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Built for the Birds

January 15, 2006 | Monk Parakeet
By Ken Dixon, published in The Connecticut Post

Group constructs alternative nesting after UI clears utility pole

A few days after United Illuminating Co. crews tore down their nests, a group of tenacious monk parakeets was back at work Saturday, rebuilding their thatched home atop a utility pole on Ocean Drive in West Haven. Down the coast, on Second Avenue near the corner of Ocean Avenue in the Lordship section of Stratford, more of the pesky parrots were also reconstructing a stick nest high up on an electric pole. They're the survivors of a UI extermination campaign that was suspended last month after animal rights activists from throughout the state and across the nation first squawked, then filed a lawsuit to stop the killing.

The electric utility relented after 179 birds were killed among a statewide population estimated at more than 1,000. In all, 103 nests from West Haven to Bridgeport were destroyed in UI's $125,000 eradication program that was supported by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Now, both sides agree, is the time to test non-lethal alternatives to let the parrots live without nesting in the utility poles to which they've become attracted in the more than 30 years they have lived in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

While a new complaint to permanently cease parrot killing is pending in Superior Court in New Haven - filed last week by the Norwalk-based Friends of Animals - bird lovers hope to develop alternative nesting sites that will attract the parrots away from further confrontations with United Illuminating crews.

At about 10 a.m. Saturday, in a tall oak tree above this city's Ocean Drive, a group of about a dozen of the soggy green parrots perched, squawking among themselves. Below, one of the newly designed nests was in place in front of the 451 Ocean Drive home of Julie Cook, a nursing student who was arrested on breach of peace charges during an angry protest with UI and USDA crews. The charges were later thrown out of court. A few doors to the west, a group of bird lovers worked to erect another platform they hope the birds will be more attractive than the poles.

Down a narrow walk-in easement onto their tiny, Sound-front property at 489 Ocean Drive, Peter Katz and his wife, Storm Somers Katz, were supervising the construction of a platform.

"The parrots are one of the things that charmed us when we moved here," Peter Katz said, while a crew worked on digging a hole to sink a tall PVC pole topped by a new, empty nest suitable for parrot families.

Sixty feet away, the high tide was pounding away on their rock breakwater, while dozens of other avian visitors, including mocking birds, sparrows and cardinals landed on the various birdfeeders scattered about the Katz's quirky, 50-by-70-foot yard.

Later in the afternoon in Fairfield, there was a workshop sponsored by the Friends of Animals, building more parrot nests, which look like a little beach bungalows for the birds.

The new replacement nests are a hit-or-miss proposition, since no one knows whether the monk parakeets, actually parrots, which are also called Quaker parakeets, can be distracted from a relentless habit of rebuilding in the same poles where UI tears down the nests.

Four southwestern Connecticut homeowners have put up new, alternative nests.

Part of the utility's rationale for capturing the birds and turning them over to USDA crews from killing in carbon dioxide gas chambers, is their tenacity.

Albert Carbone, UI's spokesman, said Friday the company won't comment on the latest lawsuit, but restated a corporate willingness to work toward a method to keep the poles clear of bird nests without killing them. Part of the Friends of Animals suit alleges that UI was negligent in maintaining its poles on a regular basis. The lawsuit charges that UI let the stick nests grow to huge proportions over many years, housing as many as 40 birds each before the eradication program, first reported in the Connecticut Post, began in mid-November.

"Hopefully, at the very least, this killing won't happen again," said Derek V. Oatis, the Manchester lawyer representing the Friends of Animals. "If UI can show us their making a good-faith effort, we won't pursue them."

Priscilla Feral, president of the FOA, said last week that early anecdotal evidence is at least slightly encouraging.

"What I'm hearing is some parakeets are showing up at platforms," Feral said. "They're congregating and eating, but the question is whether they'll stay. If the new perches are literally across the street from UI's tear downs, we're anticipating the survivors, the escapees, to maybe relocate there."

Dr. Dwight G. Smith, a monk parakeet expert who is chairman of the Biology Department at Southern Connecticut State University, said last week it may be too early to tell whether the birds can be enticed to new quarters.

He has heard evidence that the surviving birds may be disoriented by the removal of their nests.

"I'm investigating a couple of things that may become clearer next week," said Smith, who plans to submit some of his fieldwork for the FOA lawsuit against United Illuminating.

"I know that the day after members of their colonies were captured and killed, members of four or five nests were back, sitting there," Smith said. "So UI's terror tactics - even their dreaded method - didn't work."

State Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, co-chairman of the legislative Environment Committee, said last week that he will review a 2003 state law that lists monk parakeets among nuisance birds that can be eradicated.

Roy has also asked the state's congressional delegation to work toward taking the monk parakeets off invasive species lists.

"I think the Friends of Animals make some good points in that UI could and should do things differently to protect the birds," Roy said. "We have suggested, and UI is studying, putting out more crews to observe the birds and if they see three sticks together, to knock them down." Then, the parrots may eventually learn to build their homes in trees or the new platforms.

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