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Mouth of the South

Loud, colorful and playful, the parrots and parakeets of the Rio Grande Valley demand to be noticed.

By Eileen Mattei

A loud whistle broke the Sunday morning quiet a few months after I moved to Harlingen. A mesquite tree 30 feet away offered a perch for three lime green parrots, 12 to 13 inches long, with scarlet crowns, patches of lemon yellow and red on their wings, and a touch of violet blue on the neck. They squawked while I gawked. When they flew off, I ran for my birding guide.

The red-crowned parrot, a tropical fruit of a bird, is seen in noisy flocks in towns across the Rio Grande Valley. The presence of parrots and green parakeets sparks a lot of enjoyment and some controversy about the big, colorful birds. Where did they come from and why are we seeing more of them in Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco?

Although settlers in the mid-1800s wrote of seeing wild parrots (no species identified), most current birding books refer to the Amazona viridigenalis and Aratinga holochlora as Mexican visitors. People assume they are seeing escaped caged birds because red-crowned parrots and parakeets frequent urban and suburban trees. While a few of the estimated 300 to 500 red-crowned parrots in the Valley might be escapees, the Texas Ornithological Society (TOS) considers red-crowned parrots and green parakeets as established avifauna, meaning they are self-sufficient, breeding and expanding. The birds hang out in the urban forest because “those trees are where the food is,” explains ornithologist Tim Brush of the University of Texas-Pan American.

Starting around 1910, as the Valley’s brushland was cleared for fields of cabbage, carrots and citrus, almost 95 percent of the region’s existing trees disappeared. Parrots seemed to disappear, too, for the next 70 years. By the time Valley towns had developed urban forests of mature live oaks, hackberries and fruiting trees, parrot habitats 100 miles south in northern Mexico were being cleared for agriculture. Big Valley freezes in 1983 and 1989 killed thousands of Washingtonian palm trees. Parrots nest in dead palms. Abundant, available food, shelter and water attracted many displaced red-crowned parrots, Brush believes.

“Every good size town in the Valley has at least one parrot flock,” says Pat Wade, who with his wife, Kitty, leads the parrot and parakeet tours for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival every November. “Outside of breeding season, parrots are very social,” he says, estimating that more than 100 birds roost together in Harlingen. Before the festival, volunteers spend late afternoons tracking where the birds are eating and socializing. Knowledge of the birds’ habits convinced some ecotourists that the birds were trained, Kitty says. “The parrot tour pulled into the Pendleton Park parking lot and the parrots, close to 80, arrived a minute later and landed on high wires only 50 feet away. The single red-lored parrot with the flock hung upside-down for about five minutes so we could point it out.” Red-crowned parrots come into their roost near dark, when it is difficult to photograph them.

Red-crowned parrots are seen and heard almost exclu-sively during the two hours after sunrise and the hour around sunset. “I know that in the wild they eat early,” Pat says. “They can get enough acorns in less than an hour in the morning to keep them going all day.” The parrots move noisily between trees, socializing, feeding on flowerbuds, young leaves, fruits and seeds. They shift their feeding areas frequently, breaking into smaller groups, responding to weather changes and to what is in season or blooming — ripe mulberries, chinaberries, pecans and the orchid-like blooms of the pata de vaca. They can wander 50 to 60 miles a day, but the flocks from different towns don’t appear to mix, according to Brad McKinney of Brownsville, who serves on the TOS Bird Records committee.

Most mornings between February and July, a flock of 10 to 20 parrots works my neighborhood’s trees, which are about eight miles from the Harlingen roost at Pendleton Park. I hear and then see a few overhead in other months. On very misty, overcast mornings, I’ve watched a raucous group of 30 parrots socializing on the power line until 11 or so, a few hanging upside-down by one foot, crowding together, screeching, trilling, shifting and playing what looks like King of the Mountain.

Usually parrots disappear during the day. Wade speculates that they hang out quietly all day digesting, then re-emerge to eat before dark. Only once have I spotted a parrot during the day, and it was darn near invisible in the oak where I’d watched it eating earlier.

Parrots, which mate for life, have raised families of one or two chicks in the dead palms on my suburban road, a source of neighborhood pride. So, after lightning killed three tall Washingtonian palms near my front door, I waited for the natural progression. First, golden-fronted woodpeckers hollowed out multiple cavities for nesting. Two years later in February, two parrots spent about an hour each morning perching on the top of the dead palms and hanging from the dead fronds between stints of pulling themselves with beak and claws from hole to hole, sticking their heads and upper bodies in, occasionally ripping off a piece of bark with their beak. But after a week, the pair left to look for another cav-ity. I still spot the pair, recognizable because one is missing a patch of secondary feathers.

