NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA-- As the season of Carnival settles over New Orleans, the city's visitors and residents will be graced with infrequent surprise demonstrations by the city's Mardi Gras Indians. Although there are few residents as cherished as the Indians, they aren't the only ones with radiant feathers. There is a bird that nests in the metropolitan areas of the city that has a reputation of being everywhere and yet hard to find.
I went on the hunt; on a quest to find a mythical creature. My travels brought me to many trees. I saw a glimmer of green feathers in an ancient oak tree in New Orleans East at the edge of the Carver High School parking lot. I kept driving and saw a few more winged creatures flying busily above a St. Charles streetcar. I then decided to play it smart and call the Audubon Nature Institute to talk about indigenous birds.
Communications Specialist, Annie Kinler Matherne, put me in touch with Tom Dyer, the senior aviculturist of the Audubon Nature Institute of New Orleans. Tom was well versed in ornithology also had the inside scoop on a creature only real New Orleanians know about, the Monk Parakeet, also known as the Quaker Parrot.
At last I had an i.d. for the animal I had encountered! My mind was spinning with Charlie Parker records in celebration.
Tom invited me to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, not to see fish, but to experience the aquarium's "Parakeet Point," a beautiful area where flocks of visitors come face to face with a community of colorful birds that adorn the skies and ground like an array of Mardi Gras beads.
"These are commonly called parakeets or budgies. They are from Australia," said Tom to one of the visitors.
The parakeets of the Audubon Aquarium are a pretty sight, but I was here to talk about another bird; the elusive emerald wings I had seen flying over the city of New Orleans. After a festive meet and greet with the budgies (one of which landed on my camera), Tom said he knew the perfect spot to gaze at the wild parrots of the Big Easy.
We went to the top of the aquarium and he pointed to a power station on Canal Street. There was a well-constructed nest of sticks glistening in the freshness of the recently fallen rain. It was there on that rooftop that I learned about the Quaker parrot.
Like many of the residents who arrived after the storm, the quaker parrot or monk parakeet is a transplant that has made itself comfortable in the city.
"We have lots of quaker parrots, living freely in New Orleans. They are not from here. They are from Argentina mostly and they are doing very well here. They have populations in Canada, Chicago, Australia, Japan and all over Europe," said Tom. Apparently, these birds were the worlds best kept secret and the only person in the entire world who didn't know about them was me!
North America did have native species of parrots prior to the early 1900's. The thick-billed parrot used to fly in the southern half of the country but is now only found in Mexico. The Carolina Parakeet could once be found in flocks that had hundreds of individuals, but those birds went extinct in 1939. Both the thick-billed parrot and the Carolina Parakeet were primarily green.
Nobody knows exactly when the Monk Parrots arrived on the scene but they've been appearing in New Orleans since the 60's and in large numbers after Hurricane Katrina. Tom told me that they were some of the first animals to return to the city after the flood waters receded.
"There are over 350 species of parrots and monk parrots are the only ones that build a nest. They seem to love palm trees on neutral grounds. They also nest in baseball field lights and power stations," said Tom.
Quaker parrots are a beautiful lime green and have a splash of indigo blue feathers near the tips of their wings. Their chest and head are a soft grey and that is where the name "Monk" parrot comes from.
Their vocals are notorious. The parrots have a distinctively loud call that would startle the faint hearted.
As the day kept on, I kept my eyes on the power station hoping to see another parrot. Their bright green plumage makes them difficult to spot among the palm tree fronds. The rain threatened to ensue and just before the clouds broke, a sidestepping Quaker Parrot leisurely strolled into the nest and in the direct line of sight of my camera lens.
My quest for the elusive winged beast had come to an end.