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Parrots: A Parable
California Love
38:23
Parrots: A Parable
A first-parrot perspective into legends and myths of how L.A. became home to the world’s largest population of green parrots.

CALIFORNIA LOVE
Episode 5 Transcript: Parrots: A Parable
Elizabeth Nakano: This is California Love. I’m clearly not Walter. I’m Elizabeth. You’ll hear more from me later. In LA, we have a large and noisy population of green parrots. Maybe you’ve seen them, they’re almost fluorescent and look like they belong in some tropical forest. It can feel shocking to see them using power lines as a perch but where they came from, and why, is often a tangle of urban legends. We decided to find out. So today, we’re bringing you a parable called, “Why The Sky is Green,” a story about how Los Angeles came to be home to a pandemonium of screaming, green parrots.

James Maley: We’re probably at about a hundred now, and we’ll probably get to 800 if not over a thousand parrots here within the next ten minutes...So it’s about to get insane...

Walter Thompson-Hernández: I’m going to tell you a story about how we turned the Los Angeles sky green.Jorge Obregon: I hear these birds, man, in the morning. And they’re so loud.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: Why we’re here…

James Maley: Can you imagine being exorcised from your home when you’re a baby and like stuck in a cage for ten years?

Walter Thompson-Hernández: ...and where we were before.

Martha: To save the birds, they let them fly off free.Lee Smith: They had seventeen acres up on Colorado Blvd.Phone recording: Thank you for calling Anheuser Busch.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: This story starts in what the humans call the 1970s, back when most of us green parrots still lived in our original home. Back then, we lived in Northeast Mexico... in the tropical woods of Tamaulipas, in a really small town halfway in between Cuidad Victoria and Reynosa. A town nestled in a valley next to a river. We called it the Purple River because of its beautiful purple flowers. Our homes were in the cavities of tall trees. My family was close but there was no one I admired more than Uncle Ramon. He’s the kind of bird who flies higher than the rest of us and returns from the sky with grand stories and the best berries. He was charming and had the kind of laugh that’s more contagious than a yawn. Everyone loved him. My dad liked to tell everyone that it was Uncle Ramon who had first introduced my parents when they were teenagers, near the mine on the other side of town. Dad told everyone he used to catch Mom staring at his muscular wings when he picked berries by the Aguilar family farm. Dad was pretty tall for a parrot. He was little over a foot long and, like other parrots, had a horn colored beak and black highlights. He was a really handsome bird. And his wings? They stretched further than anyone else's. But my mom, well...she told a different story. She said my dad used to awkwardly fly next to her, and offered her a different kind of fruit berry every single day for an entire year. He was really determined. And she? She was kind of annoyed. My mom said she got tired of him one day and finally accepted his offer. She did like his choice in berries and said that what drew her in... not the size of his wing muscles. Anyway, one night, Uncle Ramon didn’t come home. I thought the flower monsters got him. The ones by the river. I wasn’t old enough to go to the river alone. Mom always said, “It’s too far from our tree and said your wings aren’t strong enough yet.” So I’d never seen the monsters but I knew they came out once a day to find food. I knew they weren’t that much bigger than a carrot, but if anything got within five feet of their flower...They’d shoot this sticky substance out of their mouth and catch you and eventually eat you.

They preyed on small children, like me, like you, little parrots. And just the thought of those monsters kept me as far away from the river as possible. So when Uncle Ramon was missing, I thought the monsters had for sure gotten him. We were panicked. You have to understand, Uncle Ramon always came back. So my mom and dad and our neighbors formed a search party and set out to look for him. They flew up and down the Purple River, all over town, and over by the highway where he sometimes liked to hang out. And... nothing. Uncle Ramon was gone.

As days without him passed, other parrots would come by and squawk their theories at us but no one knew what happened...until we heard that more parrots had gone missing. They were captured by men who had large nets in the dark of night. It was only once in a while at first, and parrots across the trees thought they would be safe but when the net men came more and more frequently and took fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and lovers with them, nobody was safe. Some parrots left for other reasons, reasons my parents tried to keep from me. Like when my Tia Martha also went missing one day. Esperanza, the older nosy lady who lived alone, spent most of her days cleaning her hole with Fabuloso cleaning products. She lived on the other side of the tree and started talking about my tia. She was running her mouth, telling people that my Aunt Martha had eaten too many berries and had fallen in the river and drowned.