Birding guide Roy Rodriguez ranks parrots and parakeets among the most intelligent and longest-lived birds. In 2005 he counted 67 in one McAllen parrot flock, then counted 89 the next year. But at one McAllen intersection, “you used to expect them like clockwork, but for some reason, they’re not showing up,” he says. Rodriguez guesses that the removal of dead palms as the city grows has made nesting holes harder to come by, so some parrots have shifted to Pharr, where he is seeing more.

Even without a parrot census, parrot-watchers keep tabs on the population. “My gut feeling is that parrots are not going to be as numerous as parakeets,” says Brad McKinney, who had expected to be seeing more parrots this year. The reason may be that parrots nest exclusively in dead palm cavities, while green parakeets have adapted to nesting in man-made structures, such as an indentation in a metal building.

Valley towns use parrots and parakeets in their tourism promotions. The red-crowned parrot is the official bird of Brownsville while Weslaco invites visitors to “Rendezvous with a redhead ... parrot, of course” and provides detailed instructions on how to spot the parrot flock. Both Brownsville and Weslaco have city ordinances protecting parrots and their nests. That’s a necessary step, Tim Brush says, because parrots and parakeets fall in a gray area, neither indigenous nor protected by federal migratory bird laws. “Every community lucky enough to have these birds needs to protect them.” He recounts stories about people spraying parrots with water to knock them off a perch and capturing them to sell at flea markets notorious for trafficking in illegal birds, although adult birds never become good pets.

Green parakeets inhabit the same urban forest as the red-crowned parrots.

Last summer we downsized to a home one-and-a-half miles away with an acre of dense, second-growth, south Texas brush. Midday on our first day there, three parrot-size birds perched on the backyard bird bath — green parakeets, all green. Twice the size of the caged budgies sold as parakeets, the birds have a longer, pointed tail and a more slender profile than the red-crowneds. Like parrots, they are com-monly heard before being seen, with an equally raucous call that is distinctly different from the parrot’s. (Visit <www.worldbirdingcenter.org /bird_info> to listen to both vocalizations.) Green parakeets prefer the same palm roosts and food favored by red-crowneds. Their numbers started increasing about 20 years ago, although they weren’t observed breeding in Brownsville’s palms until 1995. Their established Mexican range is about 150 miles south of the Valley.

Parakeets stay in small groups of about five to 15 that are active during the day, eating anacua berries, hackberries, acorns and young flower buds. Marian Turk’s McAllen neighborhood was an orange grove 35 years ago.

“We never saw parakeets then, but for the last 15 years, when they are not in my yard, they are only six or seven blocks away,” she says. Now Marian sees 150 to 200 parakeets at a time in her neighborhood around North Tenth Street, but she has counted up to 300. She’s observed them mating on power lines and knows they stay out of sight when a strong north wind blows.

Across town at Quinta Mazatlan, a city park and World Birding Center satellite, three pairs of parakeets nested in palm cavities with a pair of red-crowned in a nearby cavity, possibly nesting. No one has reported seeing the species interacting.

In Weslaco, Martin Hagne at Valley Nature Center tries to stay on top of the shifting populations so he can send visitors to the right viewing spots. “Two or three years ago, we could set our clocks on the parrots coming in at 4:30. That’s changed,” he says. “Once they leave the roost to go feed in huisache or hackberries, it’s hard to spot them.” But the flocks of parakeets are getting larger.

During Brownsville’s Latin Jazz Festival, I stepped outside the Jacob Brown Auditorium about 30 minutes before sunset and heard the unmistakable screeches of green parakeets. Coming to roost in a batch of short palm trees, the birds landed on the outer curve of the palm fronds, which bent under their weight as they squeezed together. I counted 38 parakeets landing in one tree, just like clowns piling into a tiny car. An occasional bird hung upside down. The traffic was similar at nearby trees. I saw the silhouettes of individual parakeets walking, with that distinctive side-to-side gait, down a frond to the palm’s trunk. The nearest trees got quiet at twilight when the parking lot lights came on, while an occasional parakeet flew out and back from the palms not shaded by a building.

Brush organized the region’s first official parakeet roost count in November 2006. Observers tallied 380 green parakeets in McAllen, 33 in San Benito, 13 in Weslaco, 140 in Brownsville and 16 in Laredo. “I don’t think we found all the birds, but I am happy with the number we got and what we learned,” Brush said. He and Brad McKinney expect the numbers to rise during the winter as cold fronts bring dispersed flocks together for warmth and safety. McKinney counted 140 parakeets in the old Fort Brown area.

Yellow-crowned parrots, that red-lored parrot in Harlingen and lilac-crowned parrots are considered escaped birds that mingle with the red-crowned flocks. Wade estimated the continental population of red-crowned parrots at only 5,000. For more information on spotting the rare and wonderful red-crowned parrots and green parakeets, stop by area visitors centers, or visit <worldbirdingcenter.org> or <texbirds.org> for updated reports.

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