AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you’re lucky, you might see – or hear – a colony of tropical birds hanging out in Austin.
Bright green monk parakeets have made the city their home since at least the 1980s, barely blending in among the native wild birds due to their distinctive look.
But there are concerns the population of the parakeets may have taken a hit due to the brutal winter storms that swept through Texas in February.
Mieka Davenport said she used to get regular visits from the birds at her business in central Austin. She became concerned when she stopped seeing them earlier this year – but said the parakeets have started to return in the last few weeks.
“In the last two weeks we are seeing more and more – not as many as before, but more nonetheless,” she said.
Her fears some of the birds may have died during bad weather are echoed by Hayley Hudnall, the executive director of Austin Wildlife Rescue.
She said in previous years, the organization would receive as many as 50 baby birds needing attention during the spring.
“I would say there were only about eight or nine babies that came in this season,” Hudnall said. “I think they did take a hit with this cold weather. I don’t know that they were quite ready for that freeze.”
The birds have survived and flourished in Austin and other American cities partly due to their tolerance to both heat and cold weather.
In the winter, they keep warm by building large, elaborate nests – sometimes on transformers and power lines, causing problems for energy companies – that can weigh up to 400 pounds.
Despite the fears some may have succumbed to the cold weather, Hudnall said reports of sightings continue.
The parakeets used to live in the lights at the University of Texas’ intramural fields but were displaced when the lights were removed for renovation. They are now frequently spotted in the Mueller and UT areas of Austin, Hudnall added.
“Even though they’re not native, they don’t necessarily belong here, that doesn’t mean that we don’t think they belong here,” Hudnall said. “They are really cool birds – they are fun to watch.”
Cliff Shackelford, an ornithologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, started monitoring the birds when he lived in Austin in the late 1990s.
He explained it’s believed a group of 19 monk parakeets were intentionally released near Zilker Park in the early 1980s, and the current population descends from that colony – but their origin remains shrouded in mystery.
“I don’t know anyone that’s going to admit to opening a cage and letting 19 out anywhere, including those in Austin,” he said.
Shackleford said he’s “not going to dispute” the birds may have been affected by the winter storm, but said the weather did not “eradicate” any species of bird in Texas.
Additionally, he said the parakeets have the benefit of their bulky nests, which he said can contain more than 20 pairs of birds and reach almost the size of a refrigerator.
“It’s very obvious in the half century they’ve been around Texas that they are going to stay urban,” Shackleford said. “I think as long as we have urban settings like Austin, Dallas, Houston, we’re going to have monk parakeets.”
“They’ve had 50 years to explode in numbers, and I haven’t seen it, no one has seen that, but certainly with the 19 in Austin, it’s a lot bigger than that now. I’d say add a couple zeroes behind that at least.”
As the monk parakeet is not a native species, there are no state or federal protections preventing people, such as energy companies, from removing the nests.
The Texas Invasive Species Institute says the birds have been known to cause damage to electrical lines and utility poles and are linked to power outages.
As a result, Austin Energy has strict protocol in place for when workers find the parakeet nests, ensuring they are removed safely while protecting the animals.
When workers remove a nest, they suspend a net above the ground to catch any young birds or eggs that may fall. Any they catch are sent to local wildlife organizations.
Workers must log how many birds or eggs are displaced from the nest removal, a spokesperson for Austin Energy said.
The nests can be hazardous to workers – particularly monk parakeet eggs due to their size and locations near live wires. They can catch fire and cause short circuiting of electrical equipment.