But I didn’t really believe her, because she was drama and it didn’t really add up. And we knew Esperanza hated my tia ever since they fought over a piece of mango on the steps of the church a few years back. The fight was so scandalous and caused such a huge disruption that the priest had to rush out of a noon service to break up the fight by throwing holy water at them and scolding them at the top of his lungs, hoping to get the demons out of the both of them. So, for all we knew, Esperanza could have been making the whole story up.

Another neighbor said that she had last seen my tia with her old boyfriend, Hector, a parrot who lived on the other side of town, by a row of sugarberry trees. Now, Hector? He didn’t really have the best reputation in our roost. He drank too much, always got into fights with other parrots, and hung out with a really sketchy group of guys. And the worst part about Hector? Sometimes he’d show up to our tree in the middle of the night after drinking fruit nectar, yelling, begging Martha to take him back. This one time it got so bad that my dad and my uncle had to restrain him from entering our home. Hector and my tia definitely had a toxic relationship, and they aired out all of their drama for everyone to see. You know the type? But apparently, Hector had sold my aunt on a dream and he persuaded her to take him back — again — and fly to Cancun. I guess he had a cousin there who had extra space in a palm tree right next to the beach. At least, that’s what our neighbor had said. And it seemed like something that my tia would have done because she really loved the beach.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh right...the kidnappings.

Well as you know, soon after we’re born we’re tucked away in trees, hidden from plain view of danger before we know how to fly. It’s only the first few days but so much can happen in those few days. It’s why so many children go missing. Sometimes it’s hawks or skunks. But a new predator came along — poachers. They would have lookouts and know when our babies were born. That’s how they got me.

It was night and the air was crisp. The last of the spring rains had passed the week before. I was curled in my nest. The next thing I knew, a large human hand reached inside of our hole, the shadow from its flesh turning the night into darkness. It grabbed me by the neck, pulling me from the tree and threw me inside of a metal cage. It all happened so fast. When I looked up, I was in the back of a pick-up truck, and in the bed there were hundreds of other young parrots around me, also in cages. As the truck began to move I looked up and saw my parents chasing overhead, calling to me. But as the truck sped off into the mountains, my parents, they couldn’t keep up.

It was an eerie and dark night, but the moonlight provided a little light as we drove further and further away from the valley. The valley where generations of parrots in my family had lived before me. In the moonlight, I could see a kid next to me. He had a red crown on his forehead with blue streaks behind his grey eyes. Just like me. There were a few others in our cage who also had red crowns. Some of the others had blue crowns on their heads. They had divided us by the color of our crowns. And we were all from different parts of the same valley. I imagined that our families had sometimes competed for the same berries and seeds from the same trees. I pictured our father’s fathers racing through the sky in a dance of competition but at this point in our lives, none of that really mattered. We were all in cages. Someone in a nearby cage said that we were all going to a place that had angels in it. Angels have wings, I thought to myself. They’ll for sure understand me. My mom always said that anyone with wings was, in some way, related to us. So maybe everyone in this angel's place was a part of my family.

Someone overheard one of the drivers say the place we were going was a half desert city next to a big, blue ocean filled with lots of cars and other parrots and animals and trees who had also been brought there and that the angels had all fled long ago. The chirps and the squawks grew silent as night went on. I couldn’t sleep that night. My adrenaline had worn off and I had nothing left to quiet the fear that I felt throughout my whole body. I think I was the only parrot still awake when the sun rose. I had lost track of days. The sky still had the night’s blue on its edges and I could still see the sun and the moon and the stars. The same moon and stars that I know my mom was also looking at back home. The truck finally came to a stop, and in an instant a tarp was thrown over, shattering the slumber of all the other birds, blocking out the sky. We sat, in near silence, seeing nothing but the reflection of our fear in each other’s faces. A big red crown with a light scar on the left side of his cheek said, “It isn’t just the animals they put in cages. They do it to their own. Even the young.” And that is how I came to Los Angeles.

For the next few weeks, I would live inside of a windowless room in a small cage with the rest of the red crowns. They called it The Warehouse, and each day the humans would bring more parrots to fill more cages while we all sat in the dark together. Hundreds of us, maybe even thousands.

