Animal lovers call them a colorful part of the urban ecology, but the United Illuminating Co. wants a state judge to declare Connecticut’s monk parakeet population a tenacious threat to public health and safety.
The utility claims the company’s most-effective way to deal with the stick nests that some parrot colonies build on utility poles was the capture-and-slaughter program that sparked controversy, protests and worldwide interest in fall 2005.
During the first two days of a Superior Court trial in New Haven last week, a UI lawyer asked Judge Trial Referee Anthony V. DeMayo to rule that the regional utility can resume the kill tactics.
The Darien-based Friends of Animals Inc., which brought the lawsuit against UI more than two years ago, wants DeMayo to issue an injunction so the eradication, which claimed about 185 monk parakeets in 2005, stops permanently.
“I think UI’s waiting for the kind of ruling they want here and they’re going to start killing these birds right and left,” said Priscilla Feral, president of the international animal-rights advocacy group, after the second day of evidence on Thursday.
Feral noted that a sworn deposition of a UI official last year indicated that the electric monopoly has bigger problems with squirrels causing power outages than it does from monk parakeets, South American natives that have thrived along Connecticut’s coast for nearly 40 years.
“This company has contempt for them,” Feral said. “They were compared to cockroaches and rats. They are keen on wiping them out of this environment.”
A UI spokesman declined comment on Friday, citing that the trial is still under way. Jonathan M. Freiman, UI’s lead lawyer from the New Haven firm of Wiggin & Dana, stressed that the capture program was approved in a 2003 state law that labeled the monk parakeets as invasive and allowed for the roundup.
Under the 2005 program, UI linesmen climbed poles under cover of darkness, netted the green birds and turned them over, stunned, to waiting crews from the federal Department of Agriculture for immediate asphyxiation and death.
Freiman said the nests can reach 6 feet in height and the flammable sticks weigh hundreds of pounds. He said that “dozens” of power outages have been linked to the nests.
Freiman criticized an alternative-nesting scheme – approved by the FOA – as being generally ineffective, since only two of about 14 man-made nesting platforms have attracted permanent parrot colonies.
“They just want a blanket injunction against the capture of monk parakeets, notwithstanding the fact that the Legislature has made it that the monk parakeets can be caught and can be killed when they constitute a threat to public health and public safety.” Freiman said during his opening statement on Wednesday.
“There’s no other reasonable way to solve the problem, the problem, of course is flammable nests on the high-voltage electrical equipment,” Freiman said.
He described the proponents of the alternative nesting platforms as “some earnest and well-meaning people talking about things they built in their back yard, about dreams that they have, about hopes that they have about other ways to solve the problem.” During the cross-examination Thursday of a Waterbury woman who witnessed a Nov. 18, 2005, seizure-and-euthanasia incident, Freiman was able to illustrate the tenacity of the birds, the only species of parrot that build stick nests.
On May 1, UI crews tore down several nests near Long Island Sound on West Haven’s Ocean Avenue.
By May 18, the birds were well under way toward substantially rebuilding each of the nests – with more sticks gathered from the neighborhood – 18 feet or higher in the exact same utility poles.
During cross-examination of the FOA’s main witness, Dwight G. Smith, chairman of the biology department at Southern Connecticut State University, Freiman got the monk parakeet expert to admit that only a small fraction of the birds will choose another spot to nest after their homes in utility poles are torn down.
“Taking down the nests is a reasonable and prudent alternative if you don’t kill the birds.” said Smith, a Ph.D. who has taught at SCSU for nearly 40 years and tracked the parrot population since 1992.
Smith, who with under-graduate and graduate students has studied colonies throughout the state and New York and New Jersey, said that repeated nest teardowns have not been attempted often enough to see what it takes to eventually force the parrots elsewhere.
Smith said his numerous attempts to work with UI on the issue were ignored by company officials.
Many of the thousands of Connecticut monk parakeets, which are native to Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, nest in trees. The birds have been found in about 20 states, including a sizable colony in Chicago.
Most colonies are located within a mile-and-a-half of Long Island Sound in single pairs to a eight pairs per nest, from Greenwich to New London, Smith said. He said they have a significant role in the urban and suburban ecology and are prey for hawks.
“They are part of the habitat they occupy,” Smith said. “I would argue an important part of the habitat.” The green birds, also called Quaker parrots for the apparent capes around their shoulders, are about a foot long and can live 20 years. The oral history of the birds’ path to this region has the first immigrants escaping from a broken crate at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York around 1967 or 1968 and flying across the Sound to Bridgeport.
“They’re colorful, charismatic and a great many people take delight in their antics,” said FOA lawyer Danielle B. Omasta, of the Manchester law firm of Beck & Eldergill. She said that for UI to win its case, the law requires that UI show “in all instances” that parrots nesting in utility poles create health and safety hazards.
“They’re a plaintiff,” Freiman countered. “They’re seeking an injunction. They have to show there is no threat to public health and public safety.”
During Smith’s testimony on Wednesday, DeMayo, who had been assigned the case that morning, picked up a photo of a monk parakeet and smiled.
“One could easily argue that one would like a lot of these things hopping around your backyard,” said the jurist. “But that’s not what we’re really here for.”
“All I can say is they’re an extremely likable species,” Smith said. “People enjoy watching them. They enjoy seeing tropical species in action.”
In November 2005, UI suddenly began the roundup and slaughter of birds in more than 100 nests on UI poles located in West Haven, Milford and Stratford, but the campaign was suspended amid a public outcry.
During the first day of the trial, Freiman continually attempted to poke holes in the FOA case and Smith’s opinions. At one point, Freiman wouldn’t even acknowledge that the federal authorities killed the birds back in 2005.
“Whatever the USDA did after they were turned over, I don’t know and can’t stipulate,” Freiman said. The utility – facing an initial suit by the FOA and promises by members of the Connecticut General Assembly to change the 2003 designation of the birds as pests – then promised to limit the operations to tearing down the nests and letting the birds fly away.
But the 2006 General Assembly failed to change the law and bills to that effect were not pursued in 2007 and 2008.
In 2006 and 2007, UI had autumn nest teardowns in an agreement not to disrupt the spring nesting season, but this year’s spring campaign resulted in egg breakage, Feral charged, adding that the FOA has at least two eggs from upset nests.
She said that while UI let the nests grow for years through deferred maintenance, it has invested a lot over the last two years preparing for the court case.
“They mad as hell and they’re not going to be content until they eliminate those birds from Connecticut’s environment,” Feral said. “The question is whether we’re going to let them get away with it.” The case resumes in DeMayo’s courtroom on Wednesday.