants. As Roelant Junker so aptly stated “Arguing that parrot populations don’t belong here makes one a “nativist” not a conservationist. True conservationists realize the value of synurbanisation. To quote Roelant Junker,’ synurbanisation is the evolutionary process whereby animals adapt to living in urban areas . Parrots have synurbanized to such as extent, Roelant Junker’s World Parrot Count showed that over 100 species are anchored in cities world wide. This process is critical for endangered parrot’s survival as natural areas shrink and urban areas expand.
My purpose today is to acquaint you with the phenomena of city parrots and the movement to recognize the importance of these new arrivals in the fight to save parrots from extinction. I also want to tell you their story from my personal perspective-how I came to love and have my life enriched by the parrots Twenty years ago this month Hurricane Andrew blew through Miami and wiped out our neighborhood. In the aftermath, we constantly heard the call of a macaw in the devastated wildlife refuge (fancy name for a mangrove swamp) across from our house. Fortunately for Big Bird, our daughter was home from veterinary school and knew how to capture a starving stranded large macaw. Once Big Bird decided to bond with me, a whole new world opened up that challenged my assumptions about nonprimates. Little did I know that Big Bird was probably a member of Miami’s feral macaw flock ( see noted ornithologist’s Bill Panty’s article in the Florida Field Naturalist 38(2):55-62,2010 and her flock mates showed up in my backyard a short time later. Macaws are easily sold in Miami’s flea markets for $800.00 or more so the wild macaws are very wary of being poached, especially with the advent of net guns on Ebay. Even with the presence of my pet macaws (remember my daughter the vet-I now have 5 rescue macaws), the wild flock would visit but stay high in the palms. At that time my pets were fully flighted so they would be in the palms too.
One day when I was cleaning the outside cages, I pushed one to the edge of the patio which left a clean approach line. Soon the wild macaws were comfortable flying down and bringing their friends. It helped that they were addicted to walnuts, much to my husband’s dismay since unshelled walnuts are $4.69 a bag. Their presence is also helped by the fact I live less than 2 miles from Fairchild Tropical Garden and Matheson Hammock Park where their nests and roosts are located. Fairchild Gardens ( the largest subtropical botanical gardens in the Americas), my house and the site of the original Parrot Jungle form a triangle within a mile of each other. Bill Pranty, noted Florida ornithologist has a distribution map of macaw nest sites and again it’s rather triangular but larger and includes the campus’s of the University of Miami. The triangular area is about 5 miles from downtown Miami and 20 minutes from Miami International Airport. This distribution map is part of a comprehensive article about the blue and yellow macaws (Natural History of Blue-and-Yellow Macaws Ara Araruna in Miami Dade County, Florida Florida Field Naturalist Volume 38, No 2 May 2010 Pages 55-62.
In spite of the popularity of the movie and the book , the Parrots of Telegraph Hill , there doesn’t appear to be much attention paid to our estimated thirty thousand parrots flying free from Connecticut to Florida and from Texas to California. Other estimates say more than thirty- five thousand parrots live in Florida alone, making the United States home to the most diverse population of exotic parrots in the world ( quoted from Of Parrots and People by Mira Twetti).
The television show, Nature, did include a very short segment on the wild amazons nesting on the grounds of the famous Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach which was narrated by Paul Reillo, Ph.D Director of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation. The segment was very pro parrot and did manage to convey the truth that the invasion of the parrots doesn’t cause any environmental havoc but since 90% of this same Nature show was devoted to how invasive species are destroying the Everglades , I’m not sure including a five minute segment on the parrots was a good thing or bad.
This lack of media attention causes the small diverse group of individuals dedicated to the wild parrot’s welfare to work in isolation. Here in Miami, our Bird Lovers Club sprang into action last year when I gave a lecture about Florida’s wild parrots. Within 3 months, the club got the City of Pembroke Pines to support the installation of feeding station in 3 parks and a senior center. The club marshaled volunteers to keep the feeding trays stocked with parrot mix donated by the club through their commercial sponsors. ( the parrots came)The club didn’t stop there. They are in the process of having their legislative committee draft proposals to recommend that parrots be recognized as established and as such should be protected. Our local Audubon (www.tropicalaudubon.org) has installed artificial macaw and parrot nest boxes designed with input from the Schubot Exotic Bird Center of Texas A &M). When I was
researching this article, I discovered Miami is not alone in dreaming up the concept of helping the wild parrots by putting up artificial nest boxes. The city of Weslaco, Texas has carefully wrapped dead palms in a park specifically to provide artificial nests for their parrots.
