If you’ve ever been on a peaceful afternoon walk through Santa Monica or Northeast Los Angeles, you may have seen them fly overhead or heard them squawking in their communal roosts.
Thousands of non-native parrots call Los Angeles home, much to the enjoyment of the local community of bird enthusiasts.
While no extant species of parrot are native to the continental U.S., experts say there are as many as nine species of parrot found in the Los Angeles area, introduced decades ago and continuing to grow in population.
But how exactly did they get here, and is their presence having a negative impact on the local ecosystem?
Luke Tiller is president of the Pasadena Audubon Society, a collection of bird watchers and enthusiasts with ties to the national organization of the same name.
He says rumors about how the parrots ended up in Los Angeles have been running rampant for years.
“There were like a million stories about how they got here,” Tiller said. “Like that there was a crate to LAX that they escaped from or that some were released during the L.A. riots. And there’s probably some element of truth to all of those stories. But there’s not one story that’s ‘the reason’ that they’re here.”
There have also been persistent rumors that the birds once lived at the Van Nuys Busch Gardens and escaped when the theme park shuttered its doors in the 1970s.
Despite no definitive answer for one flashbulb moment, experts agree that the parrots ended up in L.A. through the pet trade, either released intentionally, or beloved pets that escaped their cages.
“They can be actually quite destructive around the house as a pet,” Tiller said. “I think people get them as pets and then kind of maybe second guess that and that’s one of the way they get into the population.”
Regardless of how they were introduced, the parrots seem to be thriving.
Red-crowned parrots, which are among the largest of Amazon parrots roaming the skies of L.A., are actually doing better as a species in California than in their native homeland in Mexico, Tiller says.
“The red-crowned parrot is actually listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as endangered, which essentially means that it’s at high-risk of extinction in the wild,” Tiller said. “So they now think that there are probably more red-crowned parrots in Los Angeles than there are in its native range in Mexico.”
Habitat loss and the pet trade are leading factors in the struggles facing the red-crowned parrots. But in L.A., they’re breeding — very successfully — with their communal roosts and breeding spots a popular stop for birdwatchers. Tiller himself lives just across the street from where some parrots have been known to roost during breeding season.
The American Birding Association considers red-crowned parrots to be “established” in L.A., meaning their population will continue to replenish itself and grow.
In a strange twist of fate, the parrots laying down roots in Southern California could end up going a long way in helping their fellow birds back home. In the event that their numbers drop off significantly in their native range, Tiller says scientists might be able to pull from the L.A. flocks to reintroduce the birds back into their ancestral homelands.
“One of the big problems with reintroduction of birds when their numbers have dropped very low … is having adult birds that kind of know how to behave in the wild,” Tiller said.
Scientists have tried to reintroduce various endangered birds raised in captivity back into their native ranges, but the results have been mixed. Many of those birds raised in captivity couldn’t recognize danger and lacked the “street smarts” to make it in the wild. That’s not a problem for L.A. parrots that have shown they have what it takes to survive in the City of Angels.
With thousands of non-native birds taking up residence in Southern California, you would think there would be concerns about clashes with other bird species or negative impacts to the local ecosystem. Surprisingly, that doesn’t really seem to be the case.
“The thing about them is that they are mostly really confined to kind of fairly urban areas of Los Angeles,” Tiller said. “I don’t think ornithologists are that concerned about their impact.”
There are some small-scale nest feuds between the various parrot species and some larger woodpeckers, and parrots might steal some nuts and fruits from backyard gardens, but their impact to the local ecosystem seems to be mostly minimal.
We contacted the California Department of Fish and Wildlife regarding these non-native birds to see if that hypothesis was accurate, and it appears to be the case. Their wildlife conflict specialists have not received any reports regarding problem parrots.
“With parrots being part of the pet trade industry, CDFW doesn’t really have any knowledge or management of parrot populations,” a California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesperson said. “That could change if parrots demonstrated a negative impact on another species or habitat that do fall under our management.”
Instead, these non-native birds have shown to be model citizens. They stay out of trouble (aside from the occasional ear-shattering squawking) and offer bird enthusiasts or curious passersby the chance to witness something uniquely L.A.
“Personally, I love them,” Tiller said. “The parrots seem to be fairly innocuous and when you see them in these communal roosts in the winter, it’s spectacular, and that’s something that I recommend every Angeleno tries to do… It really is amazing.”
The Pasadena Audubon Society does regular field trips and walking tours to see the parrots in their roosts. The trips are accessible for people of almost all abilities and you don’t have to be an expert to take something away from them, Tiller said.
Whether you hold the same affinity for these birds as Tiller, or if their screeching and squawking is more “nails on a chalkboard” rather than music to your ears, it matters not. The birds have made Los Angeles their home and they don’t appear to be going anywhere.
Like many Angelenos, these parrots are transplants, drawn to Los Angeles by its idyllic weather and seemingly boundless opportunity, looking for love and taking things day by day.