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Did you know that a chipmunk can throw its voice? Or that Wisconsin has a venomous mammal? What about the answer to the question: can porcupines throw their quills?Every Monday on WXPR at 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m., the Masked Biologist answers questions just like these about living here in the Northwoods.You can keep track of Wildlife Matters and all of WXPR's local features on the WXPR Local Features podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

Does Wisconsin Have Parrots?

Image by bernard dupont

Have we ever had parrots in Wisconsin, do we have them now, or will we have them in the future? While it might seem an unlikely topic for the Masked Biologist, parrots are the subject of this week’s Wildlife Matters.

Wisconsin has hundreds of bird species that breed here. Many live here year-round, others migrate to warmer climates for the winter months. They range from extremely common to globally rare, and they thrive because of our great variety of habitats and our climate that is somewhat moderated by the Great Lakes. But…do we have parrots? Were they here in the past, are they here now, and will they be here in the future?

Why would I even ask these questions? Well, I read. A lot. Outside of work I spend over an hour a day reading about natural resource issues here at home, across the country and around the world. About a year ago I read about a study by Jennifer Uehling et al that looked at parrot reports from around the country. They compiled historical records and data available from citizen science projects I have written about before, like the Christmas Bird Count, Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, and the more recent eBird, over the 15-year period 2002–2016. They found sighting records of 56 species of parrots in the wild in 43 states. Of these, 25 species are now breeding and 23 states have at least one species of parrot breeding there.

Now, it is important to know a little something about the parrot family before moving forward. This family includes species that we all recognize, from the smaller budgie parakeet to the larger macaw. We tend to associate them with tropical climates, but they do occupy subtropical and some more temperate climate locations as well. It was thought that we used to have our eastern US native parrot, the Carolina parakeet, as an occasional resident in southern WI prior to it’s extinction around 1930. However, a study by Kevin Burgio tightened up their range map using observation records in 2013, reducing their presence drastically to a small stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline around Chicago. We probably had the occasional straggler appear, but we probably never had breeding pairs producing young.

How about now? Well, the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II has compiled the latest species information, and we do not have any confirmed breeding observations of members of the parrot family—yet. However, I am confident within my lifetime we will. And that is only because of an extraordinary bird with an unusual adaptation.

The monk parakeet occasionally pops up in far southeast Wisconsin as a visitor from Illinois, where it has been documented in the Chicago area as breeding and living year-round. Once a popular pet, they started appearing in the wild in the US in the 1960s as they either escaped or were released by unsuitable owners. Now normally, if a parrot or parakeet ends up outside, its odds of surviving long enough to find a suitable mate, reproduce, and raise young would be very poor, especially here in Wisconsin where it gets to subfreezing temperatures for extended periods. These birds are fruit, nut and bud eaters and food would be hard to find. They are cavity nesters, so they would have a lot of competition from native birds like chickadees and woodpeckers. Finally, they are not adapted to the cold and if not killed by predators and feral cats they likely would freeze to death. Except for monk parakeets. These birds have a crucial adaptation that no other member of the parrot family around the world has: they build nests. Big ones. Parrots are social birds, forming monogamous pairs but feeding and travelling in the relative safety of colonies. So the monk parakeet nests are colonial nests. Think about the size of a purple martin house, where several nesting pairs can occupy separate space in a shared structure. These parakeets build structures that typically house twenty mated pairs, but can get large enough in areas like Florida where they can cause problems to the power grid. The nests are used year-round, maintained by the entire colony so they can hatch 5-8 eggs in the spring and get out of bad weather year round. As our climate continues to moderate, and these birds continue to toughen up through natural selection, it is only a matter of time until we start to see colonies of monk parakeets occupying urban areas along the Lake Michigan shoreline where food is easier to find, predators are more scarce, and the microclimate benefits from the moderating effects of the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world.

Image of a monk parakeet by "Bernard DUPONT" licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The Masked Biologist is a weekly commentator on WXPR talking about natural resources and wildlife in the Northwoods. He is anonymous so that he can separate his professional life as a biologist from his personal feelings about the natural world.