This story originally published in December 2019.
When you think of the borough of Edgewater, in Bergen County, you probably think of high-rise apartment buildings with sweeping views of the New York City skyline.
If you look a little closer, you’ll find something else that makes this urban community stand out. It’s home to a colony of wild parrots that are native to Argentina.
The Quaker, or Monk, parrots took up residence in Edgewater more 30 years ago. Just how they got there is up for debate. Some say it was through an accidental release in a New York City shipping yard. Others think they were escaped pets.
Michelle Schotanus, now 50, remembers seeing the bright green birds in her hometown for the first time when she was about 9 years old.
“People are like, ‘what the heck did I just see?’” she said.
There are now about 200 Quaker parrots living in Edgewater and over the decades they have spread to Leonia, Palisades Park, Ridgefield, Englewood and other nearby towns, Schotanus said.
Quaker parrots typically don’t stray far from where they were born over their 15 to 20-year lifespan, said Alison Evans Fragale, who runs the Save the Wild Quaker Parrots of New Jersey Facebook page.
Fragale has become an advocate for the birds, which are on the state’s potentially dangerous species list.
“They were put on the list when their arrival was made known because the Division of Fish and Wildlife didn’t know what impact they would have,” she said.
The birds are considered an invasive species, or agricultural pests, making it illegal in New Jersey and several other states to sell or own them.
“They come into an area and they take over and overproduce,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “They kick out robins, tropical songbirds, sparrows, larks.”
“What happens is, it puts nature out of balance,” he said.
The parrots are also a nuisance to utility companies. About 500 people lost power earlier this year when a Quaker parrot nest caused a transformer to overheat.
Twice a year, PSE&G crews remove nests from utility poles to prevent such equipment failures. Fragale and other volunteers, such as Schotanus, and Dan Radzik, of Lonely Grey Rescue in Woodbridge, accompany the utility crews so they can rescue any birds that are displaced by the nest removal.
Fragale has worked with PSE&G to ensure they don’t do nest removals between April and September when the parrots are nesting.
“A standard scenario would be if PSE&G is doing a nest removal, we’ll prepare ourselves for anywhere between 1 and 40 babies coming in,” said Radzik, who is one of two people in the state who has an invasive species permit so he can legally take in Quaker parrots, but only for 90 days.
Last year, he said, he took in more than 30 parrots from Bergen County. This year he only took in 4, he said, which he attributes to the utility company abiding by the agreement not to remove nests during the breeding season.
Quaker parrots like to build their nests on utility poles because the equipment throws off heat, helping them to adapt to and survive in a foreign environment, experts say.
They also build them in trees and other structures, such as a tower outside the Mariner’s Bank in Edgewater where at least three nests were spotted last week. Each nest can house 20-30 birds, locals say.
Their nests are one of the things that set Quaker parrots apart from other parakeets. They build intricate globe-shaped dwellings from twigs that have different rooms, or apartments. There’s a community room, a front porch from where the babies learn to fly and rooms for mothers to sit on their eggs.
Each pair of birds that shares the nest has its own entrance. And siblings pitch in to help with the young.
“They’re very attentive parents and cuddly mates,” said Dr. Michael Gochfeld, who along with his wife Dr. Joanna Burger, studied the Quaker Parrots both internationally and in New Jersey.
The couple, both ecological toxicologists (he’s a retired Rutgers professor and she is a current professor), studied the Edgewater colony 10 years ago to help find ways for them to nest without jeopardizing utility equipment.
In Europe, he said, platforms are built on utility structures, to keep cranes and other birds away from the equipment. “They’ll choose the highest part of the pole,” he said.
Janet Denlinger and her late husband, Endre Balazs, bought property in Fort Lee in the mid-2000s where they built a home.
While walking the forested land to decide how to position the home, Denlinger said she remembers seeing “green flashes flying over our heads.”
So began a friendship with the Quaker Parrots. For the 10 years she lived there she filled four gigantic bird feeders twice a day for the more than 70 parrots to eat from.
“You can’t help but be fascinated by the society of them,” she said.
In addition to having a strong family unit, Quaker Parrots are highly intelligent and emotional birds.
“They play games with each other,” said Fragale. “And they wear their hearts on their sleeve. You can look at them and see if they’re happy, sad, mad. It makes them really fun to watch and photograph.”
Fragale was part of a movement 10 years ago to try to get the Quaker Parrots delisted from the potentially dangerous species list.
“They’re on the same list as lions and tigers,” Gochfeld said.
There were bills in the N.J. Legislature in 2006 and 2007 to get the Quaker Parrots delisted but they never got passed.
“It would be nice for them to be delisted,” Gochfeld said, “but I don’t think there’s enough of a push for it.”
This article is part of “Unknown New Jersey,” an ongoing series that highlights interesting and little-known stories about our past, present, and future — all the unusual things that make our great state what is it. Got a story to pitch? Email it to [email protected].
Read More Unknown New Jersey stories like this: