Copyright 2001 North Jersey Media Group Inc., All Rights Reserved
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)
Monday, July 23, 2001
A SQUAWK IN THE PARK
LAURA FASBACH, Staff Writer
They're the kind of neighbors that don't think twice about playing their music too loud or dropping by unannounced. Often they can be found at home, taking in the bird's-eye view of the Manhattan skyline while tending to their riverfront digs.
Although they live in the high-rent district, these residents weren't counted in last year's census: They are the monk parakeets of Edgewater.
The green birds with gray heads resembling a monk's hood are native to South America. But natives of Edgewater, the human kind, say the birds have been living around the borough as far back as as the late 1970s.
Over the years, they have become a municipal marvel.
"Everybody is enthralled with them," said Councilwoman Valory Bardinas. "There are bird feeders everywhere. We all try luring them."
If at first you don't see the feathered residents around town, take a listen.
Their distinctive squawking is so noisy that often it can be heard above the din of traffic on River Road and Route 5 at the junction that is Memorial Park.
There, the old sycamore with its far-reaching branches is a strong indication that good trees make good neighbors.
Hidden in its summer foliage are at least six giant cocoon-like nests, some are 4 feet long, that the parakeets have carefully woven together with sticks. Usually a handful of birds live together year-round in the cavernous structures that set monk parakeets apart from all other birds. Each nest has a series of chambers, or rooms, able to maintain a temperate climate throughout the year.
Compared with the smaller, cup-shaped nests of a sparrow or finch, the monk parakeet nests are McMansions. Most birds typically use nests to lay eggs, but the monk parakeets use theirs as permanent residences.
"It's like an apartment building," said Mark Spreyer, an Illinois ornithologist and an expert on monk parakeets. "They share the nest. But they each have their own apartment."
In the last year, a local researcher has been studying the monk parakeet colonies in Edgewater, not to be confused with The Edgewater Colony co-op off River Road on the Fort Lee border.
"This is the only long-standing colony known to be here," said Brian Moscatello, a volunteer bird-watcher from Tenafly who is observing monk parakeets for the New Jersey Birds Records Committee.
The committee, run by the state Audubon Society, determines whether a particular species of bird is established enough here to warrant a place on the state's official bird list, which includes some 450 species. Such lists are important in ornithological circles and for amateur bird-watchers alike because they offer a historic perspective on birds in the area.
The monk parakeet already is on other state bird lists, including those in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.
So will New Jersey be next?
"Clearly they are resident birds and they've been here for years," said Moscatello, who also is director of the Tenafly Nature Center.
He said that one reason for their absence on the list so far may be that bird-watchers have likely seen the monk parakeets but figured they were escaped pets rather than birds that have put down roots by actively breeding and maintaining their population. Moscatello estimated there are between 20 and 50 monk parakeets living in the borough.
While monk parakeets were first recorded in New York City 34 years ago, details on when they arrived in Edgewater are unclear. No one knows exactly how they arrived in this factory town-turned-bedroom community.
Local lore runs the gamut.
Harvey Weber, who has lived all his 30-something years in Edgewater, said one story claims the birds came on a ship from South America that docked in the Hudson to deliver sugar to the Jack Frost division of the National Sugar Corp., formerly in the borough.
"The rumor was they were stowaways on the ship," said Weber.
Some say the birds were purchased as pets and accidentally released.
And one tale has the birds escaping from John F. Kennedy International Airport and flying west.
Nick Dowling, who visits Memorial Park to drink his morning coffee, offered his version.
"They were on a truck and the truck turned over," the 47-year borough resident said. "They got out and flew over."
Regardless of how the parakeets got to Edgewater, Bavaro Vitangelo, who owns a bakery on Route 5 across from Memorial Park, considers their tale a quintessential immigrant story.
"Like everybody, they come from Italy, they come from Germany," said Vitangelo, who came to the United States from Italy when he was a boy.
"They make babies. American babies."
And if they have realized the American dream, the monk parakeets also have had their 15 minutes of fame.
Last fall, Pizza on the Edge featured the birds in its 30-second commercial on cable television.
"In the commercial, we say we're right across the street from the parrot tree," said owner Michael Fiore, who has since run "Parrot Tree specials "that include a variety of toppings for individual-size pizza.
(Sorry, birdseed is not a topping).
Most residents affectionately call the birds parrots and, in fact, the birds are members of the parrot family. What sets monk parakeets apart from other parrots is that they are smaller in size , about 11 to 12 inches from their beaks to their pointed tails. Weighing about 1 to 2 pounds, the chatty birds have a life span of about 15 to 20 years. Selling and owning monk parakeets is illegal in New Jersey because the species is deemed an agricultural pest. Some state officials fear that if the parakeet population grows, the birds could wind up destroying crops.
In Edgewater, where a development boom over the last decade has brought shopping centers and gated town-house communities along the Hudson River, crop damage is unlikely.
Still, Joe Criscuolo, who lives on Myrtle Avenue, said the birds make a special trip to his back yard for food every August.
"They eat all my pears," Criscuolo said of his fruit trees. "I can't do anything with them."
Public Service Electric and Gas Co. has kept a watchful eye on the parakeets because sometimes they prefer to anchor their nests to utility poles instead of trees. If the nests become a fire hazard, the parakeets are usually evicted.
That's what happened in 1997.
With the help of the state Division of Fish, Game, and Wildlife, PSE&G officials removed half a dozen nests from utility poles on and around Hilliard Avenue. But the ever-industrious birds eventually returned and built new nests.
A year later, six baby parakeets that were too young to fly perished in a nest fire across the street from the post office. The fire atop the utility pole left 150 PSE&G customers without electricity on a summer morning.
"There really hasn't been much of a problem with them lately," said PSE&G spokeswoman Joey Anderson. She said that if nests with eggs are removed, the eggs are given to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
These days, the monk parakeets seem to have settled on the sycamore tree in Memorial Park, where they get plenty of visitors.
"I come here just to visit them," said Guttenberg resident Marian Symczyk, who recently took her lunch break on a bench under the birds.
Often she brings them seed from a pet store.
An avid bird-watcher, Symczyk said she's been practicing her monk parakeet calls in recent months.
"They sound more like a crow or a jay," she said, letting out her best rendition of a squawk. "They're not songbirds."
Those who live near the park know the birds are not quiet.
"They come to my apple tree in my back yard," said 15-year-old Corey Mitchell, who has gotten used to the birds background noise at her home on Hudson Avenue. "My friend was yelling at them the other day because they were making a lot of noise." Others take comfort in hearing the incessant chatter, which brings a flavor of the tropics to suburbia.
"I'd rather hear them than the cars," said Michelle Schotanus. Her backyard patio overlooks the park, and her antiques store, Vintage on the Hudson, is next to the park.
Once a customer told her that a monk parakeet was hobbling around the park. Schotanus cupped the bird in her hand and nursed it back to health.
On occasion, she's called the police because people in the park were bothering the birds.
"There are some people that don't like them," she said. "But I love them. Where else can you go in the Northeast and see green parrots?"
NAME: Monk parakeet
SIZE: 11 to 12 inches
LIFE SPAN: 15 to 20 years
NATURAL HABITAT: South America
LOCAL DIGS: Memorial Park in Edgewater
KNOWN FOR: Building cavernous nests that can be 4 feet long and being the most talkative parrot breed