The Parrot Pandemonium

Pasadena's parrots are crucial to the survival of their species.

11 mins read
A colorful bird perched on top of a parrot
Pasadena without parrots would be sadder, smaller and much quieter. Photo: Ashly Cass

There are really only two kinds of Pasadenans: those who find Oreo-stealing bears adorable and those who emit their own ear-splitting screeches because a parading peacock scratched the paint on the new Tesla while admiring his own reflection.

It is a sharp and contentious division.

First, a language trivia treat. A group of anything is referred to by linguists as a “venereal.” It’s not as nasty as you may think. The word “venereal” refers simply to Venus, the goddess of love and all things amorous. So a group of things generated by natural reproduction is called a venereal.

To “venerate” means to admire or worship, as the ancients adored Venus. We must here reference the wonderful book An Exultation of Larks by the late (but still utterly fabulous) theater critic James Lipton. You already know many venereals. A pride of lions. A pod of whales. A gaggle of geese. A murder of crows. Add to this Lipton’s tart witticisms, including a sighing of rabbis, a bickering of lawyers, a bustle of mothers-in-law, a funk of athletes, a yawn of supermodels, and so on.

In this vein, a large group of parrots is known as a pandemonium.  Read on.

For Pasadenans who recoil at the sight of a lizard on the wall or a twilight rat on the overhead telecommunication wires, we can only suggest moving to a Manhattan penthouse where contact with wildlife is limited to the occasional random sighting of a runaway owl.

We checked in with Seth Styles, Senior Copywriter for JohnHart Real Estate with offices in Glendale and Burbank, who has written about the impact of parrots on the housing market.

That impact is negligible, and Styles is pragmatic: “With the way that the housing market currently stands in California, particularly an in-demand area like Pasadena, the parrots aren’t enough of a consistent nuisance to hurt property values. Right now, the demand for housing is so rampant that I doubt the parrots would drive off anyone but the most sensitive buyers.”

Styles continues, “But it’s also worth noting that the parrots aren’t strictly keeping to Pasadena. They’re popping up all over the area these days. I hear them all the time at my place in Los Feliz. I think, if anything, the Pasadena parrots are integrating into the general noise of big-city living: early morning sirens, racing cars, helicopters, and the general cacophony that comes with big-city living.”

Meanwhile, our region is home to 13 species of parrots, with two in particular, the Red-crowned Parrot (Amazona viridigenalis) and the Lilac-crowned parrot (Amazona finschi), being the most plentiful, visible, and raucously audible.

A bird perched on a tree branch
Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned parrots are the two most plentiful parrots of the 13 species frequently spotted around the Dena. Photo: Ashly Cass

Fanciful theories abound regarding their route to Pasadena. One thing, however, is clear: both species are endangered, with the Red-crowned parrot which is native to West Texas and a small region of Mexico, approaching the critically endangered list, according to Ashly Cass, Operations Manager for the unique, urban wild parrot rescue, nonprofit So Cal Parrot located just east of San Diego. 

Because the species were not included in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, this parrot does not receive federal protection under that act.  

Like many parrot species, their numbers have been decimated by deforestation and the illegal cage bird trade, landing Red-crowned parrots on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red Watch List

No Returns, No Questions Asked

A quick Google search reveals both Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned parrots for sale, priced between $1,800 and $2,000 per bird. In these ads, breeders and dealers typically suggest that the birds, which can live seven to eight decades, be housed in a “large” three-foot-square cage, described as “…enough space to play.”

But here’s the irony: an equally quick scan of Craigslist or sometimes even Nextdoor may include terse pleas along the lines of: “Free with cage. Hyacinth Macaw (Umbrella Cockatoo, African Gray Parrot, etc.) Includes cage, food, toys, and bird. Noisy. NOISY. Bites. Must pick up immediately. No returns. No questions asked.”

As with all companion animals these days, the incidence of this kind of offer has swelled in the aftermath of COVID, as many Americans downsize and cope with job loss.

“Get Birds and Parrots Shipped Right to Your Door Step! Stress Free and In The Comfort of Your Own Home!” crows one site based in Southern California. The purchasing agreement for that site includes the following statement: “When purchasing live birds or parrots from site & our company. You agree that & our company is in the business of advertising and selling birds & parrots, the birds & parrots are provided by associated breeders or other third parties.” 

And who might these third parties be? 

Cass says, “The opinion of most professionals in this space is that in some places where parrots are found, they may face a 100 percent poach rate. In parts of Mexico and Central and South America, there may be someone almost literally waiting to climb the tree as soon as the eggs hatch, to take the hatchlings for illegal sale in the north.”

She explains that although most of these birds will continue on their doomed journey via the USA into other parts of the world, barely-fledged parrots may still be purchased in border town mercados and even by the roadside as drivers exit Mexico through U.S. Customs into San Diego. 

The mission of So Cal Parrot, which partners with Project Wildlife/San Diego Humane Society and Pasadena Humane, among other alliances, is to rescue, rehab and release. The organization was founded in 2013 and dedicated exclusively to the welfare of naturalized wild parrots.