MIDROLL --- 14:53

Walter Thompson-Hernández: There are three popular legends as to how we took over the skies of L.A. The first legend is called “The Gardens.” The second legend is called “The Release.” And the third legend is called “The Fire.” And they all start just like I told you: with parrots like my uncle or me being taken from Mexico and put in a cage and smuggled here. But after that? Well, according to the first legend, we were taken from those who had first taken us. It’s said that one day, men from the human government found out about the warehouse. We watched as they circled our cages. They didn’t know what to do with us. We weren’t supposed to be here. So the men asked the people at a place called Busch Gardens to take us in. They said, “If you care for these parrots, we’ll give you money.” So we went to live at Busch Gardens, in a city called Van Nuys. We lived near lots of other birds from all over the world, and every day, hundreds of humans with cameras and fanny packs came to look at us. And life at Busch Gardens was really unhappy. The company that owned the gardens back then is called Anheuser-Busch and our story isn’t one they love to talk about today.

Elizabeth Nakano: Anheuser Busch has declined my request to talk about the parrots. My name is Elizabeth Nakano, and I am a producer for California Love. I called the company…I wrote an email to them...and the response that I got back reads, quote, “We won’t be able to participate in your story at this time.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández: But there are records about what happened to us.

Elizabeth Nakano: Anheusber-Busch filed a claim against the U.S. government for the cost of taking care of the parrots, and there is a written decision from the acting comptroller general at the time that gives details about the case. A few newspapers also covered the settlement.

Now, we don’t know for sure if the parrots that Busch Gardens had were the same green parrots that are all over Los Angeles now. They were described as Amazon parrots that were “greenish and about the size of an overweight pigeon”...which could be our parrots?

Okay, so, back to my research: In 1978, Anheuser Busch filed a claim against the government for $109,550. That was the alleged amount it cost the park to house and care for the parrots for the three and a half years that they had them. And the bill was a surprise to some people in the government. According to the Washington Post, some officials admitted they had completely forgotten about the birds.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: At Busch Gardens, most of us parrots didn’t make it.

Elizabeth: 205 Amazon parrots were given to Busch Gardens in 1974. And then, by the time of this legal claim in 1978, 91 were still alive.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: Some parrots, the legal document says, starved to death. Some were stolen. And some...they escaped. The second legend says our community was started by humans who wanted us in their homes.

James Maley: It's the steady release of pets that's happened over the last hundred years.

James Maley: So you can kind of see what the collection’s about...

James Maley: I'm James Maley. I'm the collections manager of the Moore Laboratory of Zoology at Occidental College in Northeast LA. The Moore Lab is the largest collection of Mexican birds in the world, is primarily what we're known for.

James Maley: Let me show you over here. So...

Elizabeth Nakano: It looks so futuristic. This is the sort of lab you would see in a movie, with like these lights would all go on slowly in a row.

James Maley: I know. We’re trying to lose that Apple Store feel a little bit

James Maley: The pet trade really picked up steam in the, I'd say like the 50s 60s and 70s, for whatever reason. But it's also, you know, one of these places where so many people have been coming for so long and a lot of them people brought the birds with them. And so then they got out and are living around here in LA.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: Some of us parrots were sold at pet stores in LA.

The humans gave us many names...ones like Red-crowned Amazons, Red-crowned Parrots, Green-cheeked Amazons, or Mexican Red-headed Parrots. But, we’re all the same bird. Other parrots moved from Mexico with their human families.

James Maley: A lot of these birds that we see here are from Latin America, which is what you would expect, right? Then there's also a bunch of birds from Southeast Asia.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: But us green parrots? Our community became the most visible.

James Maley: What's really wild is the former curator of the Moore Lab, Bill Hardy, actually studied the parrots of Southern California when he worked here, and he wrote a paper in 1973 where he said that there was a single pair of free flying Red Crown Parrots in all of Los Angeles and that is by far the most common parrot now.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: The legend many people think is true says we became free like the phoenix: freedom born from fire.

Martha Jackson: When I sit in my dad's backyard in South Pasadena, a couple times a day we will see the parrots fly overhead and we will hear them because they're quite vocal. I'm Martha Jackson, and I went to PCC in 1971.

One day, I said something to my dad about these parrots, and he said, well, he was the insurance adjuster on the fire claim that happened which was the cause of the birds being let loose in the Pasadena areas.

