Saving the Power-Loving Parrots of Brooklyn

The electric utility that serves Brooklyn, N.Y., has a little problem that's literally for the birds.

For the last few years, line workers for Con Edison of New York (Con Ed) have been struggling to clear the famous borough's utility poles of parrots. It seems that monk parrots (or parakeets), originally escaped from cargo crates at a city airport, have decided that nothing makes for a good nesting spot so much as a nice, warm perch over a transformer. The birds, which are native to South America, have adapted to the chilly climes of Brooklyn and nearby Queens so successfully that they are rapidly increasing in number. This has led to an upsurge in short-circuits along the power lines, causing a spate of local outages.

Electrical equipment needs ventilation for proper functioning, and the nests are smothering them, leading to failures and even fires, according to a recent story in The New York Times.

Con Ed has tried to evict the birds with everything from deterrent sprays to sound machines and even a plastic battery-powered owl that hoots, which proved to do the trick for the life of the battery. Still, the problem has been growing faster than the line workers can keep up.

Even the bird's most ardent defender admits that Con Ed is in a predicament: caught between legitimate safety concerns and its friendly public image. "I know there are people who think Con Edison is killing them, but I think they're pretty humane about removing the nests," Steve Baldwin, who operates a site devoted to the local parrots, brooklynparrots.com, told the Times.

Baldwin told Spectrum Online that the problem in New York City is not an isolated one and that other utilities in the area have been less humane in their bird removal campaigns, bringing their public relations departments nothing but grief for their efforts.

"Some utilities have little or no compunction about resorting to lethal methods when dealing with animals causing a nuisance or economic impact on their operations," Baldwin noted. "For example, in Connecticut in 2005, the United Illuminating [UI] power company killed hundreds of wild parrots using the familiar rationale that there it was the only solution to the monk parakeet issue. Following widespread protests, both on the ground and through cyberspace, plus a court challenge, UI has since given up its extermination efforts. Con Ed, on the other hand, and PSE&G, a New Jersey-based utility company whose infrastructure includes areas where wild parrots reside in that state, have both adopted more moderate policies centering on humane methods, and in my view they are to be lauded for choosing more humane methods over those which are cruel."

We asked Baldwin what some of the more humane methods might be. He replied that "while none appear to be 100 percent effective when used alone, a combination of them would provide an effective spectrum of non-lethal deterrence modalities."

"A robotic predator figure [like the plastic owl] combined with the availability of nest platforms designed to provide housing away from energized electrical lines, would be an interesting combination to try. We have found that in New Jersey, some measure of success has been achieved by attaching bright orange rubber sleeves to poles where parrots have previously built nests. Elsewhere, Con Ed has used 'mobile-like' devices consisting of brightly reflective objects, which the parrots don't like."

It's another sign of our changing times: if parrots can adapt to new circumstances, then utilities can too.

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