SAN DIEGO, Southern California has a vast array of transplants lured by the moderate climate and endless days of sunshine, and perhaps none are more exotic than the urban parrots that have come to colonise bedroom communities ringing major cities like San Diego and Los Angeles.
Parrot populations are surging in cities worldwide even as their habitats are fast disappearing in the wild.
Each morning, residents of Ocean Beach, San Diego get an eyeful and earful as small groups of parrots pass through, behaving like rowdy fraternity boys on a pub crawl. They're seldom alone and almost never quiet. The parrots fly from tree to tree foraging for food, their distinctive squawks echoing through the neighbourhood.
These social birds have found a second home among the swaying palms and towering eucalyptus trees of suburbia, thousands of miles from their native habitats in Central and South America.
Part urban legend, part cautionary fable, the parrots appear to be thriving -- and attracting bird lovers and maverick biologists who see a role for urban birds in restoring dwindling parrot populations in Latin America.
Avid parrot enthusiasts Roelant Jonker and Grace Innemee flew here from the Netherlands specifically to photograph and document the exploits of parrots living among urban dwellers. Together they run cityparrots.org, a non-profit organisation focused on the conservation and emancipation of parrots living both in the wild and metropolitan areas.
"It's never a boring moment, there's much to learn integrated with so many disciplines," Jonker told IPS.
Their focus, however, is on the urban parrot phenomena. "As cities grow, forests shrink," said Innemee. They believe city landscapes present a unique opportunity to study parrots and conservation since parrots and various parakeets roam freely in San Francisco, London, New York City, Los Angeles and other places where humans and birds interact, making research easier.
They also prefer city parrots for personal reasons. The Netherlands is home to a pair of spectacular scarlet macaws seldom seen outside the confines of a wilderness preserve. Parrots, they argue, are difficult to study in their native habitats amid the light and shadow of dense forest canopies and often in dangerous and unstable regions of the world.
"We're traveling all over the world to see parrots," said Innemee.
These charming monomaniacs are here to attend a conference on parrot conservation in Los Angeles in the hope of getting a pilot programme funded. Their goal is to build urban aviaries in Latin American countries where parrots are currently endangered.
This project occupies a niche otherwise ignored by members the wildlife conservation community, which Jonker contends focuses almost exclusively on preserving species in their native habitats.
To bird purists, the presence of parrots in cities is somewhat frowned upon because they're perceived to be displacing native species. In Southern California, immigrants from around the world have brought their pets and plants with them, changing the landscape irrevocably.
If not for this human tinkering, parrots couldn't survive in San Diego. Parrots tend to favour older, more established neighbourhoods with ample green space, choosing tall, mature non-native trees that provide room for nesting and roosting. At dawn, they take off from large roosting trees to forage for non-native figs, dates and other fruits. The parrots fan out over a several-mile radius to alight on imported trees planted by local residents.
Residents of Ocean Beach believe the parrots arrived 25 years ago after a pet store burned down, and they never left. The seaside community is now home to a flock of 100 naturalised parrots composed of red-headed conures and stubby-winged amazons.
Jonker is quick to point out that these parrots were never really tame to begin with. Unlike dogs, which have lived with humans for millennia, parrots remain wild for generations even if bred in captivity "They'll take wing when given the first opportunity to do so," Jonker said.
In ones, twos, and threes, escaped parrots find each other, relying on the instinctive traits the species has acquired over millennia in the rainforests of Central and South America.
The true origins of San Diego's city parrots are unknown. More likely than not, they escaped from pet stores, pet owners and even during transport in previous decades when importing wild birds to the United States was part of the legal parrot trade.
Their cosmopolitism, however, is not to be over-romanticised. Successful parrot colonies here represent a terrible loss of wildlife in Central and South America. Trafficking in birds -- whether legal or illegal -- came at a tremendous price. Between 1982 and 1988, 1.5 million captured wild birds entered the U.S. market, and millions more likely died in transit before the trade was banned in 1992.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, 94 of the 330 parrot species in existence are threatened with extinction, mainly due to habitat loss to and commercial exploitation, making them some of the rarest birds on earth.
Fortunately, the pace of exploitation might be coming to a halt. In October 2006, the EU placed a ban on the wild bird trade amid concerns over the spread of avian flu, preventing perhaps tens upon thousands of wild birds from being captured.