Bill Suter: I was an insurance claims adjuster. And I was the chief adjuster for property claims. I’m Bill Suter. I'm 97 going on 60, ‘cause I feel like I'm still in my 60s and I can do just about anything that I did when I was in my 60s. We insured, Liberty Mutual insured, a huge nursery on Foothill Boulevard in Pasadena. The nursery was called Simpson’s Garden Town Nursery and it burned. I made the initial contact to be certain there was no issue of arson, and once I could assess the extent of the damage and that arson was not involved, I turned the nuts and bolts of ascertaining the extent of the dollar damage to a staff adjuster. My adjuster sat there with him going over item by item, ascertaining the cost. And Mr. Simpson was a delightful individual, perfectly easy to deal with, he had excellent records, and so it was not too difficult, and that would be an item for the final settlement.

Elizabeth Nakano: Do you know if it was the green parrots that they said were released?

Bill Suter: That’s my recollection that they were green parrots. Yes.

Lee Smith: They had 17 acres up on Colorado Boulevard on I believe the corner of Orange and Colorado. There now, there's a science Cadillac agency and a home improvement center. I don't know if the home improvement center is still there or not. And then the freeway. They had two fires in Pasadena at the nursery. One was in 1959. That was the first fire. And the thing is they went through and opened all the cages, and let all the animals out. That's when they had their famous parrot Poncho. And he survived. And then in 1968 they had another fire but Poncho didn't survive that one.

Elizabeth Nakano: Was Pancho one of the green parrots that’s become synonymous with the parrots of LA?

Lee Smith: He was a Macaw. Yeah. They even did — when the second fire Poncho passed away–they did an obituary in the paper on Pancho. When the nursery burnt down, the children, kids would send Mr. Simpson a dollar to try to help rebuild. And the second time they didn’t allow him to rebuild. They took the property to put the offramp for the 210 freeway. The freeway took 10 acres of the 17 acres, and when they took the property, that's when he moved to San Diego and retired. But he couldn't sit still. So he started back up in the nursery aspects when he was almost 65 or 70, and then his granddaughter, which is my wife Cathy, went to work for him. And so, that's how we, we met. I used to sell plants to ‘em.

I’m Lee Smith. I would be...let’s see...I would be the grandson-in-law. That’s the rumor of where a lot of the parrots came from. It’s nice just to have people still think of the business and stuff after all these years.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: Maybe all the legends are a little true. We don’t know but each of them leads us here, where we now live. In fact, more of us green parrots now live in L.A. now than in Mexico.

James Maley: A recent estimate put the number in Mexico to be at about 2000. And it's estimated that there's maybe 10,000 here in Los Angeles ‘cause for a variety of reasons, mostly, mostly the pet trade, but then again, habitat destruction.

If you get a parrot that was taken out of its nest cavity and you know, brought across the border and sold here in Southern California, which is illegal now, it has been since the 90s, that parrot could live 40, 50, 60, 70 years. That bird may have never flown outside before.

Can you imagine, like being exercised from your home when you're a baby and like, stuck in a cage for 10 years, and then all of a sudden, you just get released into the world? Here you go survive, and these parrots are doing it. It's amazing, and so, and that's one of the things that really I find fascinating watching parrots is trying to find the ones that were pets in the flocks. I found one the other day that had a weird ring on its leg. So clearly it had been tied to a post for some proportion of its life and now it's just going free.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: But the people here, don’t all love us.

Jorge Obregon: So I hear these birds man in the morning. And they’rer so loud, you know, they're not like these little chirping birds that are kind of cute and beautiful, like, no, they fucking scream and they're just screamers you know, it's like, rrrrrrr, and you can't even see him because they just blend in with the green trees. You just hear them and you see all these berries falling and leaves fucking falling on the ground. They're shitting everywhere.

My name is Jorge Obregon, Pasadena resident for the last three years.

To me, they always tend to show up at the worst possible moment. Like, whenever I have a fucking hangover, they show up in the morning. Like they're always there when I have a hangover right at like 6am. RRRRRR... It's like screaming and like fuck, man. It's like they know I drink the night before.

Any time I have like some kind of gathering, like the day of — fuck, man — I got to clean up all the shit, all these leaves. And, man, have you ever tried to take bird shit off a picnic table? Shit’s impossible, man. I have one in the backyard. To remove that you better have a scraper, man. That shit is tough.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: Some people throw things at us. Some yell up to the sky as we rest in trees and on telephone wires. Others will shake their fists at us and tell us to go back to where we came from. Some of the people who yell are the same ones who built this city from stolen goods. The palm trees that let us rest atop their crowns are not from here. The Black Mustard. The Eucalyptus. And all the other parrots.

