When Assoc. Prof. Stephen Pruett-Jones, an ecologist at the University of Chicago, first came to Chicago in 1988, he stumbled on a unique piece of the city’s history: the monk parakeets of Hyde Park.
The squat, bright-green birds aren’t native to Illinois, or even the United States. The U.S. originally had two native parrot species: the Carolina parakeet and the thick-billed parrot. The Carolina parakeet is now extinct; the thick-billed parrot, a species that ranged into the southwestern states from Mexico, was driven out of the U.S.
In the 1950s and 60s, tens of thousands of monk parakeets were imported from South America as pets. Inevitably, many of them escaped or were released. By 1968, they were found breeding in the wild across 10 states, including a colony in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, home of the University of Chicago campus.
Pruett-Jones, who usually studies wrens and other wild birds in Australia, noticed a large group of the parakeets on his daily commute. He started sending students out to study the birds and eventually organized an annual lab project to count them.
“I have never actually held a wild parrot in the United States,” he said. “But indirectly I’ve become the spokesperson for parrot research here because when I saw the monk parakeets in Chicago, I realized nobody else was working on them.”
Those monk parakeets aren’t the only parrot species thriving in the U.S. as a result of the pet trade. In a recent study, Pruett-Jones teamed up with Jennifer Uehling, a former UChicago undergraduate student now working on a PhD at Cornell University, and Jason Tallant of the University of Michigan to research data on bird sightings from 2002 to 2016. They found that there were 56 different parrot species spotted in the wild in 43 states. Of these, 25 species are now breeding in 23 different states.
“Many of them were escaped pets, or their owners released them because they couldn’t train them or they made too much noise—all the reasons people let pets go,” Pruett-Jones said. “But many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay.”