Where Did the Wild Parrots of San Francisco Come From?

8 min
The parrots have been spotted from the Embarcadero all the way down to Sunnyvale.  (Patrick Buechner/KQED)

The busy streets of San Francisco seem like the last place you'd find wild parrots. And yet, there they are. How'd they get here? Bay Curious is a new podcast from KQED that’s all about answering your questions about the Bay Area. Find us on iTunes, Google Play or NPR One.

This week on the podcast, we answer listener Colleen McClowry's question:

"Where did all of the parrots of San Francisco come from? I think they’re probably not native to the city. I’m interested to know how they got there."

What Are They?

The wild parrots in and around San Francisco are called cherry-headed conures.  At one point, a mitred conure joined the flock and bred with the cherry heads. Now the flock is dotted with hybrids.  There are a couple ways to differentiate the breeds. Cherry heads have slightly smaller bodies and a red helmet pattern on their heads, whereas mitred conures have a more blotchy pattern of red and feet that are a slightly darker hue.

A wild conure in San Francisco.
A wild conure in San Francisco. (Ingrid Taylar/flickr)

Where Are They From?

The cherry-headed conures come from a small territory spanning Ecuador and Peru. The mitred conures originated from a large territory ranging from Peru through Bolivia down to northern Argentina.

How Did They Get Here?

They were brought here to be sold as pets in the exotic pet trade. The U.S. was the largest importer of birds in the world before the government banned the trade of wild exotic birds in 1992.

How Did They Get Out?

The founders of the wild flock of conures either escaped or were released.

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There are a number of theories. A commonly held belief is that the parrots were released by a woman who was having a psychotic break and subsequently burned down the pet store where they were housed. This is partially true. A pet store did burn down in Pasadena, but the woman was an employee of sound mind simply trying to save the birds. The parrots in San Francisco most likely weren't released from the fire in Pasadena.

More likely, the San Francisco conures escaped or were purposely released by pet owners. The conures can live for decades, and they're loud and demanding pets, so not everyone is suited to caring for them. While some may have escaped, Jamie Yorck, the owner of the now-closed Spectrum Exotic Birds, believes that a few owners may simply have left a window open hoping their birds would join the wild flock.

A wild conure found around San Francisco's Embarcadero.
A wild conure found around San Francisco's Embarcadero. (Dan_H/Flickr)

Do They Talk?

While these conures are capable of learning a word or two, they aren’t the best imitators of human speech. More prone to screeching, cherry-headed conures don’t have the vocal skills of an African Grey or the memory of a blue parakeet (one supposedly learned over 1,700 words). What our wild conures do have is their own dialect. The flock has its own system of calls and responses, distinct from conure populations found elsewhere.

Where Is Their Territory?

They can be found from the Ferry Building in San Francisco all the way south to Brisbane and Sunnyvale.

"Telegraph Hill is a misnomer," says the author of "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," Mark Bittner. "Even [when I wrote the book] the parrots were going as far as Mission Dolores. I’ll be correcting that for the rest of my life."

Mark Bittner with two rescued conures.
Mark Bittner with two rescued conures. (Jessica Placzek/KQED)

Where Do They Sleep?

The conures  sleep in holes they find in trees. They don't build nests. Bittner says the conures prefer the Canary Island date palm.

What Do They Eat?

Turns out seeds are junk food to the conures. A healthy diet for the parrots might include fruits, vegetables, berries, stems, flowers and blossoms.

How Many Are There?

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Hard to say, exactly. Mickaboo, a parrot rescue organization, estimates there are more than 300 conures roosting in the Bay Area. However, the health of the wild flock is under threat. Many of the adolescent conures have contracted a strange unnamed disease that affects their balance and has them flying into windows. Many of the parrots will die from this illness.

Chloe Redon and John Graziano run Mickaboo, a parrot rescue organization.
Chloe Redon and John Graziano run Mickaboo, a parrot rescue organization. (Jessica Placzek/KQED)

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