For the Birds Radio Program: Florida Exotics
In 1968 when my family went to Florida, we drove through a park somewhere in the Miami area where we saw alligators and crocodiles swimming and basking in the sun, and monkeys and macaws screeching from the trees. I didn’t have a clue that monkeys, macaws, and other tropical animals were not at all part of the natural Florida fauna, or that wild crocodiles and alligators were both at the time being wiped out of the natural Floridian habitat. Of course, back home in Chicago, I didn’t realize that some of the ducks and geese at the Brookfield Zoo were wild birds that had flown to the outdoor ponds on their own—I figured every bird in a zoo had to be a zoo bird, and for a very long time didn’t realize that even zoo birds belong to species that live in the wild someplace on the planet.
My family was not educated—and we didn’t have any way of knowing that there were books right in our public library that could have shown us which birds lived wild in which places in the world. But even most educated people have trouble distinguishing between plants and animals that are native to an area and those that were introduced by people. Here in the Northland, the only exotic birds we’re likely to see in the wild are House Sparrows, pigeons and starlings, though we don’t need to go too far to find Ring-necked Pheasants, the state bird of South Dakota, which were introduced to the United States from Asia in the late 1800s. Florida’s tropical climate and exotic trees provide an environment that allows many exotic animals to flourish. Pet birds that have escaped from captivity and reptiles and amphibians that stowed away on plants shipped from other continents have managed to successfully establish populations in Florida. The only native member of the parrot family that ever lived in North America, the Carolina Parakeet, became extinct in 1914. Many people are surprised to learn that none of the parrots flying about in Miami, Clearwater, Fort Myers, and other Florida cities are native to Florida. They all originated in Central or South America, Africa, or Australia. Monk Parakeets are probably the most abundant parrots down there. Oddly, these large, long-tailed parrots are also found in northern cities—the week after I saw them in Miami, I saw a flock in Bensenville, Illinois, outside of Chicago. But these newly-wild birds originated as escaped pet birds, often called Quakers, that are native to Argentina.
All species, native or exotic, have an impact on the other species they live with—those interconnections are complex and often impossible to fully understand. Some exotic species cause serious problems for native species in one area but not another. For example, House Sparrows hurt bluebirds in agricultural areas, but in heavily urbanized habitats, House Sparrows probably have very little negative impact on other birds. All in all, it’s certainly not good to introduce new species to an area, but once the genie is out of the bottle, there often isn’t much we can do to get it back in again. In some areas it’s necessary to get rid of exotics, like the mongooses and rats in Hawaii that kill so many eggs and nestlings of ground-nesting birds. But eliminating an exotic species is seldom easy, whether it’s those Asiatic ladybugs, urban rats, or monk parakeets. Just like when the first Europeans landed on the American shore, when any other new species appear on the scene, there’s going to be an impact. But we might as well keep our concern over exotics in perspective. After all, even with noisy Argentinean Monk Parakeets squawking right over our heads, Miami or Chicago would hardly revert to pristine habitat if we got rid of the exotic species. Unless we went with them.