Sunday, June 8, 2008

Feral Foreigners

Birds are incredibly adaptable species, a fact I witnessed firsthand during a recent visit to San Francisco. Not only is the city alive and vibrant with its human residents, but it is also home to an astonishing colony of feral parrots, the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

The first night of our visit, my husband and I were walking through the bold skyscrapers of the financial district, heading toward the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building. As we approached a small park near the waterfront, we were assaulted with a wild screeching, a cacophany of sound that clearly wasn't human. Nor was it originating from the pigeons and mallard ducks calmly browsing along the manicured lawn. Intrigued, we crossed into the park and were startled to see what appeared to be a mass of angry leaves, so perfectly did the birds blend into their surroundings. As we observed them, we discovered a tremendous flock of parrots with brilliant green plumage, bright red caps, and creamy yellow bills.

Our visit was cut short; after a quick photograph or two, it was clear that these parrots were exceedingly territorial and did not appreciate guests in what I would later discover was their roosting ground. Further research revealed that these were cherry-headed conures and a variety of interbred parrot species initially native to Ecuador and Peru. The birds had been imported in large numbers as exotic pets, but their loud, raucous voices and impatient mannerisms make poor companions and many birds were released by frustrated owners. Over the years (importing these tropical birds is now heavily restricted), the released birds gathered and flocked near Telegraph Hill, a region of the city rich in lush foliage and abundant food sources. The flock has grown and interbred, and today they are firmly established as somewhat unique residents of the city.

While they are a marvel to watch and hear for residents and visitors of San Francisco, this is also a clear lesson on the dangers of choosing birds as pets without fully understanding their habitat and behavioral needs. It is wonderful to feed the birds, but interfering with their natural lives should never be condoned.

For more information on the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, I highly recommend the book and film of the same name, as well as information posted by the book's author, Mark Bittner.

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