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The Naturalized Parrots of Orange County

You’re enjoying the outdoors in the suburbs of California, and you hear a big racket in the distance—a cacophony of squeaking and squawking and screeching. You gaze up and see a small flock of birds overhead. They beat their wings stiffly and continue to chatter amongst themselves as they fly out of sight. You just saw a flock of parrots!

Parrots, or the taxonomic order Psittaciformes, include over 350 bird species and they are generally found in tropical and subtropical areas of the Southern Hemisphere. Parrots sport  zygodactyl feet, meaning they have two toes facing forward and two facing backward, which is a useful trait for climbing trees and grabbing food items like fruit, seeds, and bark. They also have thick, muscular tongues and hooked bills to manipulate and crack open food.

Parrots have been establishing populations beyond their native range around the globe since the 1960s, and 73 different species have been observed in the continental United States, with San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Island, southern Texas, and southern Florida being notable hotspots. Those living in the U.S. today are a result of the pet trade: they were either accidentally or intentionally released from captivity, or they are descendants of released individuals.

Map of parrot sightings in the U.S. | Photo credit: iNaturalist

Contrary to popular belief, parrots living in the United States are not scientifically classified as feral. Feral species are domesticated animals that live independently in the wild, such as feral horses. Parrots have only recently been kept as pets and have not yet lost their wild instincts. Therefore, they are not considered domesticated, and they technically cannot be considered feral when they escape from captivity. Instead, the various parrot species in the United States are referred to as non-native since they are living outside of their natural range, or they are considered naturalized once they establish breeding populations in their non-native range.

There are 25 naturalized parrot species in the United States, and while parrots are still relatively uncommon in California, some species are growing in numbers. In Orange County, the most common parrot species are the Red-crowned Parrot, the Lilac-crowned Parrot, and the Mitred Parakeet. Let’s take a look at how to identify them so you can fully appreciate the splendor of these beautiful birds!

Red-crowned Parrot

Red-crowned parrots (Amazona viridigenalis) are the most numerous parrots in Orange County. They fly with distinctive shallow wingbeats and are usually seen in the morning and evening as they travel between their roosting and feeding areas. If you are lucky enough to see these birds up close, you can identify them by the red forecrown, bluish nape (back of the neck), ivory-yellow bill, and short tail. The patch of red extends further along the back of the head in males than in females and juveniles. Their flight calls are harsh and down-slurred, a useful trait for identification since they often fly so high that they are difficult to see, even with binoculars.

Red-crowned Parrot identification | Photo credit: All About Birds

These parrots are native to northeastern Mexico, where they inhabit temperate and tropical forests, agricultural land, and Tamaulipan scrub (habitat consisting of thorny legumes, larger trees, and riparian areas). The species has also recently been designated as native to southern Texas. Red-crowned Parrots are declining in numbers in Mexico due to poaching and habitat loss, and they are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, the Texas population is stable and the rate of habitat loss in Mexico is not as high as in prior years.

Red-crowned Parrot in flight | Photo credit: All About Birds

Lilac-crowned Parrot

Lilac-crowned Parrots (Amazonia finschi) look somewhat similar to Red-crowned Parrots, but they have less red on their foreheads, and their napes are pale purple rather than blue-gray. Males and females have identical coloration. When flying, Lilac-crowned Parrots have similar body shapes to Red-crowned Parrots and are difficult to tell apart by their silhouettes. Instead, pay attention to their flight calls. Lilac-crowned flight calls are squeaky and up-slurred, while Red-crowned calls are down-slurred.

Lilac-crowned Parrot identification | Photo credit: All About Birds

Lilac-crowned Parrots are native to western Mexico and are listed as endangered by the IUCN. In Mexico, they occupy deciduous, semi-deciduous, and pine-oak forests along the Pacific coast, and they prefer conserved habitat over areas disturbed by agriculture or urban development. In the United States, they are found in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties, where they form flocks with other parrot species and utilize non-native plants and human areas.

Mitred Parakeet

Mitred Parakeets (Psittacara mitratus) have bright red forecrowns like the Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned Parrots, but splotches of red around their eyes and cheeks set them apart. Males and females have identical coloration, but younger birds have less red than older individuals. If you’re observing the bird from a distance, look for the Mitred Parakeet’s long, pointed tail to distinguish it from the previous two species. In addition, listen for the Mitred Parakeet flight calls, which are higher-pitched than the Red-crowned calls and have a grainer tone compared to the squeaky Lilac-crowned calls.

Mitred parakeet identification | Photo credit: Corey Raffel

Mitred Parakeets are native to the central Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, where they inhabit montane evergreen forest, humid montane scrub, deciduous woodland edge, and cloud forest patches. Within its naturalized range, this species is more commonly seen in Los Angeles County, but they are scattered throughout Orange and San Diego counties, the Bay Area, and southeastern Florida where they inhabit parks and suburban areas.  

Mitred Parakeets in flight | Photo credit: Audubon

Why are naturalized parrots so successful?

The urban landscapes of California starkly contrast with the forests that these parrots originate from. So how have they managed to survive and thrive in big cities? The answer lies in their behavioral flexibility, wide dietary breadth, and charismatic nature. 

The various parrot species that have succeeded outside their native range are notable for their behavioral flexibility—they quickly adjust their habits based on the resources available. In a study that experimentally translocated yellow-naped parrots between two Costa Rican sites, the translocated individuals were able to change their daily movement patterns, habitat usage, and roosting behaviors to align with those of their new flock. Such behavioral flexibility has allowed parrots to exploit manmade structures in cities that they would not encounter in the wild. In urban landscapes, rather than seeking trees similar to their home environment, they use telephone wires, building facades, and vehicles as perching sites.

Parrots’ behavioral flexibility also plays a role in their ability to consume a wide breadth of foods. In Southern California, Mitred Parakeets have been observed consuming at least 32 types of foods, and Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned Parrots have been documented eating at least 24 and 21 types of foods, respectively. Important food items for Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned Parrots in Southern California include the seeds and fruits of sycamore, fig, apricot, pecan, and sweet gum trees. Staples for Mitred parakeets include the flowers of eucalyptus trees and the seeds and fruit of sycamore trees. High dietary malleability has allowed these birds to survive on food that they would not normally encounter in their native range.

Mitred Parakeets feasting on persimmons | Photo courtesy of Peggy Honda

Their charismatic nature is the final key to their success. Despite their non-native status, parrots have widespread public appeal due to their playfulness and bright colors. Their positive reception has unofficially safeguarded them from capture and removal, despite lacking the legal protections offered to native birds.

Mitred Parakeets playing in a tree | Photo courtesy of Peggy Honda

The future of parrot conservation

Naturalized parrot populations are a unique case in the field of conservation. Roughly 59% of all parrot species (247 of 422 species) are decreasing in their native ranges due to poaching and habitat destruction. At the same time, the urban landscapes of California, Hawaii, Texas, and Florida are serving as havens for parrots, and some biologists deem these regions to be “urban biodiversity arks.” In other words, urban parrot populations act as semi-natural colonies that may help ensure the future of endangered species.

Of course, parrots are not native to the United States, so what about their impact on local flora and fauna? Luckily, they do not appear to be negatively affecting native wildlife or ecosystems, so they are not currently considered invasive. In addition, the parrots’ primary reliance on ornamental, non-native vegetation means they do not compete for resources with native birds. 

While urban and suburban areas are not typically heralded as oases for wildlife, their role as refuges for parrot species that are shrinking in numbers should not be overlooked. While the preservation of parrot habitat in their native areas should be prioritized, the coexistence of native and non-native birds in cities is a special occurrence in conservation worth appreciating.

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