If you’re walking with a friend past a grove of trees in Palm Beach and hear a voice mimicking something you’ve just said, consider it a heads-up. You may have encountered the Palm Beach parrot flock.
The flock of about 150 Amazon Green-cheek parrots, along with a few related varieties, have been flying just below the radar in the area for about 70 years. They are well-known to some, spotted occasionally by others from the North End to their nesting areas near The Breakers on South County Road. They can range as far west as CityPlace in West Palm Beach.
Green-cheeked Amazon parrot. File photo by Dr. Paul Reillo/Rare Species Conservatory Foundation
They are endangered, but the birds have nimbly held on to become a colorful thread in the fabric of the storied subtropical island community.
Paul Fisher, a zoologist-turned-art-gallery-owner, has been documenting the parrot flock on his palmbeachparrots.org website for well over a decade and calls himself “a wildlife supporter and enthusiast.”
“The fact that we have this flock of Amazon parrots here is amazing,” Fisher said. “Whenever I mention the Palm Beach parrots to any of my friends, everybody gets a smile on their face. They don’t always know much about them, but they know who they are.”
The birds are pigeon-size with colorful plumage capped by a red head. They are often seen around downtown West Palm Beach before heading back to their nests in Palm Beach at sunset. They can be noisy, and have been heard to mimic voices overheard from passersby, according to Fisher.
Midori, as double yellow-headed parrot, belongs to Paul Fisher, who runs a website palmbeachparrots.org and works to protect the parrot flock that frequents The Breakers and other locations in Palm Beach. (Richard Graulich / Daily News)
The origins of the flock are a bit murky. “The generally accepted story is that they escaped during a hurricane, or someone let them go, or they were being held in quarantine somewhere,” he said. “There’s nothing definite as to how they got here.”
Paul Reillo, a zoologist with the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee who has been studying the flock since 2000, said they probably originated with a group of homeowners who wanted the birds as a novelty. But they eventually recognized the difficulty of caring for them.
Over the years, the original flock has established itself as a true feral population, although it is occasionally supplemented by similar pet parrots that have escaped and joined the wild birds. There are now eight or nine species that make up the flock — some of which have interbred with the original Green-cheeked Amazons.
Karen McGovern, outreach coordinator for the foundation, calls them “outliers.”
“There have been some oddball birds in there that have been hybridized,” she said. “Palm Beach has some very interesting birds flying around.”
The ex-pet birds “are taggers-on,” Reillo said. They hang out in Palm Beach and West Palm Beach all year, while their feral flock-mates head north to the Treasure Coast in the fall to feast on citrus as the crop begins to ripen. That portion of the flock will be back in January as the first local fruit becomes available.
The others stay all the time and “eke out a living as local birds,” Reillo said
The flock as a whole is “very clever,” he said. “They move around and forage all over the island. You can also see them flying across the Intracoastal to raid backyard mangoes in West Palm Beach.
“If you look at the feral parrot population in Florida, we are generally seeing more birds in more places. I’ve seen parrots nesting in the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge on telephone poles.” Those might be the smaller and more ubiquitous Quaker parrots, though. “The Amazons are strictly coastal.”
The Amazons, Reillo said, “are very intelligent. They have a very high brain-weight-to body-weight ratio, which is one way to assess the intelligence of animals. On top of that, they’re very long-lived. They learn from experience and they’re social — they accrue a tremendous amount of information in their lives.
“Not only are they capable of language, but we know that different geographical flocks have different dialects, and their dialects give away where they’re from and who their family members are.”
Fisher said the Palm Beach birds have been known to pick up and repeat names they’ve overheard.
“Many years ago, there was a guy named Cosmo who was watching them, and one of the birds heard the name and began repeating it. And then another bird picked it up – and then a lot of them started repeating it. ‘Cosmo! Cosmo!’”
Fisher, who owns a 12-year-old Double Yellow-Headed parrot, insists that the birds understand context. His parrot, Midori, can follow a request to retrieve an object of a certain shape and color.
The bird understands “at least a couple hundred words,” and has a good sense of social pecking order. Sitting on his patio with Midori and his cat one evening, he saw the bird eyeing the cat from a distance. Fisher said the bird jumped down off his perch, strode over to face the cat and said: “Hey baby – how ya doin’?”
Although the parrots are non-native — they are found in Mexico, Central America and South America — they are not displacing native wildlife, Reillo emphasizes.
“They don’t compete with other birds. But they’re very adaptable, and have figured out how to make a living in an area that’s not native for them.
“Half of all parrot species are endangered or threatened,” Reillo said, “and we have this wonderful resource in Palm Beach to give people an idea of what it’s like to live in a tropical place with wild parrots.
“It’s pretty spectacular.”