The 13 parrot species in our region are considered wild and not invasive. Their growing populations may also be described as “feral” and “escaped.” In fact, the Red-crowned parrot is the official mascot of the city of Brownsville, Texas, part of a Texan population believed to have formed in response to severe drought in Mexico around 1885.

Severe weather patterns in northeastern Mexico beginning in the 1980s have continued to contribute to their growing population there. Global warming is expected to result in further relocations.

San Francisco was the setting for the 2003 documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, chronicling the relationship—make that romance–between musician Mark Bittner and a flock of feral Cherry-headed conures and a lone Blue-crowned conure, a population believed to have formed around 1911.

Conures are considered parakeets, considerably smaller than the heftier parrots that brighten Pasadena’s skies, and the feral flock of San Francisco is considered as a colony of escaped pet birds and their progeny.

But why are Pasadena parrots here? Where did they come from?

One urban myth maintains that the closure of Pasadena’s original Busch Gardens located on the brewer’s personal property at Orange Grove Avenue and Arroyo Seco in 1937…or the Van Nuys location in the 1970s, or both… led to the reckless, desperate or accidental (accounts vary) release of exotic birds into the local ecosystem.  

Fans of the late Paul Reubens may recall the frantic scene from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure where Pee-wee, assisted by a chimp, rescues caged parrots as a fire consumes the shop—a kooky moment inspired by the real-life 1969 fire that consumed Simpson’s Nursery in East Pasadena circa 1969. Or maybe what actually got the party started was the burning of Simpson’s Gardenland and Bird Farm a decade earlier.

Perhaps a little of each story bears some truth, paired with the fact that today, smuggled birds occasionally escape and bond into any available community.

Regardless of their apocryphal origins, the birds appear to be here to stay because life is good in the Dena.

This is great news if you care about parrots.  In fact, Cass explains that the robust population of Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned parrots in our region may, in fact, hold the key to preserving the species from extinction.

Breeding studies currently are underway, and as Cass explains, the most critical factor in species recovery is allowing the birds to stay wild. As blasphemous as it may sound to sentimental animal lovers, Cass states that parrots…”make terrible pets,” not because the creatures themselves are unworthy, but because the life that humans typically can offer them is wretchedly inadequate.

A parrot sitting on top of a tree
A wild Red-crowned parrot enjoying a rare moment of silence. Photo: Ashly Cass

“Parrots are complex animals, highly social and highly intelligent. They are flock animals. They have never been domesticated,” she says. “In order to thrive, they need space. A lot of space. And they need a lot of stimulation and enrichment. And they need to fly, forage, feed, play, compete, groom, bathe, rest, problem-solve, mate and scream with their own kind.”

Cass has put in her time in zoo management and distinguishes between a zoo experience, admittedly a good zoo experience, versus sitting alone in a 3-foot-square cage in a mostly-empty home.

A good zoo experience, or an optimal sanctuary experience where multiple birds interact, far surpasses the quality of life that even the most well-meaning solitary bird-lover can offer.

The screaming, which is not necessarily an expression of distress, is perhaps the single defining factor in why Psittacine (curved-beak) birds are rehomed, or, less elegantly put, dumped at your local shelter or on Craigslist.

And they are loud. 

And, may we add, they will outlive you. In captivity, parrots may live to be 80.

That’s a lot of screaming.

Were parrots the original “snowbirds?”

Most likely, according to the fossil record, all Psittacines evolved in Australia, although weirdly, according to the fossil record, they may have originally formed their DNA in what is now Scandinavia.  Quite reasonably, after a few millennia of Norwegian winters, the species relocated south to sunnier climes.  

They are considered a sister clade—a relation—of falcons and hawks, which share the definitive curved beak and talons. Emperors, czars, pashas, and imperialist Europeans, notably Victorians, collected live parrots as status symbols, much as they collected elephant feet as umbrella stands, stuffed crocodiles, ivory trinkets, peacock feather fans, and shrunken heads of dubious origin.  

The tropical, foreign, “exotic” (a horribly deforming term) nature of parrots persists. Today, many people acquire them along with primates and big cats as a perverse element of décor.

“Professionals in my context, including veterinarians, all of us animal-lovers, agree that it is an atrocity – I use that word deliberately– to ask a parrot to live in your house. We offend nature on a major scale by doing this,” says Cass, who has worked closely with parrots for a decade.

“People may adopt wild animals with the best of intentions.  They mean no harm. But they don’t realize that they are projecting their own need, or neediness, onto the situation. They mean no harm consciously, but they inadvertently do harm out of ignorance.” 

The fall-out is clear to anyone who spends time around caged parrots.  

Isolated, lonely, angry, bored, freaked-out, these birds self-destruct. Many pet-shop parrots rip out their feathers and chew their own skin as an excruciating cry for help. They scream incessantly, calling hopelessly for their long-lost flock, which is far out of earshot — it’s a long way from Pasadena to Costa Rica or Australia.

