Learn about the wild parrots of San Francisco, California
Growing up in the city by the bay, the first signs of summer is the thick 4pm fog and the squawking of parrots instead of lemonade and hot weather. Beginning around late April, I will hear the squawking of a flock of about 2–6 wild red-headed emerald bodied parrots fly over my house almost everyday. They fly overhead at about the time that I wake up in the morning. This very unique alarm clock is a splinter group from the larger flock of about 300 wild cherry-headed conures and mitred conures.
My most incredible experience with these birds was near the Ferry Building at Vaillancourt Fountain. That day I was riding my bicycle to meet a friend at the Ferry Building for coffee. Stopped at the red light, I unexpectedly heard the cacophony of tropical birds. As I turned my head left towards the noise, I witnessed the entire flock of 300 fly in unison from tree to tree in the park. In the fading golden light of the setting sun their flapping wings and emerald bodies looked like a shimmering and glittering ticker tape parade. That was the magical moment when my heart developed a soft spot for these little birds.
How did a flock of parrots originating from Peru end up wild in San Francisco in such great numbers? A common theory is that that the original parrots either escaped from or were released by frustrated pet owners. Before 1993, it was legal in the United States for people to import wild caught beautiful parrots as pets and this type of conure was roughly inexpensive, at about $100 a bird. However, what most people might not have known is that parrots are very loud, possessive pets that require an immense amount of attention. Parrots are also prone to biting their human caretakers and self-mutilation when upset. Loud pets are frowned upon in a city where most apartment walls are poorly insulated and everyone can hear their neighbors. Parrots are also incredibly long lived birds with lifespans ranging from 12–25 years in the wild to 50 years in captivity.
In 1995 a female mitred conure was spotted with the cherry-heads and started breeding with them. She was last seen in 2006. With San Francisco’s excellent weather and plentiful food sources of fruits, nuts and tree blossoms they have thrived. Our flock’s hybrids are fertile and have been breeding with other cherry-head/mitre hybrids thus growing the population. Our parrots do not migrate outside of San Francisco.
If you would like to go bird watching they can be found at Mission Dolores, the Ferry Building, and Telegraph Hill. I make no guarantees that they will always be found at these locations. They do fly around the city looking for food in small and large flocks obeying no schedule but their own.
The easiest way to find the parrots is to listen for them. I have been able to hear them while walking around in just about every neighborhood anytime there is sunshine. Just be aware of the sounds of squawking when it cuts through the hum of traffic and the ringing bells of the cable cars. As soon as you hear the birds, look up. Look for at least two birds rapidly flapping their wings and flying together. They will always be squawking because parrots like to be in constant communication with their mate and flock.
If you do get lucky and find them, please don’t feed them as it is illegal.
Good luck and have fun!