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Concrete Jungle

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Photograph courtesy Mark Bitner

In search of the wild parrots of Sunnyvale

By Maggie Benson

My quest for the birds begins when an email headed "Parrots" arrives on my desktop. "Could you please write an article about the parrots that fly over our house every morning and evening?" the one-sentence, unsigned query reads.

"Parrots? In Sunnyvale?" I ask my computer screen. Curious, I email back, not knowing I'm entering into a search for one of the most elusive creatures in Silicon Valley.

"I wonder if years ago somebody lost a pair of parrots and now they're a flock," the emailer, Pat Williams, hypothesizes after I get her on the phone. She describes the 15ish-member gang as noisy and green with bright red heads. "They're not big like the macaws," she says. "And they're not parakeets."

I leave messages at Sunnyvale animal control and the Humane Society. I pull out the phone book and thumb to "bird." I call the Wild Bird Center. I call Wild Life Rescue of Silicon Valley. I call a random Sunnyvale veterinarian. On the notion that the birds have been around for a long time, I call the Sunnyvale Senior Center.

"This is going to sound strange," I say, "but does anyone there know anything about wild parrots in Sunnyvale?"

"Parents?" the receptionist says.

"No, parrots," I say. "P-A-R-R-O-T-S."

The phone clunks down, and I hear a muffled "Anyone know anything about parrots?" Pause. "No. Parrots. P-A-R-R ..."

The phone clunks again and a new voice sounds through the receiver. "I know about the parrots. They live by St. Martins," the elderly woman says. "I went to a wedding there, and the birds made so much noise I could barely hear the vows."

I pack up my stuff and get ready to head out to St. Martins on Central Avenue. Before I can get out the door, I get a call from the Humane Society's special-needs manager, Jane Alexander, Queen of All Things Bird. She's also a Sunnyvale resident and well-versed on my parrots, which I now know are mitred conures. They could also have some cherry-headed conure thrown in there for good measure.

"I've been seeing them for at least 12 years that I know of," she says, adding that the first sightings reported just a pair of the red-faced flyers. "They have been a successful flock. They have been fruitful and multiplied."

Alexander says the birds couldn't have migrated here and likely started as escaped or lost pets. Conures are Mexican, Central or South American birds. They've been successful here for the same reason most transplants stick around: the mild climate. They also have access to a preponderance of fruits and nuts, their favorite dish.

On the road on the way to the church, I have my window rolled down with my head hanging out, dog-like. In the back seat, two other reporters from the paper are doing the same thing. "These are noisy birds," I instruct. "If they're in the neighborhood, we'll hear them."

Hearing nothing but the wind slapping against our ears and an occasional car horn, we get to the church. Clearly we've found the place. The eaves are covered with yard-long streams of whitish-brown gunk--the sort that only a bird could leave behind. The parrots seem to have built their homes by burrowing into the vents that run along the peak of the church. While we see their home, there's no sign of the birds.

Later in the day my phone calls lead me to Mark Bittner, a self-taught, unemployed ornithologist who has made his life's work tracking the area's wild parrots. His interest began in San Francisco five years ago when a flock stopped to pick up sunflower seeds on his fire escape. He tells me there are two flocks of 60 or more birds in San Francisco, one in Palo Alto and one in Sunnyvale. The Berkeley and Burlingame bands are defunct. Most local flocks started about 10 years ago, Bittner says. Since that time, myths have been flying: they escaped from a sinking ship, a local pet story burned down, a smuggler lost track of them.

Why are people so fascinated with the birds? I ask, slightly distracted by the jungle of noises drowning out his voice over the receiver.

"It's kind of surreal to see parrots flying around in the area," he answers simply.

We drive off in search of the birds again, heads wagging out the window. But this time the pulled neck muscles are worth it. "Do you hear that?" I yelp after noticing a distinctive squawking sound, the kind you only encounter in pet stores. "There they are!"

A band of eight green-tailed, red-topped parrots fly in a V formation between the Toys R Us on El Camino and the light at Mathilda.

Yakking all the way, they disappear into a tree. The light turns green, and we drive away, armed with visual proof that Bittner is right. It is surreal to see a flock of parrots flying through a city.

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From the August 20-26, 1998 issue of Metro.

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