Bird of the Week: Monk Parakeet

By Abby West

Monk parakeets are an Austin favorite, giving an ordinary stroll around Townlake an exotic feel with their bright green feathers, hooked orange beaks and tropical-sounding call. They look exactly like escaped pets because they are (at least, descendants of escaped pets). Native to temperate low-lands in South America, a few rogue parrots escaped captivity (reportedly) near the downtown YMCA in Austin in the early 1970’s. Since then, their numbers have slowly and steadily increased.

Monk parakeets are unique among birds, as they are the only parakeets that nest communally and build these bulky nests (typically housing between 20 and 200 chambers) out of sticks. Considering their preferred nest-building sites are telephone poles, this can make them a menace for utility companies. These giant nests provide shelter year-round and insulation through our cold winter months, likely contributing to why these somewhat tropical birds can survive winters here in Austin.

Photo by William Keim

Their uniqueness doesn’t stop there: parrots are the only birds with stubby, muscular tongues much like ours, allowing them to mimic human speech. (Yes, monk parakeets can be taught to talk like us too.) Fascinating and somewhat disturbing scientific sidebar: researchers at Indiana University replaced the syrinxes of five monk parakeets with tiny speakers to definitively single out tongue movement as the culprit for their incredible vocalization skills and determined it was, in fact, their tongue! Science!

In terms of diet, monk parakeets eat seeds, nuts, and berries, often using their feet to handle their food. Surprisingly, as David Sibley lays out for us, “most species of parrots show a preference for using one side, and most are left-footed. Parrots with a stronger preference for one side also show better problem-solving skills. Research in parrots and humans suggests that performing tasks with only one side of the body promotes multitasking and creativity because it occupies only one side of the brain, leaving the other side free to do other things”. So they can talk like us, they are creative and communal like us- chances are that soon we’ll be bowing down to our stubby-tongued, left-footed overlords!

Featured Photo by Patrick Larson Photography


Monk Parakeets– All About Birds
Austin’s Wild Monk Parakeets Search for New Home, The Austinot
Speaking With Tongues, Indiana Public Media
What It’s Like to Be a Bird, David Allen Sibley