It’s another spectacular sunset near Spouting Horn on Kaua‘i’s South Shore. As people gather at the shoreline to catch a glimpse of the fabled green flash, their eyes turn inland for the green flash in the sky. This is the nightly invasion of rose-ringed parakeets.
The parakeets’ presence on Kaua‘i provides an example of how a seemingly innocuous species can become a public health hazard, a nuisance and have serious impacts on the economy and the environment, according to a recent news release from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
“What turned out to be a novelty and something we’d kind of entertain ourselves with while we watched them roost in the evenings, turned into a nuisance once our farmers approached us and started saying, hey as cute as these birds are, they are very destructive to our lychee and longan crops. Increasingly we’ve been hearing more and more concerns from our farmers, our gardeners, from people who live in these neighborhoods; that unfortunately play host to these rose-ring parakeets,” Council Member Derek Kawakami said.
They’re also known as the ring-necked parakeets. Kawakami is one of numerous government representatives fielding calls about what’s become the most visible invasive species on Kaua‘i, according to DLNR.
Bill Lucey of the Kaua‘i Invasive Species Committee said they researched through the Bishop Museum and discovered there was a bed and breakfast somewhere in Lāwaʻi that brought some rose-ringed parakeets and clipped their primaries and had them sort of hanging out free by the front porch and around the B&B.
“They got away from there and started establishing themselves at some point after 1968,” Lucey said.
Figuring out what to do about this marauding, winged invader has become a top priority for Lucey, his team, and many others.
“Parakeets are what we call a slow invader actually, since they’ve been here for 50 years or so. They don’t really exhibit a fast explosion until they reach a critical mass. So for a number of years there were 50 or a few hundred and then over time they reached the point where there are a few thousand and then they’re all having off spring. At that point it becomes a very strong invasion and the invasion curve starts increasing rapidly,” Lucey said.
Current estimates put the rose-ringed population at around 5,000 birds. That’s plenty to cause big headaches for Kaua‘i’s agricultural seed companies, small independent farmers, backyard growers and condo owners, according to DLNR.
Junior Extension Agent Kathryn Fiedler with the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources is one of the front-line experts now tracking the damage the parakeets are causing. She says she’s never seen such intense flocking.
“It’s really astounding the damage they can cause. Rose-ringed parakeets are a small bird. You wouldn’t think they could do too much. We’ve seen some homeowners have an entire tangerine tree striped in one day. It’s quite extensive actually. The problem is they are birds and they bring in other diseases as well, so even if you see just a little bit of feeding it pretty much ruins the crop around it too. So they physically remove the fruit and also contaminate fruits and vegetables as well,” Fiedler said.
Farmer Jerry Ornellas said there is “definitely the issue of food safety.” The birds land in tree tops and poop, and if any of their droppings gets onto the other fruit, even if it hasn’t been damaged by the birds, that fruit has to be discarded.
“And if you ever get a food safety audit and they see birds in the trees, you’re in trouble. You’re not going to pass the audit,” Ornellas said.
In 2016, Ornellas said he lost 30 percent of his crop to the parakeet or about six thousand dollars. He also verifies that like any strong invasion force, the parakeets utilize advance scouts and choose lofty look- outs.
“They don’t like to hang on the sides of the trees. They don’t like to be vulnerable apparently so they like to perch where they can see what’s going on. So they’ll take all the fruit off the top of the tree, which is the best fruit because it gets the best sunlight and sizes up pretty well,” Ornellas said.
Farmers like Ornellas are using netting to try and protect their crops. It works okay for low growing fruits and vegetables, but is expensive and tough to put on broad, towering trees like lychee.
Farmer Gary Ueunten said a flock of parakeets can wipe out an entire tree overnight.
Seed companies on Kaua‘i’s Westside are also being victimized. Syngenta Corp. has been forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to protect fields of corn from the birds.
“Oh it’s devastating. For example the field I’m standing in is about a 2 ½ acre field. I started noticing the parrots coming into the area about two weeks ago; at first maybe four or five of them. I watched them every evening. I wasn’t too concerned until about five days ago they came in by the flocks. There were probably about 500 out in this field I’d guesstimate,” said Syngenta’s site manager on Kaua‘i, Robin Young.
It could be catastrophic on numerous levels if the birds fly higher and higher into the mountains and begin impacting native plants and watersheds, according to DLNR.
Thomas Kaiakapu, the Kaua‘i Branch Wildlife Manager for the DLNR Division of Wildlife and Forestry, said right now the birds are in the lowland areas of Kaua‘i. But if they start to move into the upland mountains, it will become a concern because that’s where most of the native species thrive.
“Left unchecked and uncontrolled the parakeet population here could explode to more than 10,000 birds in the next five years,” Kaiakapu said.
Numerous other places, particularly northern European countries, are also dealing with out-of-control parakeet populations, according to DLNR.
“If there’s a silver lining to this story we hope it raises awareness about the impacts of invasive species on Hawaii’s environment and economy,” DLNR Chair Suzanne Case said. “In the case of the rose-ringed parakeet, we’re seeing the detrimental effects right now and this will only get worse the more their numbers increase and they invade additional territory. We’re committed to working with all of our partners and the state legislature to address this issue.”
People across the state are recognizing Hawai‘i Invasive Species Week this week, with outstanding volunteers in the fight against invasive species to be recognized at a State Capitol ceremony in early March.