Baby ParrotBaby Cherry Head

Juvenile Cherry Head
Juvenile Cherry Head

Coit Tower and Parrot
Coit Tower and Parrot

Allopreening
Allopreening

On the Lines
On the Lines

Parrots at a Feeder
Parrots at a Feeder

Urban Parrots
Urban Parrots

Parrot Eating Cherry Blossoms
Eating Cherry Blossoms

The Blue Crown, Connor
The Blue Crown, Connor

Good Looking Bird
Young Cherry Head

Parent Feeding Baby
Parent Feeding Baby

I get asked a lot of questions about the parrots. I hear certain questions over and over again. You'll find these and their answers below. But these are the simple answers. The truth is, as always, more complex. If you want more information beyond what you find here, I suggest you read my book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, where you'll find not only more detailed answers, but answers to questions that are not in the FAQ.

What kind of parrots are they?

Where do they come from?

How did they get here?

How many are there?

Where can I see them?

Is it alright if I feed them?

What is their territory?

Do they migrate?

Isn't it too cold for them here?

What do they eat?

Are they breeding?

Do they build nests?

Are they bad for the native birds?

Do they talk?

How long do they live?

Do they have any natural predators?

What kind of parrots are they?

Most of the birds in the flock are of a species known variously as the cherry-headed conure, red-masked conure, and red-headed conure - all pet trade names. Ornithologists call them red-masked parakeets, and the scientific name is Aratinga erythrogenys. In the summer of 1995, a female mitred conure (or mitred parakeet, Aratinga mitrata) showed up. She began to breed with the cherry heads, and continued to do so until at least 2006. I don't know whether she's still alive. The hybrid offspring are fertile, so there are quite a few double hybrids in the flock now as well. In the past there have been two blue-crowned conures (blue-crowned parakeet, or Aratinga acuticaudata). Back to the top

Where do they come from?

The cherry-headed conure is from a small territory on the west side of the Andes in southern Ecuador and the extreme north of Peru. The mitred conure ranges from southern Peru through central Bolivia, on down to northwestern Argentina. Back to the top

How did they get here?

While I don't know specific events, I do know that the flock was started by wild-caught, imported parrots from South America. (The founders wore quarantine bands particular to imported birds.) Before the practice was restricted in 1993, it was legal to import wild-caught parrots into the United States, and they were brought in by the millions. The cherry heads were inexpensive - often less than $100 per bird - and the people who bought them found that the wild birds despised captivity. They were noisy and they bit. In some cases, birds escaped; in other cases, I'm sure that they were deliberately released by frustrated owners. Back to the top

How many are there?

It's impossible to say anymore. There are at least 200. Back to the top

Where can I see them?

I get asked this question more than any other. But I can't really answer it. I no longer follow their daily comings and goings. They don't have a regular route. They follow the fruiting of the trees. There are so many of them now that if you are in the north waterfront area, you're bound to encounter them at some point. Except for up the area near Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill is not actually a very good place to look for them. They are usually in yards, where it's impossible to get a good view. A better bet is Upper Fort Mason, near the Golden Gate National Recreation Area headquarters. Back to the top

Is it alright if I feed them?

It depends on what you mean. If you're a local and you want to put out bird seed for them, that's fine. There's no reason not to. They prefer to be up high and to have a clear view of the surrounding area so they can spot approaching hawks. There are a lot of hawks in San Francisco.

If you're asking whether it's ok to hand feed them, I would say no. Unfortunately, it puts the flock in real danger. In some instances, it's actually illegal. (Click here to learn more about this.) Back to the top

What is their territory?

Over the years, the flock's territory has grown considerably. It seems to grow a little more each summer. You can see the parrots year-round along the north waterfront area - from the the Ferry Building area clear around to the east side of the Presidio. In the summer, they extend their territory down through the center of the city and on down to Brisbane. They were never really the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. That's what people called them when I first started seeing them. But nobody knew much about them then. Telegraph Hill is just one of many areas they forage in. You will see them here, but when and on what part of the hill is unpredictable. Back to the top

Do they migrate?

No. Parrots stay in one territory all their lives. Sometimes people see them in one part of the year and then not at all. But that's only because whatever they were eating is gone. Also, during the breeding season, the flock breaks down into many small groups so they're less noticeable then. Back to the top

Isn't it too cold for them here?

Not at all. They can take the cold. I've seen them endure 28 degrees, and they didn't seem to have any difficulty with it. They're tough birds. Back to the top

What do they eat?

They eat a lot of different foods: Juniper berries, pine nuts, blackberries, apples, loquats, strawberry guavas, pears, cotoneaster berries, English hawthorne, and so on. They also eat blossoms. One of their favorites is the cherry blossom. They do recognize and use bird feeders. Back to the top

Are they breeding?

Yes. The parents lay the eggs around the first day of summer, and the babies come out of the nest (fledge) in early September. At that time, they are entirely green and nearly as large as their parents. The maximum number of babies per clutch is four. Back to the top

Do they build nests?

No. They use pre-existing holes in trees. They will enlarge a hole, but they will not start one from scratch. The preferred tree for nesting is the Canary Island date palm. Back to the top

Are they bad for the native birds?

This is a matter of some controversy. There are people who believe that because the parrots are non-native they are bad. End of discussion. I don't agree. First of all, there is plenty of food available in the city. Contrary to rumors spread by those who hate all non-native species, the parrots do not attack the native birds. They squabble among themselves, but they leave other birds alone. They seem completely uninterested in non-parrots. As far as stealing nests goes, it's interesting to note that the parrots nest in eucalyptus and Canary Island date palm - both non-native trees. (It's also interesting to note that most people who despise non-natives are of European descent.) The parrots make fine ambassadors for Nature, bright and noisy enough to grab the attention of jaded city dwellers, even turning some of us into birders. Back to the top

Do they talk?

No. Wild birds don't talk. They scream. Even domesticated pet cherry heads are not known as particularly good talkers. Back to the top

How long do they live?

In captivity they can live as long as 35 years, although this rare. Even 25 years is old. In the wild their lives are shorter. I would say that 12 or 15 is doing well. But that's just my sense. I would have to do a lifelong study to know the real answer to that. Back to the top

Do they have any natural predators?

Yes. San Francisco has a lot of hawks, and the hawks do take them, as shown in this photo. Cats get them occasionally, too. There is also a roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, that has been affecting the flock for years. They get it from raccoon feces, and the worm invades the spinal cord and brain. Human beings can be a problem as well. I know of a couple of instances where someone trapped and caught them. Contemptible behavior. Illegal, too. I wouldn't hesitate to have busted anybody that I learned was doing this. And they don't make good pets. They're too wild. Back to the top