James Maley: There have been 24 different species of parrots recorded in Los Angeles.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: I’ll warn you that some people will call you invasive. They’ll say you are taking resources away from those who were here first.

James Maley: That is a common thing that I hear is that invasives are all bad, and I would argue that the parrots are not bad. There's a bunch of different reasons for that. One of them is, you know, we're a kind of oasis in the desert. As the parrots, they're not going to fly to like, you know, Bakersfield. There are escaped parrots in Bakersfield. They're actually South Asian. They're called Rose Ringed Parakeets but our parrots are not going to escape LA. They're not going to fly up over the San Gabriels and get out. So they're sort of confined here, which means they're not having a kind of broader impact on our native wildlife. And then the other thing, too, is they're occupying a niche that previously didn't exist, right? So they're not coming into some sensitive environment and just disrupting birds that are trying to do their thing. They're taking advantage of, of this environmental heterogeneity that we created ourselves. And so I think it's great that they're here, especially since we can potentially use them for conservation.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: I’ll tell you one final secret about us birds who fly through the skies of LA, blocking the blue with our green. That? It’s an illusion.

James Maley: They're not really green. We see them as green but that color is from the structure of the feathers themselves. So these feathers themselves are actually structurally blue and pigmented with yellow. If you get them wet, they turn bronzy red. It's like a penny. It's like a metallic bronze. And then you dry them out again and then they turn bright green again.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: The humans — they are the green ones. They envy our songs and our flight and our beauty. And it seems like all they care about is green money. And not each other. Or Mother Nature.

James Maley: We’re watching the parrots come in to roost for the night.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: We may be far from the birthplace of our ancestors, but we’re here, and we belong.

Elizabeth Nakano: So this park has a skatepark nearby with maybe like a couple dozen kids. Some people playing basketball. Families playing at the little playground.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: We rest in trees that our parents and grandparents never saw in Mexico. We eat food they never ate, and we sleep in places they would have never imagined, places like this park in the middle of Pasadena — with busy streets on three sides...vendors selling chips...and a playground where kids climb up rope ladders while their parents watch from concrete picnic tables.

Elizabeth Nakano: It’s crazy. I’ve never seen so many of these one bird.James Maley: Oh, this is nothingElizabeth Nakano: WHAT!

James Maley: It’s gonna...We’re probably at about a hundred now, and we’ll probably get to 800 if not over a thousand parrots here within the next ten minutes...So it’s about to get insane...We might actually get hit by a parrot. That’s probably the biggest threat to us right now, getting physically hit by a flying parrot.

Walter Thompson-Hernández: We fly all over L.A. and we see everything. This city is so big and it feels endless. It attracts so many people from different parts of the world. It seems like people come to L.A. for different reasons — some come to escape, while others come to chase a dream. Sometimes, during the evening, we see what the humans are watching. They open their windows and the sounds from their TVs fill the skies.

Trump: Taking precious resources away from the poorest Americans who need them most...

Walter Thompson-Hernández: The voice of a man who lives out East. A man who doesn’t understand that no living thing should ever be in a cage. And I think of the parrot in the truck that night who told me, the big red crown with a light scar on the left side of his cheek. Remember him? “It isn’t just the animals they put in cages. They do it to their own. Even the young.” This city is our home. We’re here. We’ve built communities where none existed. We bring beauty, and we’ve made a home for ourselves. And, we’ve made the sky a lot greener in the process. So if they shout at you from the ground, little bird, fly proud and remember, this is just as much our home as it is theirs.

CREDITS

Elizabeth Nakano was the lead producer of this episode.Supporting Producer is Tamika Adams.Arwen Nicks is our editor.Our Sound Engineer is Valentino Rivera.Our Senior Producer is Megan Tan.Original Music by Andrew Eapen.I wrote this episode, with help from Arwen Nicks and Elizabeth Nakano.Angela Bromstad is our Executive Producer.For more information on this episode of Parrot: A Parable go to L-A-I-S-T.com/California Love.

California Love is a production of LAist Studios.

I’m your host Walter Thompson-Hernández. Thanks for listening.

I really appreciate you.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.