Fighting Real Parrots

Many of Con Edison’s challenges are well known — blackouts and steam pipe explosions included — but a lesser-known problem has proved no less nagging: how to protect equipment from the thousands of monk parakeets that nest in the utility poles of Queens and Brooklyn.

These birds — also called monk parrots or Quaker parrots — are attracted to the heat given off by the transformers and other equipment high up on the utility poles. Their nests often wreck the electrical equipment by engulfing the electrical devices, blocking ventilation.

The resulting trapped heat can cause the devices to short-circuit, and often to catch fire, sometimes leading to local power failures. In eight fires on overhead equipment in past 18 months, the nests are the main suspects.

Con Edison officials have tried to shoo the birds with nets, spikes, deterrent sprays and sound machines.

“None have been successful,” said Al Williams, a senior scientist with Con Ed who tracks the monk parakeet, a native of South America.

One Con Edison crew has come up with its own solution: a plastic battery-powered owl that swivels its head and makes a hooting noise, bought at a local nursery.

The idea came from Gerry Goodwin, 65, a 44-year Con Edison veteran who tired of continually replacing the 24,000-volt feeder reclosure on a pole on 11th Avenue, just off Clintonville Street in Whitestone, Queens, which has become a main parakeet habitat, along with Canarsie and Midwood in Brooklyn.

“These things cost about $20,000 to replace, and we’ve gone through five in the past couple years,” Mr. Goodwin said of the feeder reclosures. “These nests are killing us.”

Pondering the problem, Mr. Goodwin recalled that a co-worker had installed a plastic owl on his boat to keep sea gulls away.

“I figured, ‘If it works for sea gulls, it’ll work for parakeets; let’s put one up on the equipment,’ ” Mr. Goodwin said. So last year, they bought an owl and named him Hootie.

Hootie worked like a charm. Months went by with no new nests. But suddenly the nests were back, and again they caused the feeder reclosure to short-circuit and catch fire.

Hootie’s batteries must have run out, the workers said, and the birds immediately detected him as a fake and built their nest next to him.

“I think one of them married Hootie,” joked Sam Maratto, a Con Edison supervisor.

At any rate, when Mr. Goodwin took Hootie down, he saw that he had been damaged by the fire. So Mr. Maratto drove to a nearby plant nursery and bought another one, and a set of fresh batteries.

On the way, Mr. Maratto pointed out some huge nests in the area. When the nests become wet, he said, they conduct electricity and cause the devices to short-circuit and explode.

“They’re all over, and they’re huge,” he said.

He stopped at a device on a pole near Seventh Avenue and 150th Street “smothered” by a huge nest.

“Look at that capacitor bank — it’s a condominium,” he said. “It’s engulfed. That’s a piece of Con Ed equipment; you can’t even see it.”

According to the prevailing theory, the birds escaped from cargo at Kennedy International Airport and now proliferate mostly in Brooklyn and Queens, with perhaps 300 nests that cause “a tremendous cost” to Con Edison, Mr. Williams said.

The men said working in Whitestone had given them double duty as parrot home wreckers (though parrot sympathizers should know that the birds rebuild their homes within several days). When working on nest-infested equipment, Con Ed workers must wear protective suits and face masks.

“These birds don’t go easy,” said one worker, Patrick Chery. “They hover right around you, and if they have eggs in the nest, they’ll attack you.”

Mr. Goodwin said that the Hootie solution seemed like the way to go citywide, except for the need to change the batteries every few months. He has asked Con Edison engineers to come up with a way to feed low-voltage direct current from the lines to power the owls.

Last week, Mr. Chery mounted the new Hootie. Within minutes, a parakeet flew over to take a look.

Steve Baldwin, who runs BrooklynParrots.com, a Web site devoted to chronicling the wild urban parakeets, said the parakeets have strong instincts to return to their original nesting spot. They will not be fooled for too long by a plastic owl, he said. A better solution might be using recorded hawk calls to deter the parakeets, he added, and providing “alternate nest platforms” on poles.

“I know there are people who think Con Edison is killing them, but I think they’re pretty humane about removing the nests,” he said. “It would be nice if, on our Con Ed bills, there was a box you could check to donate $5 for humane monk parakeet nest removal.”

By COREY KILGANNON and JEFFREY E. SINGER
Published: April 17, 2009
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