Home > Wild Parrots > The Nest-building Behavior of the Adaptable Quaker Parakeet

The Nest-building Behavior of the Adaptable Quaker Parakeet

I am extremely busy as of late with teaching duties and writing, so I’ve been unable to write any new material for a while. However, today’s article is one I wrote for “Parrots” magazine. It appeared in print a few months ago.

The Nest-building Behavior of the Adaptable Quaker Parakeet

By: Jessie Zgurski

 

Quaker Parakeets in the Pantanal region of Brazil

 

In the February, 2009 issue of Parrots magazine (or, the June 23, 2010 post on this blog), I wrote about my experience watching Hyacinth Macaws on a visit to the Pantanal region of Brazil.  The Pantanal is in west-central Brazil and is the world’s largest wetland, but I visited it during the dry season, when traveling overland is much easier.  The Pantanal is an excellent travel destination for people who enjoy bird watching and have a particular interest in parrots.  In addition to the Hyacinth Macaws, I also saw Greenwing Macaws, Blue and Gold Macaws, Blue-fronted Amazons, Nanday Conures, Peach-fronted Conures, Yellow-chevroned Parakeets, and Quaker Parakeets.  Several other parrot species also occur in the region, including Maximilian’s Pionus, Blue-crowned Conures, and Yellow-collared Macaws.

Peach-fronted Conure

I loved watching the Quaker Parakeets since they were such active, chatty, and charming birds.  They are very abundant in the Pantanal and were not difficult to find, primarily because of their huge nests, their tendency to nest in the open (rather than in dense forests) and their loud, harsh voices.  If it weren’t for these traits, they’d probably blend in much better with their environment, since they are primarily green and grey.  While the Quakers were not as brightly coloured as the other parrot species I saw in the Pantanal, they had a lot of character and were a joy to watch.

There were flocks of Quakers living in nests in the trees right outside the room I stayed in.  I was not surprised, because Quakers often live close to human settlements, and can sometimes be found within very large cities.  I could hear the Quakers when they woke up very early each morning, at about 5:30 am.  The Quakers had built their nests at the top of palm trees, right underneath the dead leaves that drooped down near the top.  These thick, tough leaves acted like curtains over the nest entrances and protected the birds inside from wind and rain.

A quaker adds a stick to a nest under the palm leaves

Quaker Parakeet Nests

Quakers are unique among the parrot family for building their nests out of sticks.  The majority of parrot species nest in cavities in trees, although a few will nest in termite mounds or in cliffs.  One subspecies of Quaker that lives in Bolivia will build its stick nest in cliffs, although most Quakers use a tree of some sort.  What really makes Quaker nests stand out is that they are usually communal affairs, as a single Quaker nest may house several breeding pairs, along with some non-breeding birds.  Each mated pair will have its own private “chamber” within the nest.  Some mated pairs will have an associated auxiliary bird, male or female, that isn’t the primary breeder but will help build or repair the nest and care for chicks.

Two Quaker Parakeets emerge from their nest

It remains to be discovered what proportion of these “helper” birds are youngsters that are helping their parents raise chicks until they get the opportunity to breed on their own.  In some bird species, young birds often stay with their parents for an extra year or two to help feed chicks, especially if they cannot find territories of their own.  The reasons for this are diverse.  First, since evolution shapes species to pass on as many copies of their genes as possible, young birds may spend some time helping their parents raise more offspring.  This is because for any animal (with only rare exceptions), there will be exact copies of half their genes in their siblings, so animals can pass their genes on by helping their parents raise more offspring.  A bird can also gain valuable experience in foraging and parenting by helping another bird raise chicks, so when the helper bird has offspring of its own, it will have had experience in raising chicks that will make it a better parent.

Quaker Parakeet

Quaker breeding season in South America starts in October, and I visited Brazil during June and July.  Even so, the wild Quakers were using their nests. Quakers use their nests year round for roosting in, and the nest will be the center of activity for a flock.  Quakers are extremely active – all day, from as soon as the sun rose to when it set completely, I could see or hear Quaker Parakeets constantly coming and going from their nests, often bringing new twigs to add to it.  There were always at least some Quakers in or around the nests.  Not only are wild Quakers extremely busy all day, foraging and fixing the nest, they are very noisy.  Even while inside the nest, they chat to each other and some of their squawks are quite loud.  The activity level around a Quaker nest will increase just prior to the breeding season, as more renovations are done to the nest and new pairs start to add more chambers to it.

Quaker nests vary in size.  Some only contain one compartment that can accommodate one pair, while others may contain up to twenty separate compartments, each with its own entrance.  The largest nests can weigh up to 200 kilograms and may be as big as a small car.  These big communal nests form when new pairs or trios of quakers build new compartments onto existing nests.  Most of the breeding goes on in the large, communal nests, as single-chamber nests seem to be used primarily as roosts.

