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Choosing a Monk Parakeet

By: Virginia Wells

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Would you like to have a pet bird with the personality of the larger parrots, but in a smaller less expensive body? Then the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) is for you. Also called the Quaker parakeet, this bright green, intelligent bird is quickly becoming one of the most popular pet birds. These avian bundles of energy are fun and mischievous and spend hours swinging, climbing and playing with toys.

Monks are natives of South America, but they've been in the United States since the 1960s. One story has it that in 1967 at Kennedy Airport in New York, while unloading a cargo plane, workers accidentally dropped several crates containing monks imported for sale as exotic pets. The crates broke open and the abruptly freed birds took flight. Another story maintains that they were simply released by people who bought them as pets and then became annoyed by their squawking. It's likely that both stories are true.

Birds of Controversy

By the 1970s there were so many monk parakeets that a national eradication program was launched. It reduced the population to perhaps several hundred birds in about seven localities. However, they rebounded so well that they are the most widely distributed bird species in the United States, according to Stephen Pruett-Jones, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. He maintains that the monk population doubles every year. Since they do not need a tropical climate, large feral colonies have become established in various regions of the country, specifically Florida, New York, Texas and Illinois.

These sweet little birds are the object of much controversy. In Argentina, monks have a reputation for being an agricultural pest. In the United States, however, the debate goes on as to whether they carry the same threat. Wildlife authorities in these states believe that if enough of them escape they might harm the native birds by out-competing them for food. Others speculate that they could become a menace to crops. Many experts feel that there is no cause for alarm, however. They say that the most damage done so far is in Florida, where monks have damaged powerlines and transformers by building their nests.

One of the few states that is hostile to monk parakeets is California, where the birds are prohibited as pets and are sporadically eradicated in some places, according to Annamaria van Doorn, a graduate student at the University of Florida. Other states do not allow monks or they have laws governing ownership. Check with your fish and wildlife department to find out regulations in your state.

Nests

If you've ever seen a monk nest, you aren't likely to forget it. Monks are the only species of parrot that builds nests, but saying they build nests is like saying Mozart composed music or Bill Gates makes money. Monks build complex structures – monstrosities – made from twigs and branches woven together that have been known to weigh over 2,000 pounds.

Entire colonies of monks create a main nest structure, and each pair of monks add on to that structure. These community nests hold anywhere from one to twenty chambers, but some have even held up to 200 chambers. Each pair has its own three-room apartment within the nest: one area for laying and incubating eggs, one area as living quarters for hatched chicks, and the third as a "lookout point" for parents to guard the nest.

Personality and Appearance

Monks are small, about the size of a cockatiel, and have light greenish yellow feathers. The neck and chest are composed of gray feathers, and the wings have blue coloring. The eyes are dark brown, the bill is beige and the legs are gray. The male and female are similar in appearance and the sex can only be determined by DNA testing. Monks live 25 to 30 years.

Monks can be quite loud with a shrill call but they are excellent talkers with large vocabularies – sometimes up to a hundred words that they tend to use appropriately. Bird Magazine rated them in the top ten best talkers list. Most begin talking around the age of 6 months or while being weaned. They are fast learners and will pick up phrases they hear often. They also love to whistle and give kisses.

Grooming

Monks love to bathe and will jump right into their water dishes. It's best to provide a container of water and watch your pet go. He'll stand in the water and dip in until he's completely wet, puffing up to twice his size. Some like showers – they will stay in the perimeter when you are showering to catch the wayward splashes – or misting, which you can provide with a misting bottle. In all cases, make sure the temperature of the water is safe.

Clip your monk's wings for his own safety. He should be able to fly enough to stop from falling. Provide yearly check-ups with your veterinarian.

Feeding

Commercial food, fruit, vegetables, protein and high quality pelleted food is a good diet. If you feed a seed diet, you will also have to provide calcium and vitamin supplements. You should supplement the diet with fruits, vegetables, greens, pasta, beans and rice. Most monks eat fairly small portions several times a day and they enjoy eating with their families. Try feeding your pet during your breakfast and lunch to provide him the opportunity to enjoy the company of the family and freshly prepared human food at least twice a day.

Several foods and certain products are bad for your bird. These include fatty foods, salty foods and spoiled foods. Also, chocolate, avocado and the fumes from overheated Teflon® cookware are very toxic.

Housing

Your monk needs a fair amount of cage space – enough room to spread and flap his wings without hitting anything, including toys. The minimum size is a rectangular cage about 18 inches by 24 inches by 18 inches. It's also important that the width in between each horizontal bar is 1 inch or less so that he can't stick his head through the bars and get hurt.

Monks also need toys and a play-top or play area for exercise and amusement. They enjoy spending time on top of the cage and there has been some evidence that this extra time walking flat-footed is good for them. Many cages include a cage top "play gym," or they open to a cage top perch. Pet monks will happily entertain themselves making nests from sticks, drinking straws and other similar items inside their cages. They don't need elaborate toys, but they like brightly colored wood and plastic.

Monks are a bit messy, so you'll want a cage with a removable tray. You will also need to provide a water bottle for drinking (he'll bathe in a water dish), perches (natural looking tree branches of varying diameters) for his feet, and plenty of things to chew on, like a cuttlebone, mineral block and chew toys. The cage is one of the most important things in your bird's life, and you need to choose one that will provide a happy home.

Breeding

Monks usually begin to breed in mid-spring and continue well into the summer months, producing three or four clutches a year. The female will lay four to eight eggs, one every other day, which will hatch usually in the same order. Chicks hatch in about 4 weeks and fledge in about 7 weeks.

Monks use any standard nest box, usually about 12 inches. Give them straw and twigs and they will arrange this to their liking. Both male and female share in the brooding and, after the eggs hatch, share the duties of feeding and caring for the young.

When hand feeding, babies are pulled from the nest when the youngest is 10 days old. The nest box should be pulled out and cleaned at this time, too. Allow a month of rest before allowing the pair to breed again.

Common Diseases and Disorders

Monk parakeets are relatively healthy birds but are susceptible to the following:

  • Fatty liver disease
  • Quaker Mutilation Syndrome

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