|A pair of Amazon parrots in Santiago Regional Park in Orange. Photo by Trude Hurd|
|Scaly-breasted munia, also known as a nutmeg mannikin. Photo by J.J. Meyer|
Check out my story on the cover of Saturday's Orange County Register Home & Garden section:
Many exotic bird species have made Southern California their home, breeding and living here year-round, with several populations of these birds skyrocketing in recent years.
Doug Willick, who records rare bird sightings for the North American Bird Journal and the local Sea and Sage Audubon Society newsletter, said, “We typically think of exotics as the bright, colorful nonnative species sold as caged birds in pet shops. Other nonnative bird species have also become naturalized in the United States like house sparrows and starlings, but we don’t think of those as exotics.”
The exotic birds that have been area residents the longest are likely the various species of parrots, said Willick, a wildlife biologist. He remembers seeing parrots in the area as far back as the 1960s. He continues to hear them every morning at first light from his home in Old Towne Orange. A flock of red-crowned parrots and mitred parakeets is seen frequently in his neighborhood. The red-crowned, lilac-crowned and yellow-headed Amazons are particularly well-established in Southern California.
“These birds have adapted well to urban areas,” he said. “They’re very smart birds.”
Cindy McNatt has grown used to the squawks of the parrots that stop to snack on her loquat trees in the backyard of her Santa Ana home. “When they’re working this area, I’ll hear them for weeks, then they disappear. They seem to like the older neighborhoods like North Tustin, where they still have fruit and nut trees.”
The flocks seem to stick to the tree crowns, often perching in the neighborhood palms but never going to the ground for food or drinking from her fountain, which attracts a host of other birds, she said.
According to the research of the California Parrot Project, founded by Kimball Garrett of the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, there are at least 10 species of parrots that have become naturalized throughout Southern California, from San Diego to the northern reaches of Los Angeles and east to Redlands. An estimated 2,500 feral parrots are living freely in California.
Native to Mexico and South America, these feral parrots have become city dwellers. The tales of how the parrots escaped from captivity have become fodder for urban legend. Some say large-scale releases occurred when an area pet shop burned down, or when Busch Gardens in Van Nuys closed many decades ago. Others contend that many birds were released by poachers when facing arrest on this side of the border. Experts believe the population cannot be traced to a couple of isolated releases, but rather is the result of a number of intentional and unintentional releases over the years.
Another widely established bird species is the scaly-breasted munia, also known as the nutmeg mannikin, or spice finch in the pet trade.
“Orange County seems to be the epicenter for these birds, though they are widespread,” Willick said.
These small, chestnut or reddish-brown finches from Asia have dark heads and thick bills. Adults have a scaly patterned chest, while juveniles are mostly tan overall. These highly gregarious finches colonize in large flocks, often showing up at backyard feeders.
They’re late nesters, Willick said, often starting in late summer or early fall. Large flocks can be found at Huntington Central Park and the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine.
Growing numbers of bronze mannikins, an estrildid finch from Africa, have been sighted at Huntington Central Park and along the San Gabriel River Trail. These birds look similar to the scaly-breasted munia but are darker in color.
Because exotic birds are nonnative and therefore not listed in most field guides, their identification can sometimes confuse even the most avid birder.
Dave Oliver of Huntington Beach first spotted a bright orange bird while biking on the Santa Ana River Trail a few years ago. At first he thought it was a vermillion flycatcher, but after further research learned that it was a northern red bishop, also called an orange bishop.
Breeding males are bright red with a black head and chest, while nonbreeding colors tend toward yellow or yellowish orange. Females have pale yellow chests with streaky brown backs and wings. These birds are native to Africa.
Oliver has since kept a lookout for the bird during his daily rides along the river. He recently saw a male and female perched together close to the trail. But he’s never seen more than two at a time on his rides.
Northern red bishops were first sighted in area in the 1970s, Willick said. But their population hasn’t grown like that of the scaly-breasted munia, because these birds are more limited in their choice of habitat. They tend to prefer the tall grass of marshy areas.
Another exotic bird species showing up throughout the area is the pin-tailed whydah, an African native. Breeding males have extremely long tail feathers. Both sexes have bright orange bills. Populations of these birds, first sighted nearly 30 years ago, have exploded over the last 10 to 12, Willick said.
These birds are known to be aggressive competitors when foraging for food, often chasing native birds away from feeding sites. But of even greater concern is that pin-tailed whydahs are brood or nest parasites, similar to our native brown-headed cowbirds. That means they don’t build their own nests or care for their young; they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.
“Are they parasitizing our native bird species? We don’t know,” he said. But ornithologists speculate that because pin-tailed whydahs lay their eggs in the nests of estrildid finches in Africa, they may be laying their eggs in the nests of scaly-breasted munia, the only estrildid finch in our area.
How these increasing populations of exotic birds are affecting our native bird populations is still relatively unknown, he said.