Quaker nest

Many Quakers prefer to use thorny twigs while building their nests, possibly because they stick together better and provide some degree of protection against predators.  The males do much of the building, while females will shred twigs and line the nest chamber with them.  Occasionally, a female will perch where a new chamber will be built, and a male will built it around her.  Once eggs are laid, the female will do most of the incubating, while the male will provide the food for the female.  The female will leave the nest for short periods to be fed by the male, stretch, shred twigs to pad the nest, and chase intruders.  Once the eggs hatch, the female will initially spend a great deal of time with the nestlings.  However, as the nestlings age, she will start to spend longer and longer periods of time away from the nest.  Nestlings fledge about forty days after hatching.

Quakers & Storks

 

While some Quaker nests start with a single pair, Quakers will also take the nests of other species and renovate them.  They will even do this if the nest is in use by other birds.  For example, in the Pantanal region, about 51% of Quaker nests are in the bottom of Jabiru Stork nests.  Jabirus are huge birds and are the tallest flying birds in South and Central America.  Most individuals are 1.2 to 1.4 meters tall, although big males can be up to 1.5 meters tall.  Their wing span can be from 2.3 to 2.8 meters.  Jabiru Storks are unmistakable in the wild: they are very tall, white birds with long, spindly legs, foot-long beaks, black heads, and a pouch around the neck that’s red at the base. Jabiru nests are huge stick structures that can be a few meters across.

Jabiru Stork

Since Jabiru nests are made of sticks like Quaker nests are, Quakers will gladly renovate the bottoms of them to suit their needs.  The Jabirus must not be bothered much by this, as in one study done in the Pantanal, biologists found that 90% of Jabiru nests had Quakers living in the “basement.”  Quaker nests built into the bottom of Jabiru nests have, on average, more chambers than those Quaker nests not initiated by Jabirus.

Jabiru Stork nest

Quakers will also take over the stick nests of other birds. In the Pantanal, some Quaker nests are built out of the nests of Grey-crested Cacholotes, which look somewhat like brown jays with some grey on the head.  In a study on the breeding habits of Quakers in Argentina, biologists found that half of Quaker nests were actually initiated by Brown Cacholotes.  However, it’s not always the Quakers doing the evicting when it comes to nests – they can be the evictees as well.  American Kestrels will take over small Quaker nests. On occasion, birds like Speckled Teal (a type of duck) will nest on the top of or in Quaker nests.  Quakers will often defend their nests against intruders, so teal are rarely successful in raising young in occupied Quaker nest chambers.  However, teal are sometimes successful in raising young in abandoned nests or empty chambers within Quaker nests still being used.  Additionally, pigeons at the Cordoba Zoo in Argentina have also successfully reared young in Quaker nests still in use.  The Quakers there were generally not aggressive towards the pigeons.  However, they would sometimes block the entrance to the compartments being used by pigeons with thorny sticks, which would lead the pigeons to abandon the nests.

Some Quakers will share nests with potentially dangerous roommates.  In an article in Bird Talk, Donald Brightsmith tells of a group of Quakers living in Connecticut, USA, who had a Great-horned Owl start to nest on top of their nest.  The Quakers just kept on using their nest despite the owl’s presence.  Additionally, in Florida, USA, Quakers have been found living in the bottom of Osprey nests.  An osprey is a predatory bird that feeds mainly on fish. I would guess that Quakers would be afraid of one, since it would resemble a bird of prey that would eat other birds.  Wild Quakers will become alarmed at the presence of a falcon that could prey on them and they do have alarm calls that alert other birds of danger, so it’s quite interesting that they will nest near or under raptor nests.  On the other hand, in South America, when Spot-winged Falconets take over Quaker nests, the Quakers will abandon it as falconets are truly dangerous towards Quakers and will prey on other birds.  Quakers must be skilled at determining which birds are potentially dangerous and which are not.

Introduced Quakers

 

While they naturally occur in central South America, Quakers have been introduced to other parts of the world, including the United States, Spain, Great Britain, Israel, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and Japan.  They have also been introduced into parts of Brazil they do not naturally occur in, including Rio de Janeiro.  Most of these birds are the descendents of wild-caught birds that escaped from, or were released from, captivity.  However, few captive-bred birds have the survival skills that allow them to survive in the wild, so pet Quakers should never be set free.

Quakers are not the only foreign parrot species that have been introduced into the United States, but they are the northernmost occurring parrot species there.  Wild Quakers can tolerate fairly low temperatures and they occur as far north as Chicago, Illinois, where average low temperatures in January are -9 ° C.  The large nests Quakers build likely help them deal with very cold nights.  The nest itself will protect the birds from wind and the presence of many birds in one nest will also help keep each individual warm.

