Invasive Parakeets Are Threatening Every Crop on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai—and Multiplying Fast
Once a pampered pet, and now a plague, the rose-ringed parakeet is threatening every crop on the Hawaiian island of Kauai—and multiplying fast.
Roland Goo first noticed the green fog six years ago, as it rolled over his 20-acre orchard on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Suddenly, amid a deafening chirping chorus, the cloud dispersed into hundreds of birds that descended upon the farmer’s lychee grove, rapidly denuding an entire 60-foot-tall tree. These rose-ringed parakeets (so named for a subtle pink stripe around male birds’ necks) have since become frequent visitors to Goo’s Kilakila Gardens, where the pests figured out that his rambutan crop turns crimson when ripe. “They’ll fly 200 feet above my fields looking for red fruit before diving down to eat,” says the 66-year-old. Only his mangoes, too large for little bird beaks, remain relatively unscathed.
Goo patrols the property each morning with a shotgun. Despite killing several hundred parakeets a year, he estimates his annual losses at 15 percent, or $5,000. He knows he’ll never completely eradicate the problem but hopes to send the birds a message. “They’re really smart,” Goo explains. “They’ll dispatch a few members of the flock to case a farm. Once they establish that it’s a good place to feed, they’ll eat everything. Everything.”
Like Goo, Jerry Ornellas operates an orchard in southeastern Kauai, an area hit particularly hard by parakeets. Ornellas, who represents the island on the state Board of Agriculture, reports losing 30 percent of his breadfruit, longan, and lychee crops in 2016. “It depends on where you are geographically,” he says, “but small farms are averaging a 10 percent loss.” To put that figure in perspective: Agriculture generates almost $65 million in annual revenue for Kauai, making the industry the island’s third-largest behind tourism and government.
Rose-ringed parakeets haven’t always been Public Enemy No. 1. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the tropical species—native to sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—gained traction as a house pet in the developed world. On Kauai, the birds initially went wild in 1968, after workers at a bed-and-breakfast accidentally released a pair. Those two eventually attracted others, including escapees from homes destroyed by 1982’s Hurricane Iwa. Their numbers swelled from fewer than 200 in the mid-1990s to approximately 1,000 by the dawn of the new millennium, and today hover around 5,000. That growth curve will only steepen, given the parakeets’ rapid reproduction rate and 20- to 30-year lifespan, coupled with the island’s hospitable climate and ample food. According to Thomas Kaiakapu, Kauai wildlife manager at the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources: “Left unchecked, the population could reach 10,000 in the next five years.”
Globally, the rose-ringed parakeet has spread to 35 countries beyond its native habitats—few as adversely affected as Israel, where up to 50,000 birds devour wine grapes, dates, sunflower seeds, and nearly half the yearly almond harvest. “They’re among the worst alien species,” says Yariv Malihi, an ecologist with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. And while Kauai’s parakeet population is much smaller, so is its land mass. Already, the tiny island claims roughly 40 percent more birds per square mile than Israel, and by far the highest concentration in the world.
How did the situation spiral out of control? “Rose-ringed parakeets are slow invaders. They aren’t noticed until their numbers reach a critical mass,” explains Aaron Shiels, a biologist at the National Wildlife Research Center, adding that agriculture isn’t the only part of the Kauai economy affected. The birds’ chalky droppings and piercing chirps annoy tourists, spurring the removal of majestic royal palms (read: ideal roosts) in popular vacation destinations. Shiels and other conservationists warn that the parakeets could soon wreak havoc on the island’s protected rain forests, competing for resources with endangered native birds and spreading seed from invasive plants, eventually pushing delicate ecosystems to the brink.
Kauai is an island of small farms. Nearly 85 percent of its agricultural outfits—largely situated on the lush southeast side—span fewer than 50 acres. The rose-ringed parakeet, however, recently expanded its purview to encompass the drier western shore, where Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta (which sold its operation to Wisconsin-based Hartung Brothers in June) have long maintained a combined 16,000 or so acres of test fields. “We lost two acres of corn in a single weekend late last summer,” relays Dow spokesman David Sousa. For these huge corporations, says Shiels, “Bird-management techniques can run hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in Kauai alone.”
It was enough to convince the multinational giants to play nice with the locals, following a protracted legal battle over a county ordinance limiting pesticide use and GMO experimentation. Big Ag and Kauai’s indie farmers formed an unlikely alliance, jointly lobbying for state legislation intended to control the island’s rose-ringed parakeet problem. Explains Joshua Uyehara: “I’m employed by Hartung Brothers, but my dad is a small lychee grower. This is a tight-knit community. We’ll work together to address our shared concerns.”
A bill, passed in June 2017, ear-marks $75,000 for scientific studies but has yet to generate consensus around a solution. Short-term options, such as covering fields in netting and deploying faux-falcon robots, invite questions about cost. Mass sterilization via chemically treated feed raises legitimate environmental concerns. Goo’s preferred method—shotgun plus shells—has proven effective in the Seychelles. A UNESCO-sponsored eradication program there asserts that the 115-island archipelago will be free of the birds by the end of 2017.
“If a mass kill-off is ordered, we’ll fight it,” declares Cathy Goeggel, president of Animal Rights Hawaii. “It would be cruel and inappropriate.” Goeggel cites previous efforts to rid the Big Island of invasive coqui frogs in the late 1990s. “They wrecked Lava Tree State Park trying to poison those frogs,” she says. “And still, the frogs came back.”
Other critics complain that the bill doesn’t allocate enough funds for research efforts, much less put a timeline on the studies or any resulting actions. Paul Huber, who tends rambutans, papayas, pineapples, longans, and avocados on 38 north-eastern Kauai acres, has seen a few parakeets, anticipates more, and refuses to countenance the non-chalance of government officials. “They’ve done nothing to fix the situation, and farmers are paying the price,” says Huber, 65. He cut numerousmature ironwood trees, which protected his crops from the strong trade winds, to half their height, in an effort to deter roosting and render the birds easier targets. Huber doesn’t relish using his shotgun and would rather take aim at the underlying issue: invasive species. “We shouldn’t be so blasé about animals that don’t belong here,” he says. “They change the whole environment. This dilemma’s indicative of a larger problem.”