Dec 2, 2005
Darien's Friends of Animals defends nesting parakeets
By Susan Shultz

NO MORE NESTS — A monk parakeet sits by its nest on a utility pole. United Illuminating says the nests and birds present a public health and safety hazard and has already asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove and exterminate 130 of the birds from Connecticut poles. (S. Michael Bisceglie photo)

Friends of Animals, a Darien-based animal rights organization, is making big headlines over a small bird. The monk parakeet, a species non-native to Connecticut, is currently being captured from its nest on utility poles belonging to United Illuminating, a New Haven-based utility company. The captured parakeets are turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and exterminated by gas. The process has prompted an outcry from Friends of Animals as well as various residents of Connecticut.

According to United Illuminating representative Al Carbone, the nests are being removed and the parakeets exterminated due to public health and customer services issues.

"These nests are huge and cause fires and power outages for our customers, and we have tried other unsuccessful methods, and the droppings present a possible health issue" Carbone said.

Previous methods Carbone cited included chemical repellents, fake owls, lasers, and simply removing the nests.

"We’ve removed the nests, but we’ve found the birds just come back and build new ones," he said.

The USDA’s Corey Slavitt said the department has euthanized 139 parakeets so far, at the request of United Illuminating.

"We always ask if someone has used non-lethal methods first, and our goal is to strike a balance between wildlife and people — we also use humane euthanization methods approved by the American Veterinary Association," she said.

Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, said United Illuminating has been lax in its research, and alternatives to exterminating the birds have not fully been explored.

"Dwight Smith, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University and chairman of its Biology Department, is an expert on monk parakeets and has offered United Illuminating the benefit of his research several times, but they haven’t returned his calls," Feral said.

She also said that United Illuminating’s company Web site states that only nine percent of the fires they’ve experienced have been caused by animals in general.

"Then they say that most of those have been caused by squirrels, so how many fires have actually been caused by the parakeets?" Feral asked.

Carbone did not dispute the nine percent factor, but pointed out that unlike the parakeets, squirrels do not take up residence on the utility poles.

"We have a responsibility to our customers to ensure the best service, and we have one of the highest records of reliability," he said.

According to Carbone, the track record of the monk parakeets — causing four fires and eight to 12 power outages over the last three years — is enough for the utility company to take strong measures to eliminate the threat of service interruption caused by the small green birds.

The monk parakeet is believed to have been originally imported as a pet from the tropics and may have escaped from Kennedy airport several decades ago. Since then, it has propagated and become wild in many areas of North America.

Carbone also pointed out that the law is on United Illuminating’s side, which Feral does not dispute, but hopes that she can get that law changed.

Currently, state law does not protect monk parakeets from being included within the protection of wild birds, including them within the group of birds such as crows, rock doves, and brown-headed cowbirds. These birds are not protected when found "when concentrated in such numbers as to constitute a public health or public safety hazard."

Feral said that while the law permits the actions of United Illuminating, the company should feel obligated to do the "right thing."

"There are so many ways to minimize the threat posed by the monk parakeets without gassing them — the nests can be trimmed, the nests can be removed in March, before they lay their eggs — but these ways require work, and United Illuminating doesn’t want to put in that work," Feral said.

She also said that for the monk parakeets who do evade capture, pre-winter is an exceptionally cruel time of year to remove their nests.

"These birds originated in the tropics, and to remove the nests they’ve worked hard on all year, just before the cold and snow is wrong," she said.

At a meeting yesterday with state legislators from the Environmental Commission, the state Department of Environmental Protection, United Illuminating, and monk parakeet expert Smith, Carbone said United Illuminating was open to alternative suggestions in the future.

"We listened to him, and our people will be providing our research to Smith and we will listen to his ideas," he said.

Smith expressed frustration via a telephone interview on Wednesday.

"We’ve been calling United Illuminating for two years and never got a call back, and in this meeting, I was the only one speaking on behalf of the parakeets, and no one took my suggestions — this is a very short term solution to the problem," he said.

Carbone said United Illuminating has no intention of halting the current extermination in process as a result of the meeting.

Feral said that Friends of Animals was barred from entry to the meeting, and was disappointed with the outcome.

"Everyone said there was nothing they could do," she said.

Dale May of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged that the situation was a difficult one.

"No one has denied that it’s a public safety and health concern, and therefore, legally we have no way to regulate this," he said.

Feral said that Connecticut’s current policies are not very animal friendly.

"It’s as if when the animal is non-native, it’s not protected, if it is native, it’s hunted," she said.

Feral encourages people to voice their opinion to their local legislators to get the monk parakeet changed to a protected wildlife species.