Saturday, May 23, 2015

Organized Gangs of Quaker Parrots Ravage America, Or, Uruguay's Secret Plot to Take Over the World

The invasion of the Quaker parrots must be serious if even the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis has noticed. Apparently the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis is tasked with monitoring and protecting America's borders from feathered dinosaurs. This story, based on the National Institute's research, appeared on the ScienceDaily website, April 27, 2015:

Monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus)

The monk parakeets [aka Quaker Parrots, editor] that have invaded Europe and North America over the last 40-50 years fortifying their massive communal nests atop utility poles in many urban areas appear to have originated from the same small area in South America, according to a new study.

Considered one of the best speaking parrots, thousands of these bright green birds have been imported for the pet trade, and feral populations began appearing in the United States in the 1960s and in Europe in the 1980s. And yet, these two independent invasions -- in the United States and in Europe -- appear to have originated from the same small area in the native range, likely located in Uruguay, according to the new study, which appears online in the journal Molecular Ecology.

The study, which unravels the global invasion history of the monk parakeet, also found that that the North American and European monk parakeets have lower genetic diversity in their invasive populations compared to the genetic diversity in native populations. This is unusual because invasive species with greater genetic diversity often have a greater chance at survival -- a more diverse gene pool means more variety in traits of individuals for natural selection to act upon and allow the species to survive and thrive in a new area.

Until now, very little has been known about the genetic processes linked to successful establishment of invasive parrots. Yet, a better understanding of the genetic linkages could shed light on the potential success of an invasion.

For the study, an international team of researchers based at institutions in Spain, the United States, Canada and Australia used mitochondrial DNA and microsatellite genotypic data to investigate the levels of genetic variation and to reconstruct the history of the invasions.

The study raises interesting questions about why the two separate invasions show such similar genetic patterns.

"One possibility is that these invasive populations may be under similar selection pressures. Most of the invasive populations are restricted to urban and suburban habitats, which may be selecting for some key traits that increase fitness of individuals in those environments," said co-author Elizabeth Hobson, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, which helped support the research.

Social behavior may also affect invasion success, Hobson said.

"It could make it easier for a species to invade a new area and survive, or it could inhibit invasions in other circumstances," she said.

In their native range in South America, monk parakeets have become notorious crop pests devouring cereal grain and citrus fruits, and they have the potential to become the same especially in Florida with its citrus crops, although so far they have had minimal impacts. In their invasive range, monk parakeet activities can cause problems for electrical companies. Their massive nests of sticks atop utility poles can disrupt power and damage equipment.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, tens of thousands of parakeets were imported to the United States as pets. Many birds have been released either deliberately or by accident by their owners, and some may have also escaped during transport. The monk parakeet has now been documented in at least 14 US states with the highest concentrations in Florida and Texas. They also roost in urbanized areas such as New York City and Chicago where they form large, noisy flocks that can be heard for great distances.

Some people still keep the birds as pets, although ownership is illegal in some US states.

(The study, which unravels the global invasion history of the monk parakeet. . . Such a big threat from such a small package. Somewhere, the FBI is keeping a Parrot Watch List. Editor)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

When Parrots Go Cold Turkey

The sad lot of the opium addicted parrots of India. This article, in its entirety, appeared on the Times of India website, May 1, 2015:

The parrots who have been feasting on the poppy seeds for the past few months, will not survive without their regular dose of addiction.

CHITTORGARH: Around this time in the poppy fields of Chittorgarh district, many a parrot will perish. The carcasses of these dead birds will be dismembered by crows, that wait for this opportunity. The opium season has ended around 15 days back and the pods have been removed from the fields. These parrots, who have been feasting on the poppy seeds from these pods for the past few months, will now be without their regular dose of addiction, without which, they will not survive.

"It is inevitable," Nandkishore Dhakar, an opium farmer in Sukhwara village of Chittorgarh district is sure that this dance of death will be enacted again. "This phenomenon has never failed," he continues. "These birds break open the pods and devour the seeds still drenched in the milky fluid." This fluid has a cocktail of alkaloids that can enslave the mind. Soon these parrots become addicts and this drug becomes essential for their survival.

"Once we cut the pods, they are deprived of their addiction. They lose their appetite, start behaving strangely and even lose the will to live. Eventually, they just die." It's a sad truth, but for these parrots, their first taste of poppy seeds is also their first step towards death. And death is a certainty , says Nandkishore. "Each one of them will die," he proclaims in a matter-of-fact way.

Of course, for Nandkishore and his ilk, it also means wastage of precious opium, which fetches them huge profit. This farmer is one of the 25 in the village who has been able to hold on to his licence granted by the narcotics department to cultivate opium.

Nandkishore has devoted half-a-bigha of his farm for poppy . From a quintal of opium production, he earns Rs 30,000. When you compare that with other farmers who grow lady finger and earn just Rs 3,000 for the same amount, you would know why Nandkishore continues to nurture poppy plants in the winters despite all the problems associated with it.

Parrots are not the only reasons for loss. Nilgai are a much bigger menace, more so when they come in the darkness of night. "Parrots damage a few pods, but Nilgai destroy the entire crop," Mukesh Dhakar, who lost his opium-farming licence around 10 years ago, informs. "They come in groups, trample crops, eat the plants and run away before we can do anything."

The solution: spend night after night on the field with enough arsenal to scare away these mammals. The narcotics officials are rarely willing to accept nilgai or parrots as excuses to revise the minimum acceptable yield set for the season.

Nilgai too become addicts, says Mukesh. "If a Nilgai gets the taste of opium, he will come every night, disregarding the dangers." But unlike parrots, they are a lot more resistant to the change when the opium season is over. "If the nilgai doesn't get poppy, he will soon start eating other crops. There are no side effects to show," informs Mukesh.

However, for the fragile parrots, this addiction is a matter of life and death. Next season, a new group of parrots will sink their beaks into opium-rich pods and become addicts. And their days will be numbered.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Secret Sex Lives of Parrots

Smokey is a male Congo African Grey parrot that we fostered for a time. He has one particular toy in his cage that he favors. On occasion in the middle of the night, in the pitch black dark, we would hear the bell on the toy start ringing. Now we know why.

We discovered that Smokey's amorousness (if that's a word) was not solely focused on his bell. Hands would suffice just as well.

And since we're on the topic of birds masturbating, we know your life is not complete if you've never seen a hummingbird masturbate. So here you go.

We are happy to report that Smokey's new mom hears that bell ringing on occasion in the middle of the night. Now she knows why!