The Wild Parrots of Brooklyn

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Slideshow by Terry Baynes

Strapped into the bucket of a crane and hoisted fifty feet above ground, Steve Baldwin ripped a parrot nest apart, hoping to find it vacant. Down below, the construction crew awaited an answer. Their marching order from city government: don’t touch a nest until the bird expert confirms there are no babies inside.

Though he is the founder of the Brooklyn Parrot Society, Baldwin is not a bird expert by trade. He works in advertising as a marketing manager. But he does consider himself a parrot publicist. And since he picked up on their plight a few years ago, the wild Quaker parrots of Brooklyn have experienced an image makeover, which has translated into real gains for the birds.

“Before I started my work, the parrots were generally seen as a menace,” said Baldwin. Newspaper articles tended to regard them as a threat, reporting mostly noise complaints and power outages caused by their nests. Much to ConEdison’s chagrin, the Quaker parrots often build their nests in electrical power structures, whether for the heat or sturdiness. As the nests grow, so does the risk of short circuits and voltage drops.

Baldwin has been a parrot enthusiast since his teens. A few years ago, he heard about the hawks, Pale Male and Lola, that were being evicted from their 5th Avenue nest in Manhattan. The “very elegant gentlemen and ladies of 5th Avenue” were offended by the carnivorous hawks and the squirrel parts left on the sidewalk, said Baldwin. They petitioned authorities to remove the nest. Baldwin joined the protest movement that won the return of Pale Male and Lola. He became interested in unlikely species that cropped up in urban environments, which led him to the Quaker parrots and Brooklyn. He was soon spending so much time with the parrots in Brooklyn that he relocated to the borough from Manhattan.

Baldwin decided to launch a publicity campaign for the Quaker parrots-the same birds labeled a “potentially dangerous species” in New Jersey and Connecticut. He used his web skills to design an online shrine to the small green birds. He began offering monthly “safaris” to the parrot lairs in Midwood, Brooklyn and advertised them in Time Out New York. A former journalist, Baldwin cultivated relationships with the media. Periodically, a New York Daily News reporter will call, looking for some relief from crime and politics. Thanks to Baldwin, the parrots have gone from pest to tourist attraction-a dash of color in an otherwise gray cityscape.

How these Argentinean parrots came to be in Brooklyn remains a mystery. According to Baldwin, the most credible theory is that a shipment of parrots en route from Argentina to American pet stores accidentally escaped at JFK Airport in the late 1960’s. For years before, Argentineans had been trying to eradicate these parrots, which they perceived as a blight on their crops. From the late 1950’s to the early 1960’s, a government sponsored program in Argentina had managed to destroy 400,000 of the birds. Someone soon realized that money could be made by selling the birds to pet stores around the world, and the policy shifted from killing to deportation.

When colonies first appeared around Brooklyn College in the 1970’s, environmentalists were alarmed, fearing the ecological consequences of an “invasive” species. Baldwin prefers the term “introduced.” On the safari, he points out how well the parrots coexist with the sparrows, starlings, and pigeons. All of these birds are in North America because of human beings. “None of these birds really belong here. In fact, none of us belong here. Unless we’re American Indians, all of our ancestors came from somewhere else,” said Baldwin. Adaptability is one of the main lessons Baldwin draws from these creatures. He also considers the Quaker parrots to be a rare gift: a second chance. We wiped out our own native parrot, the Carolina Parakeet, nearly a hundred years ago.

Baldwin is working to increase legal protections for the Quaker parrots. In 2006, there was a spate of parrot poaching in Midwood and Marine Park. A bicycle gang roved the streets with lacrosse-type nets, capturing the birds. There were reports that one man captured twenty-five parrots in Midwood and sold them to a local pet store. Given the parrots’ unprotected status, such poaching is completely legal.

Baldwin found an unexpected ally in Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, an ardent parrot lover and owner of “Beep,” a talking African-Gray. Thanks to Markowitz and several other advocates, a bill is currently before the New York Legislature that would give the parrots protected status, outlaw poaching, and require best practices for nest removals.

More than a year ago, Baldwin learned of city plans to renovate Bay Ridge’s “Dust Bowl” baseball field in Leif Erikson Park-home to another colony of Quaker parrots. Nest removals from the baseball field lights were planned for June 2009, the height of the birds’ breeding season when eggs or young parrots were likely to be present in the nests. Baldwin and others petitioned city government to postpone the removals until September, after breeding season was over.

September 12, 2009 marked a small victory for Baldwin and the parrots. Under a compromise reached with the aid of City Councilman Vincent Gentile, local bird advocates, and the New York City Parks Department, construction would begin on this date and only after bird experts confirmed there were no babies in the nests. When Baldwin arrived at the park, workers from the construction crew approached. “Are you the bird guy?” one asked. The representative from the Department of Design and Construction, who usually handles the bird inspections, failed to make it. So Baldwin stepped forward. Within minutes, he was riding down a street in the bucket of a crane, lurching from side to side. Ascending to the top of the lamppost, Baldwin prayed not to find any babies inside the large mass of twigs. He was ill-equipped for a rescue, and there was no stalling construction any longer. To Baldwin’s relief, the nests were empty.

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