Regardless of their apocryphal origins, the birds appear to be here to stay because life is good in the Dena.

Cass says, “Half of my calls and emails, every day, are from people wanting to rehome pet parrots. Initially, as pets, they seem like so much fun. They are charismatic, they’re entertaining. But that honeymoon glow wears off fast. A solitary parrot will chew up everything in sight.” And, even happy parrots are loud and messy, making hem ill-suited as urban tenants and neighbors.

Don’t believe it? Check Craigslist or the gazillion sweet FB, Instagram and TikTok videos depicting humans laughing, splashing in the shower, and cuddling in bed with obviously cherished peach-faced lovebirds, cockatiels, macaws, parrots and parakeets. Although this is possible, Cass cautions, “…that’s just a tiny sliver of their day.”

She adds, “We advocate against keeping parrots as pets. They are highly misunderstood, and they require expensive, niche veterinary care. They can create a polarizing relationship in your home, especially once they become sexually mature. They are stifled by containment, and they just want to get out to make baby parrots. This contributes to the screaming. And this triggers a cycle of constantly seeking new homes for these animals.”

Off the record, on the DL, this is why some humans, initially infatuated with their birds, simply open the cage and open the window, concluding that there is no more viable option.

Legalities aside, Cass and her colleagues maintain that parrots, regardless of their origin, are not domesticated animals and are not suited for life in captivity.

Let’s say that you have no desire to keep a parrot as a pet, but one morning in Pasadena, you find a struggling green parrot on the asphalt of your driveway or on the pavement outside your office. 

“Parrots do get hit by cars and do get attacked by dogs and even cats,” says Cass. Birds, along with all other living things, are also shot by yahoos with crossbows and BB guns. The best course of action is to pick up the bird with a washcloth or tee shirt, place it into a small cardboard box, making sure that it can’t hop out and further injure itself, and move it to a quiet space.

Step two is to call the Wild Parrot Emergency Line, 858-522-0852. Cass says that requests are generally served within one day. The critical issue is transportation to her facility in San Diego.

“Or, if you are in Pasadena, text us,” says Lauren Hamlett, Director of Wildlife Education for Pasadena Humane. The agency’s emergency line for wildlife is 626-344-1129, and texts are the best mode of connection. The texts are reviewed by volunteers between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM, and texts received outside those hours will receive replies the following day.

Pas Humane will receive the bird and provide basic care while a volunteer driver is located to transport the parrot to Cass and her team in San Diego. Wildlife walk-ups can’t be admitted to Pas Humane, so text the number first.

“We triage with other agencies to expedite help for an injured animal or an animal in trouble. We ask the public to text us the location, and a photo of the animal and its specific injury. We have a solid network of transporters and a good network of helpers in our 11 service cities,” says Hamlett, adding that volunteer drivers are always in demand.

Are you my mother?

An area where much education is needed, according to both Cass and Hamlett, is in regard to fallen fledglings. A squirming, featherless, raw-pink hatchling in the “baby dinosaur” phase, as Hamlett describes it, naturally engenders a protective response in humans.

Indeed, these tiny birds, which are sightless in their first days out of the egg, are easy pickins for coyotes, crows, jays, hawks, raccoons, rats, cats, dogs, reptiles, and roving colonies of ants. And exposure to hot sun, especially on hot pavement, will end the bird’s life instantly. But the truth is, the hatching will do best if returned to its nest whenever possible. Parents may be observing from a nearby branch, “…and parrot parents do a much better job than we could ever do,” says Hamlett.

A parrot sitting on top of a stuffed animal
Whenever possible, reunion with parrot parents is ideal for fledglings. Photo: Ashly Cass

If you were warned as a child that a wild mother would reject a baby animal that has been touched by humans and has a whiff of human scent—forget it. It’s not true.

Most often, a parrot parent or other wild parent will readily re-engage with a reunited baby. When encountering a fallen fledgling, the best advice, and the hardest to take, is to leave it alone if it does not appear injured. 

If it’s on a sidewalk or in direct sun, move it to a softer, more sheltered location close to where it landed, perhaps on the grass under a nearby tree. Wait and watch from a distance for an hour or more. If there’s no sign of parents after that time, intervene, albeit reluctantly.

If the nest is unreachable or has been destroyed by wind, rain, or over-zealous gardeners, create a makeshift nest with soft layers (another way to repurpose old tee shirts) to protect the baby’s fragile, exposed skin with drainage holes in the bottom.

Ideally, the parents will accommodate the improvisation, visiting to feed the baby. Hamlett says, “Remember, to a wild animal, humans are huge and threatening. They see us as monsters. Predators. They think we want to eat them, so don’t expect a warm reception.”

The cold truth is that very few animals are truly domesticated. Dogs are.  So are horses, sheep, hogs, chickens. Cats, not so much. The most sage and succinct assessment comes from Edwin Way Teale, who, a century or so ago, wrote: “Those who wish to pet and baby wildlife love them, but those who respect their natures and wish to let them live their natural lives, love them more.”

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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