Bakersfield is known for agriculture, country music and oil. But what if I told you people are flocking to Kern County to birdwatch? Well it’s the truth and as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports they’re looking for a bird nonnative to the region that calls the city’s tall palm trees home.
Earlier this summer I was doing some internet sleuthing about how to take better care of my pet parakeets. As I scrolled through search results a line jumped off the screen. There’s a wild population of parakeets living Bakersfield.
So I reached out to Kern Audubon Society and they said I should come see them for myself.
“We’re on the lookout for Rose-ringed Parakeet, which is about a 15 inch beautiful lime green parakeet,”says Madi Elsea with the group.
With binoculars in hand we’re wandering through Beale Park in the center of Bakersfield looking for the birds. Elsea says people from around the world have traveled here to see them. They’re not tiny pet store parakeets, but a much larger bird.
“It’s named for the male which has a ring around its neck, a very thin band all around its neck,” Elsea says. “The juveniles and the females don’t have that.”
It takes a while to find them in the tall trees, but as we circle the park they find us.
ELSEA: “There’s one. Oh, Look. (Bird Squawks). About six of them.”
ROMERO: “I’m like birding out right now.”
ELSEA: “Good, I want you to get hooked.”
I was shocked at how big they are. The green and yellow birds grow to around 16 inches long. Parakeets are technically small parrots and what sets them apart are their long tails.
But why the heck are parakeets flying around Kern County’s largest city?
To find out I met with someone who’s studied this population of birds for decades. Alison Sheehey is Master Naturalist who focuses on the Southern Sierra and Kern County. She says it all started with a weather event.
“In 1977 there was a huge windstorm that hit,” Sheehey says. “The winds were in excess of 100 miles an hour and it blew apart an aviary. The Happy Bird Aviary.”
Two breeding pairs of the birds escaped.
“There were a lot of other birds that escaped, but it seemed like the Rose-ringed parakeets were the only ones that successfully started breeding,” Sheehey says.
Almost 40 years later the birds are thriving in Bakersfield because of the similar temperature and precipitation to India where they’re from. Sheehey estimates there are 3,000 living under the protection of palm fronds at night. By day these birds roam the city hunting for nuts, stone fruit and flowers to eat. Sheehey doesn’t think these birds will leave the city limits even though they are agricultural pests in other counties.
“They don’t seem to fly over [treeless] land" that is over a mile void of tall trees, Sheehey says. “So basically they’re kept into Bakersfield, they’re not migratory. They don’t fly out to Fresno or anyplace else.”
Sheehey says they’re not really pests here and they’re not harming other species in the area, but some people do complain about their squawks. She says the birds have adapted well to the region, but says their bills may be evolving to look like the larger bills of other subspecies.
“Whether it’s actually genetics from that subspecies or we’re seeing an evolutionary adaptation from young who survive that have the larger bill I don’t know yet,” Sheehey says.
Every night as the sun sets Sheehey says the birds return to their roosts. Their main home is among the fronds of a patch of tall palm trees on the corner of Union and California avenues in Bakersfield. It’s an urban area, with a Food Maxx across the street and a group home below the trees.
But as I stand outside the group recording sound of the birds settling in for the night, people ask me what I’m up to.
And when I tell them that a colony of big green parakeets live on their street they’re flabbergasted, so we look up together.
Correction: The first draft of this story erroneously named Beale Park as Hart Park.