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Hillside Parrots Becoming Stars of Bird World 

Neither cold, lightning nor dead of night can vanquish these tropical fowl

click to enlarge The parrots snow-covered nest this past winter.
  • The parrots snow-covered nest this past winter.

A pair of wild Quaker parrots living in the Hillside neighborhood southeast of downtown Colorado Springs have survived four years of Colorado winters, gawking human and pet neighbors and, last week, a lightning strike that destroyed their nest.

The parrots' perseverance goes back more than four years to when the birds, which are native to Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, showed up out of the blue to take residence on a utility pole in the 800 block of East Costilla in February of 1997.

"It was this bitterly cold day, not much above zero," said John Cunningham, who recently moved from Colorado Springs to Poncha Springs (near Salida) but still owns a house in the neighborhood. "I happened to glance out the window while talking to my wife and did this complete double-take when I saw these two green parrots perched on our backyard bird feeder. I couldn't believe it."

Venturing out into the cold for a closer look, Cunningham watched the parrots exit his back yard to a telephone pole in the back yard of friend and neighbor Harry Mazzei. He walked over and was able to make out the twiggy rudiments of a nest that the birds were constructing next to a warmth-providing electric transformer atop the pole.

Cunningham, Mazzei and most of the neighbors watched with delight over the next four months as the nest evolved into a bushy, three-foot high parrot condo. The pair has lived there year-round ever since, surviving four Colorado winters and raising a brood of chicks each year.

The birds have amused neighbors with their antics and by the spunk and feisty stubbornness they exhibit in fending off squirrels, cats, magpies and crows. The birds have been known to unleash dive-bomb maneuvers on workmen installing cable in nearby homes and they've been seen -- "irritated to no end," said Mazzei -- hanging upside down from power lines squawking at passing dogs.

Neighbors, meanwhile, have strenuously interceded on the birds' behalf whenever kids threw rocks or shot bottle rockets at the nest, and they angrily threatened to "take action" when the city utilities department raised the possibility of moving the nest.

The parrots' popularity and penchant for survival have prompted field trips from nearby Helen Hunt Elementary, twice-yearly nest-trimmings and bird-dropping removal by Colorado Springs Utilities crews, mention on a national web site devoted to Quaker parrots and visits from vacationing bird fanciers from as far away as California.

Mattie Sue Athan, author of Guide to the Quaker Parrot, reports the Hillside parrots to be the only wild pair to have produced offspring in Colorado.

"We know of established feral colonies in New York City and Chicago, and especially in Florida and Texas, where they thrive in the wild," Athan said in an interview from her Tulsa, Oklahoma home. "That pair in Colorado Springs is the only one known [in Colorado] to have reproduced in the wild."


Struck by lightning

The Hillside neighborhood was stunned and sent into consternation, accordingly, as word spread around 9 last Friday evening -- Friday the 13th -- that lightning had struck the telephone pole bearing the birds' nest.

"There was an explosion that turned the sky from green to bright orange to pure white," said Mazzei, a 69-year old Korean War veteran. "I rushed into the back yard to see what happened and flames were shooting up the pole. The nest was gone and the birds were nowhere to be seen.

"I can't tell you how bad I felt," he said. "Four years of watching out for those birds, and now this. I hardly slept that night."

The lightning strike left a dozen homes in the neighborhood without power. City crews worked through much of the night and were back at dawn replacing the damaged wires and transformers.

Mazzei's sadness over the birds turned to joy when, going out to watch the crew early Saturday morning, he spotted the adult parrots flying about.

"They survived," he exulted. "They were already at work rebuilding their nest. Those are amazing, amazing birds."


Out of the ashes

City line crew supervisor Karl Shafer was at the Costilla site much of Friday night. From what he's been able to figure, the lightning bolt killed a chick and injured another (since taken to the vet), but the adults escaped unscathed.

Shafer says that the utilities department donates money for raptor and wildlife protection and that his crews have made twice-yearly visits to the Costilla site to keep the nest trimmed and to clean the transformers of bird droppings.

"We understand how important these birds are to the people who live in that neighborhood," he said.

Quaker parrots are described by bird experts as highly intelligent, personable, self-assured and resilient -- as attested by their ability to adapt from the tropical climes of South America to the cold urban winters of New York and Chicago.

Left to their own, Quakers build and live inside three-chambered nests of up to 5-feet wide and 9-feet deep. They often build their nests on utility poles and stadium light poles, because they give off heat.

Trained Quakers parrots are capable of up to 400-word vocabularies and of imitating their owner's laugh down to the tiniest, uncanny nuance. They typically live 25 to 35 years, bond for life with a single mate and cost between $100 to $200 from breeders and $250 to $350 from pet stores.

The Costilla Street Quakers, meanwhile, are rebuilding their nest from the ashes.

"Everyone I talked told me there's no way those parrots could survive a Colorado winter," said Cunningham. "But they sure have. And now they've survived lightning. They're the most persistent birds I've seen in my life."

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