Squawk of the Town

Some of the estimated 1,000 parrots that call Pasadena and South Pasadena home. Photo by Henk Friezer

PARROTS — and the people who watch them — seem to be dealing with some of the same issues as they look to their respective futures.

Both are dealing with the effects of climate change, urban development and the increased polarization of people who are either for you or against you.

So far, the birds seem to be doing just fine. There are about 3,000 red-crowned parrots in California, and about two-thirds of them reside in the San Gabriel Valley area. Of those parrots, perhaps about 1,000  are in the Pasadena and South Pasadena area, according to Kimball Garrett, ornithology collection manager for the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

That is great news for people like me who get up at 6 a.m. and read the newspaper while being accompanied by the squawking of a hundred parrots spreading their news that they are up and ready to eat.

UCLA Professor Ursula Heise is on my side of the parrot divide.

“They always begin to move out at first light and back to their roosts about 45 minutes before sunset. It is a sublime experience to hear and see them,’’ said Heise, who is co-founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies / Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.

Bianca Richards, who lives across from the South Pasadena Public Library — a mecca for the parrots — said that the birds, to her, are “a metaphor for freedom.’’

“What is most charming is the children who have never seen them,’’ she said. “They and their parents just stop and stare in awe.’’

There are, in the opposing camp, those people who describe the parrots as being so loud they can’t hear themselves think; the birds that eat their avocados; the birds that mess all over the car.

To which Richards retorts: “I love their funny antics. I know they make a lot of noise, but I’d rather have wildlife than nothing.’’

Heise, who co-produced a documentary on the parrots for KCET, describes the red-crowned parrot as kind of a “naturalized citizen.’’ They have been on the scene long enough, and flourished enough, that in 2001 they were added to the list of California species by the state birds records committee.

While the red-crowned parrots have held their own in Southern California, they almost became extent in northeastern Mexico because of the pet trade and destruction to their native habitat.

The birds were brought to the U.S. by the crateful. There are stories that they were released during a fire at an area pet store (unconfirmed); that toppled boxes or smugglers released additional numbers, and finally that people got tired of squawking pet parrots and sent them to find their own way.

“What I find fascinating is that such a diverse group of birds that is highly endangered due to the combined pressures of both habitat and the pet trade have established themselves in cities with a new lease on life,’’ said  Roland Junker, who is director of a website called “City Parrot,’’ and who is ecological director for the city of Leiden, in The Netherlands. Junker’s website deals with such parrots all over the world. 

The parrots have found a niche in L.A., and their territory has shifted and expanded over the past 30 years. Some of the flock now includes other kinds of parrots or hybrids.

“When I started birding in 1974, the parrots were confined mostly to the Temple City area. Now they are all over the valley,’’ said Elaine MacPherson, president of the Audubon Club of Pasadena.

The parrots love to roost in the high limbs of mature trees. They stay off the ground — keeping themselves safe from the danger of being hit by cars or preyed on by cats and raccoons.

The parrots also have longevity on their side. A parrot can life 40-45 years.

Garrett wonders, however, if increased drought and the resulting changes in water usage may mean more planting of drought-resistant trees. These trees might not provide as favorable a high perch or as delicious a bill of fare for the birds.

But the parrots have shown they can adjust to eating all sorts of plants — although seeds, fruits and nuts remain a favorite.

“The most important risk to the parrots’ habitat is the replacement of older homes that have space and trees around them — among them the fruit, pecan and avocado trees that the parrots take their food from — with larger lot lines, to lone-line buildings that feature no trees or other vegetation,’’ Heise said.

“The real-estate market and the concurrent decrease in urban tree cover is the most important factor influencing red-crowned parrot habitat in the future.’’

So, parrot lovers, keep your eyes skyward in wonder and hope. And parrot naysayers, just keep muttering.

Just don’t rain on Heise’s — or my — parade.

“I just love watching them,’’ said Heise, who has two red-crowned parrots of her own. “What an intense, lively social life they have. They mate for life and sometimes as the light dwindles, you can see a pair coming in to roost for the night.’’

For parrots — and for the people who love them — that’s heaven.

Editors Note: For a look at hot spots in the Los Angeles area, go to ebird.org/explore. Then click on the species map option. Enter Red Crowned Parrot and choose Pasadena as your location.

My email is ALippman@gavilanmedia.com. Please write if you have any story ideas about people, places or things of interest to South Pasadena residents.