By Ken Dixon, published in The Connecticut Post on December 7, 2005

Deal allows UI to destroy nests but not send birds to death

A showdown over the extermination of hundreds of monk parakeets was short-circuited in Superior Court in New Haven Tuesday, after The United Illuminating Co. promised to cease capturing the birds – for the time being.

Priscilla Feral, president of the Darien-based Friends of Animals, was relieved that dozens or more birds that have escaped capture – and death – will not be asphyxiated.

She said, however, it was a Pyrrhic victory, after about 200 of the gregarious green birds were killed in the UI’s three-week campaign to remove nests from 103 utility poles from West Haven to Fairfield.

The Friends of Animals withdrew their court challenge Tuesday after UI agreed to stop netting the birds and turning them over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has been destroying them in carbon dioxide chambers.

A spokesman for UI, which said the nests had to be removed to prevent outages and fires, downplayed the deal reached Tuesday, stressing that the nest-eradication effort remains on schedule, although no more birds would be captured and killed this month.

“The point is, we may never know whether they were done gassing the birds or not,” Feral said. “We know a lot escaped and UI had planned on going back and getting every one they could.”

She said she wished the lawsuit could have been filed sooner, but it took three weeks to research the case.

But the free birds will have to confront the winter without their nests, as the UI pulls down their thatched-stick shelters, which can weigh 200 pounds or more. Feral said her animal rights group will return to court in January to try to protect the pigeon-sized birds over the long term. “It a terrible time of year to yank their nests down,” she said.

Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Environment Committee, said he is relieved that UI’s eradication plan was apparently altered. Roy credited rising public pressure against the utility as the reason the company let the remaining birds go.

“This gives us some breathing room in the Legislature to develop some amendments for the law that has allowed the UI to capture these birds and give them to the USDA,” Roy said. Roy said there was no reason for UI to kill the birds that have survived – mostly in fir trees and oaks – along the Connecticut shore for 30 years. Albert Carbone, UI’s spokesman, would not say that the Friends of Animals won any concessions during a closed-door meeting Tuesday in the chambers of Superior Court Judge Linda K. Lager.

“It’s just part of the work plan,” Carbone said. “We didn’t alter our work plan in response to the complaint.”

Alan Schwartz, a New Haven attorney representing UI, issued a statement after the meeting, saying: “As planned, the remaining work involves the removal of the inventoried nests and any parakeets encountered in this phase of the work will not be captured. UI has no plans to capture more parakeets during the remainder of the year.”

Derek V. Oatis, a Manchester lawyer representing Friends of Animals, said he believes that UI did not raid all of the nests and that a substantial number of birds will now avoid euthanasia at the hands of the USDA.

“All that I know is that as of Friday, when I agreed to bring the action, UI were continuing to capture more birds,” he said. “My understanding is there were a number of inventoried nests they hadn’t gotten to yet. I don’t care how anyone spins it, if there aren’t birds being killed it’s a good thing.”

The Friends of Animals lawsuit included testimony from Dwight G. Smith, a monk parakeet expert who is chairman of the biology department at Southern Connecticut State University. He said that the monk parakeets – actually parrots because of their long tails – have established a niche in the state’s ecosystem.

Carbone said it may take weeks to remove the nests.

“If there are birds, they’ll just fly away,” Carbone said.

The premise of the campaign was to clear transformers and poles for public safety and electric reliability, he said. Customers will receive a week’s notice of any planned UI outages as the nests are pulled down with grappling hooks.

Meanwhile in Washington, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, a member of the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, sent a letter Tuesday to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, questioning the extermination campaign, requesting that he explore other options. U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, D-4, a Bridgeport resident who has seen the monk parakeets in his neighborhood, also wrote to the USDA, expressing his concern about the euthanization of the colorful birds.

By Ken Dixon, published in The Connecticut Post on December 7, 2005. Washington bureau writer Peter Urban contributed to this report.