It is a hard heart that doesn't break a little in the presence of a bird in a cage or - in the case of the parrots of California - cheer at an escape. One Los Angeles species to elude the pet trade has so thoroughly transcended entrapment that it is fast becoming an urban natural wonder.
Every afternoon at an intersection on the border of the foothill towns of Arcadia and Temple City, an hour before dusk, successive flocks of four, six, 10, as many as 30 red-crowned parrots appear from the west. They are returning to their roosts after a long day's foraging across the San Gabriel Valley.
They settle in the boughs of the old sweet gum trees and cypresses and call for mates, their young, their friends. At first there are a dozen, then 60, then 100, and by sunset, there are too many to count. Every tree on the block, and for several blocks, is filled.
They feed, they call, they duet, they scold, they play. If there's a nut, they'll give it a crack with powerful mandibles. They preen, pausing for a good scratch with those amazing zygodactylous feet. An arrangement for two toes front, two back allows parrots the kind of acrobatics that could crack a smile from Stalin. They swing upside down and, on a lark, might pluck a twig and poke with it.
Clowns, yes, but beautiful ones. Their heads are a flashing lipstick-red. Most of the rest of the plumage is a brilliant green that accounts for their taxonomic classification, Amazona viridigenalis, or Green Amazon.
Given the spectacle, one would expect a wild setting, but the surroundings could not be more prosaic: the border between two farm towns long since swallowed by a network of bungalows and ranch houses. Chuck Yaras' home is under one of the largest roosts. When he returns from a day of work at a local Trader Joe's, there might be 100 birds overhead. "It's like the Amazon," he says.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County gives the red-crowned parrot's natural habitat as "arid tropical lowlands, dry open pine-oak ridges, and in tropical deciduous forests." In other words, says evolutionary biologist Karen Mabb, "they like savanna."
Mabb, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, says that the asphalt savannas of Southern California interspersed with enough interesting fruit and nut trees are serving red-crowned parrots just fine.
So far, Mabb and colleagues in the California Parrot Project have identified 33 species in the wild. The successful breeding populations, researchers say, were never tame, but arose from lost shipments of wild birds that escaped when it was still legal to import them between the 1950s and late '80s. These include the black-hooded parakeets of Brentwood, the yellow-chevroned parakeets of Lafayette Park, the rose-ringed parakeets of Malibu, the mitred parakeets of Palos Verdes and blue-crowned parakeets of Northridge, 10 species in all.
Because their natural habitat in northeastern Mexico is being destroyed by poachers, California may now have as many red-crowned parrots as their native land.
The same threats hang over many other species of parrot taken by the millions from the wild in the past 50 years. But not everyone is sympathetic.
"The poachers can come up and take these anytime they want," says Bud Becker, a retired cabinetmaker, whose Temple City home is popular with the parrots. The parrots "make a mess and they're noisy. I've been on the porch with guests and had to come inside because you couldn't hear."
Most parrots are monogamous and strong believers in family hour before bedtime. When they return from foraging, they perch in street trees, calling for family and friends as they appear to be sorting themselves into clans. This is, indeed, noisy.
Last but not least, there is the ability to mimic. It's easy to enjoy a bird that can ask for a cracker without questioning why it might have developed the skill other than to be amusing in captivity. However, graduate students of Jack Bradbury, a professor at Cornell University, have conducted studies in the Caribbean, Amazonia and Australia, scrutinizing how parrots talk to other parrots.
They discovered voices as distinctive as Lauren Bacall and Bernadette Peters in the same species, along with clear regional dialects. In an orange-fronted parakeet, they detected what may explain the tendency to mimicry.
"We think what they may be doing is changing their call a bit to let another bird know that they are directing the attention to them," Bradbury says.
Luckily for Becker, the parrots periodically change their roosts, and luckily for the parrots, not everyone dislikes them as much as he does. "They're a little noisy," concedes neighbor Robert Hoccom. "You get it a couple of days or a week, then they move."
Even at the heart of the cacophony, it passes quickly. In little more than an hour, the parrots arrive at their roosts, call one another, divide up into clans, then slip into the sheltering branches of Canary Island pines, where they fall silent for a long night's sleep.
At dawn, after a short wake-up, they are off. "Parrots are like us," says Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum. "They commute." The reason most people only see them by day, and then only for a week or so, is that parrots travel across the city by different routes all year foraging for food. They know what's in fruit where before the keenest-eyed gardeners.
Their diets vary by species, with red-crowned parrots and mitred parakeets showing the most adaptability. Yellow-chevroned parakeets are so partial to the seedpods of silk floss trees that their population growth can be tracked where developers have used that ornamental tree.
Since 1992, importation of endangered wild birds has been outlawed and most parrots sold in stores are bred in captivity. Garrett hopes that well-managed aviculture might forestall destruction of more natural habitats. Yet where there are people who pay for parrots, there are people who smuggle them.
Emily Green writes for the Los Angeles Times.