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The Pasadena Parrots
Where did they come from and what are they doing here?
As afternoon turns into evening and the angled light turns red and purple on the San Gabriels, Pasadena comes alive with the sounds of hundreds of birds chit chatting about the top bird issues of the day. Warblers and white-crown sparrows flit through the bushes while mourning doves perch on the rooflines. I’m still learning the birding basics, but hundreds of species call the chaparral foothills and canyons of Pasadena and Altadena home.
One family of birds, however, makes their presence known with far greater intensity and volume than any other in the area. You hear them long before you see them, their squabbling and squawking drowning out the melodic calls of every other bird in Los Angeles County. Before you know it, you’re in the middle of one of the more unique and bizarre wildlife phenomena in Southern California: the daily Pasadena parrot migration.
Pasadena is home to a population of more than two thousand parrots—and growing. They’ve been spotted as far North as Bakersfield and South into Orange County and San Diego, but the epicenter of their population is here in Pasadena. Every morning and evening, vast flocks of red crowned parrots, red-masked parakeets, and yellow-headed amazons squelch, crawk, and screech their way into roost trees throughout the San Gabriel valley.
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The parrots are originally native to the Northeast regions of Mexico, and several theories try to make sense of the parrots’ presence in Southern California. One hunch is they migrated North from Mexico of their own accord, though this view seems unlikely given that 1) very few species of parrots are naturally migratory birds and 2) parrots are the most bumbling, frantic, awkward fliers of any bird I’ve seen. It seems to take all their energy to simply stay aloft for short flights between trees, much less journey hundreds of miles by wing.
Another theory is that they were released from the Pasadena Busch Gardens when it closed in 1937, though records say most of that population was transferred to nearby zoos or animal sanctuaries. That leaves my personal favorite theory, which places the origins of the Pasadena parrot population on one individual named Hal Simpson.
Hal started Simpson’s Garden Town Nursery in East Pasadena in 1928 with a $500 loan and a wide variety of interests. Over the next forty years, it would grow to become the largest and most diversified garden center in Los Angeles, hosting a plant nursery, lawnmower shop, materials shop, garden supply center, florist, and a pet store. Tragedy struck Simpsons in 1959 when an electrical fire started in the pet store and threatened to annihilate the entire facility. Rather than watch dozens of exotic animals burn alive, firefighters and a pet store employee scrambled to open the cages and unwittingly changed the course of Pasadena history as 70 parrots took to the Southern California skies.
In 1968, the construction of the 210 freeway forced Simpson’s Garden Town Nursery to relocate to East San Diego county where Hal’s family continued to run the business until finally closing in 2011. His flock of parrots, however, would continue to grow and multiply in Pasadena long after his passing.
It turns out Pasadena’s temperate climate and abundance of fruit trees offer a perfect home away from home for the parrots, whose population has been growing steadily for the last fifty years. Loquats, figs, apricots, kumquats, and a wide variety of citrus provide the parrots with an ample diet of fruit, and the vast oaks and sycamores give roosting space for the social birds.
Only the parrots truly know their origins, but ironically, many of the parrot species currently thriving in Pasadena including the red-crowned and yellow-headed parrots are endangered in their native Mexico due to poaching and illegal capture for the exotic pet trade. Beyond simply being a strange and delightful (if loud and annoying) addition to the Pasadena ecology, their growing populations here in Southern California may prove to be a vital key to their species’ survival in the future.