The wild parrots do have their ornithological champions, both on the east coast and the west; these are Bill Pranty of the Archbold Biological Station in Florida and Kimball Garret of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. Kimball Garret has a web site, the Wild Parrots of California and Bill has posted fabulous You Tube videos of the wild Blue and yellows as well as some comical sun conures. Both have published numerous scientific articles about the wild parrots.
Perhaps the most unique approach to sharing South Florida’s abundance of wild parrots is undertaken each year with our tropical Audubon’s Exotic Field trip. The field trip is scheduled always on the first Saturday in December and last year we saw 36 varieties of parrots including the blue and yellows and chestnut macaws. The trip always coincides with Miami’s Art Basel so when it gets too dark to bird, you can watch birds of a different feather- the art crowd. Imagine seeing wild macaws, amazons and thousands of parakeets plus vacationing in sunny 80 degree weather in the middle of winter during Art Basel The meeting up place to begin your parrot field trip is Matheson Hammock Park which is home to orange winged amazons, white winged parakeets, hill mynahs, and a nesting pair of chestnut macaws. The Park promises a dramatic start to a full day of birding because it’s natural beauty just thrills birders who come for the first time to see a huge natural hammock of over 22 acres right on Biscayne Bay with spectacular views of downtown Miami. The natural vegetation of the hammock is the way Florida was before the city came. Paul Bithorn, the field trip leader is not only competent and knowledgeable, he is also blessed with a keen sense of humor who keeps his commentary about the parrots thoroughly engaging . Paul Bithorn also leads a parrot (exotic) field trip in October through our botanical garden, www.fairchildtropicalgarden.org. Fairchild is located directly adjacent to Matheson Hammock Park. Last years Paul Bithorn’s trip counted 36 species of parrots including the blue and yellows.
If the timing of these birding /parroting trips are not convenient for you, the book, Parrots of South Florida by Susan Allene Epps, 2007 by Pineapple Press will aid you as the neighborhoods where the parrots are most likely to be found are listed and the book will assist with species identification. Another excellent source is an article by both Bill Pranty and Susan Epps in the Florida Field Naturalist Distribution, population status , and documentation of exotic parrots in Broward County, Florida 30:111-131. Broward County borders Miami Dade County. Ft. Lauderdale is in the middle of Broward and is only 11 miles from Miami so you can get an idea how feasible it is to bird Dade and Miami at the same time.
For an up to date and exact count and report of species of the parrots to be found in Miami Dade you can refer to our Audubon’s December Bird Count where parrots are included and you can refer to the November archives of our bird board where Carlos Sanchez reported the results of our special Exotic Count which was immensely successful. Carlos then provided Roelant Junker with the Miami Dade Parrot Count to the World Parrot. This count is critical for research and we are so lucky that Roelant Junker and the University of Leiden recognize the benefits of synurbanisation. ( to participate in the World Parrot Count go to www.cityparrots.org and click on World Parrot Count for instructions). Education is the key too as xenophobia also extends to parrot lovers who somehow think that counting parrots is part of a government conspiracy to eliminate them during outbreaks of Newcastle ( based on the gassing of pet parrots in California some time in the early 2000) I myself try to promote the wild parrots welfare by developing a free power point presentation given to various state wide Bird Clubs, museums, the University of Miami and Bird Expos so we can learn about Florida’s wild Parrots .( It is especially important to tell people to leave dead palms up during the nesting season.) I get an overwhelming response; every one loves the parrots- strange little aliens that reach out and touch us. If I had more space to write, I’d loved to tell you about two very special wild macaws- Scruffy and Fuzzy- and how they bridged the gap between specie- human and parrot: But ,alas, next time.