The fact that Quakers can build their own nests may also partly explain why they’ve been so successful at invading new environments.  The growth rates of some parrot species are limited by the number of nest sites available.  Most parrots nest in natural cavities in trees, which may be scarce in some areas, especially if old trees have been chopped down.  Quakers, however, can just build nests wherever they are, even without trees, since they will build them on various man-made structures.  They will even build them on utility poles, and unfortunately, that can sometimes lead to local blackouts, and other problems, like fires.

Quakers are also quite flexible when it comes to their diet, which also helps them with invading new habitats.  They’ll eat almost any type of fruit or seed, from wild or cultivated plants.  Unusual items Quakers have been caught eating include meat that was left out to dry and sweet potatoes that were brought up from underground by ploughs.  In Chicago, bird feeders provide most of the sustenance for wild Quakers in the winter.

Pests?

 

Their dietary habits have gotten Quakers into trouble in some parts of their range.  They will eat various crops planted by humans, particularly corn, sorghum and sunflower.  This has lead to farmers trying to control populations of the birds but these attempts are often unsuccessful.  Quakers remain abundant in their natural range and may have even increased in numbers as people have colonized the land.  Quakers often nest in Eucalyptus trees planted around farms and ranches in South America.

Conclusion

Quakers were one of the “must see” species I had in mind when I planned my trip to Brazil and I wasn’t disappointed.  They’re so abundant and conspicuous that I could not have missed them.  They were wonderful to watch at almost any time of the day since they were so busy and chatty.  I do not own one of these charming birds as a pet but I did foster one for a few months for a rescue.  Like his wild counterparts, “Randy” was quite vocal and very social.  He left me with a big soft spot for Quakers and I was very happy to have had the opportunity to see them in their natural habitat.

Sidebar: Quaker Parakeet Facts

 

Scientific Name: Myiopsitta monachus.

 

Subspecies: 1) M. m. monachus – far southeastern Brazil, to Uruguay and northeastern Argentina, south through eastern Buenos Aires province.  This subspecies is very similar in appearance to M. m. calita and M. m. cotorra.

2) M. m. calita – Western Argentina.  Their heads are darker grey than those of other Quakers, and their lower abdomens are tinged bluish.

3) M. m. cotorra – Southeast Brazil, and eastern Bolivia through Paraguay to northern Argentina.  This is the subspecies shown in the photos accompanying this article.

4) M. m. luchsi – Highlands of Bolivia.  This subspecies nests in cliffs and has at times been considered a separate species.  Its range does not meet those of other Quaker subspecies.  Their breasts are pale grey and lacks the barring seen in other Quakers.

Alternate Common Names: Quaker Parrot, Monk Parrot or Parakeet, Gray breasted Parakeet, Cliff Parakeet (for M. m. luchsi).

Status in the Wild: The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists the Quaker at “least concern.”  They are not endangered in the wild and are very abundant in most of their range.

Habitat: Quakers are generally lowland birds that inhabit dry, open country including savannah woodland, palm groves, forests along watercourses, and Acacia scrubland.  They also frequent orchards, pastureland, farms, towns and cities.  M. m. luchsi lives in highlands above 1300 m in Bolivia.

Breeding Habits: Five to eight eggs are laid and the young fledge about six weeks after hatching.

References

 

Berger, J., and Gochfeld, M.  2005.  Nesting behavior and nest site selection in monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) in the Pantanal of Brazil.  Acta Ethologica, 8, 23-34.

Brightsmith, D. J.  2000.  Quaker Parakeets.  Bird Talk Magazine. Available online at http://vtpb-www2.cvm.tamu.edu/brightsmith/Monk%20Parakeets.htm

Eberhard, J. R.  1998.  Breeding biology of the Monk Parakeet.  Wilson Bulletin, 110, 463-473.

Forshaw, J. M.  1977.  Parrots of the World. T. F. H. Publications, Neptune, NJ, USA.

Forshaw, J. M.  Parrots of the World: An Identification Guide. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA.

Nores, M.  2009.  Use of active Monk Parakeet nests by Common Pigeons and response by the host.  The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 121, 812-815.

Port, J. L., and Brewer, G. L.  Use of Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) nests by Speckled Teal (Anas flavirostris) in eastern Argentina.  Ornitologia Neotropical, 15, 209-218.

South, J. M., and Pruett-Jones, S.  2000.  Patterns of flock size, diet, and vigilance of naturalized Monk Parakeets in Hyde Park, Chicago.  Condor, 102, 848-854.

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  1. October 24, 2010 at 11:51 pm
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