KILAUEA, Kauai — Along Kauai’s resort-studded south shore, thousands of wild rose-ringed parakeets with bright green feathers and brilliant red beaks obliterate hotel parking lots and vehicles daily with their poop. Full of seeds, the bird dung attracts rats. If not quickly removed, it can ruin car paint.
The parakeets are also a noisy nuisance, especially while screeching as they gather by the thousands at night to roost.
And they are a bane to farmers and backyard growers, decimating corn crops and fruit trees to satisfy a taste for citrus, papaya, mango, lychee, rambutan, longan and more. Some farms are investing significant resources to prevent their crops from becoming bird feed.
With no predators, these intelligent, beautiful and invasive birds from South Asia have found the right conditions on Kauai for a population explosion.
Now scientists want the public’s help as they near the end of a two-year study aimed at identifying best strategies to reduce the parakeet population before it’s too far gone.
Kauai residents and visitors can call 855-Kauai-RRP (855-528-2477) to report sightings of rose-ringed parakeet roosts — the place where the birds congregate at night to sleep.
Scientists have already identified roosts with thousands of birds in Poipu, Kapaa and Lihue. But since the bird has been spotted as far west as Kalaheo and as far north as Wainiha, scientists suspect there are many more, possibly smaller, roosts throughout the island.
The birds typically roost between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. this time of year. They can also be spotted roosting first thing in the morning.
Reports of individual parakeet sightings during the day are less helpful to researchers, who want to map out where they congregate in the evening because these locations will ultimately become ground zero for population control methods.
“It’s not very efficient for me and my staff to be wandering around at night looking for sleeping parakeets,” said Jane Anderson, an assistant professor of research at Texas A&M University who is leading a two-year study of Kauai’s parakeet problem. “So that’s where we need the public’s help.”
Transported to the Garden Isle as pets and then either intentionally or mistakenly released into the wild in the 1960s, the birds now number at least 11,000 on Kauai, according to the scientists who study them.
In 2018, the population estimate was fewer than 7,000 — a sign that the runaway parakeet is rapidly invading the landscape.
It’s very unlikely that Kauai will ever eliminate rose-ringed parakeets in the wild, Anderson said. But she’s optimistic that sustainable and humane population control methods could reduce the number of parakeets on the island so as to greatly limit their detrimental effects.
Right now, researchers are testing a method of killing the birds at their roost with an air gun. Previous attempts to sterilize the birds to control their population did not work.
If the population doesn’t come under control and continues to grow, Anderson said the parakeets could ultimately threaten native bird species, including Kauai’s unique and imperiled forest birds, by introducing diseases, competing for resources and ultimately adding to the very long list of factors driving some of these species to the brink of extinction.
“In Honolulu, the population is so out of control that it’s naturalized already,” said Haylin Chock, outreach specialist at the Kauai Invasive Species Committee. “When an invasive species becomes naturalized, it’s beyond the point of no return. It’s too far gone, too established in the natural ecosystem.”
An example, Chock said, is the invasive but ubiquitous African tulip tree, known as “flame of the forest” for its spectacular blooms.
Kauai’s parakeets are currently believed to inhabit lowland areas only. But if the population grows, so does the risk that the bird might take hold in the island’s high elevation forests.
The bird has invaded habitats on every continent except Antarctica.
In Spain, the bird has terrorized the largest bat in Europe, a threatened species that lives in the hollows of trees.
“Parakeets are cavity nesters,” Anderson explained. “They nest in holes in trees but these birds can’t create their own cavities so they have to find one that occurs naturally — or steal somebody else’s.”
“In Spain they will kill the bats and also rip holes in their wings,” she said.
There has never been a government-led effort to control the parakeet population on Kauai. But scientists and policymakers are working on developing one.
The method that might ultimately be employed, however, has not been decided.
Attempts to sterilize the birds with contraceptive-laced food have so far not been successful.
Last year scientists installed three different kinds of bird feeders at two elevations. No parakeets attempted to feed at the stations over a period of 24 weeks, leading researchers to move on to other methods.
Enlisting professionals from a wildlife control company to kill the birds at their roosts with an air gun has shown some promise, Anderson said.
But, smart enough to learn to speak a dozen words, the parakeets quickly learn when there’s a threat and abandon the roost. This is problematic because it takes time for the researchers to find the new roost.
The public’s help in plotting out roosts across the island will get researchers closer to their goal of designing Kauai’s first comprehensive parakeet population control plan.
“I’m only 25, but in my lifetime I’ve seen them grow exponentially in the last, maybe, 10 years, to a point where it’s so bad that they swarm around their roosts, they are a loud nuisance and they’re going after all the good papaya and lychee that we have,” said Chock. “The public’s help is a major key for this effort to move forward.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?