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Wednesday, February 5, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Parrots on the lam raising a squawk atop Seward Park

Seattle Times staff reporter

Like the recently exposed Bigfoot, they have the trappings of a Northwest urban myth — a flock of wild parrots flitting through the forests of Seattle's Seward Park.

Unlike Bigfoot, though, these elusive critters are for real.

They're long, sturdy emerald-green parrots with round, red freckles and a distressingly noisy squawk. Nobody knows for sure how they got here, though some experts theorize that they may be former house pets that escaped their cages — aided and abetted, in some cases, by frazzled owners seeking peace and quiet.

Naturalists at Seattle's Department of Parks and Recreation say they suspect that the tropical birds have made their nests in a few old-growth snags in Seward Park — large, dead trees that can provide warmth when they huddle inside.

Sightings also have been reported in North Seattle's Maple Leaf neighborhood.

"They're another Seattle oddity," said Christina Gallegos, Seward Park's naturalist, putting the parrots in an already crowded field with the likes of the Lenin statue and the Fremont troll.

But feral parrots and parakeets are hardly unique to Seattle. The South American natives have established communities in Chicago's Hyde Park and in Brooklyn, where they menace local pigeons. The Seattle group has developed an appetite for local cuisine — nearby residents have seen them gobbling apples and feasting on salmonberries.

In Seward Park, they share space with two families of bald eagles, several herons and a jet-black rooster that spends mornings strutting through the upper parking lots.

The parrots' chatter makes them easily recognizable. Perched in a grove of pine trees, they sound like excited, drunken monkeys.

"That's them," Gallegos said the other day, scrambling toward the racket. One parrot sat about 40 feet above the ground, analyzing its visitors and pecking at seeds.

Like a roll call, their screeches passed from tree to tree until the limbs shook. About 10 emerged and flew to a tall, stately cedar.

Parrots don't migrate, so a number of theories have emerged about how they established their home in Seattle. The most common is that they're "AWOL" parrots, Gallegos said, escapees that somehow broke out of their domestic cages and slipped through an open door or, perhaps, jimmied open a window with their beaks. Then, by listening for other unruly squawks, the parrots found a few friends and formed their gang, an avian Little Rascals.

As pets, the birds sell for about $400, a price that would seem to guarantee their protection. Gayle Peters, owner of Just Parrots, Etc. in Renton, said she rarely has any in her store — not because they're hard to find, but because they're hard to sell.

"They're just obnoxious," she said.

According to her theory, new owners bring home these beautiful, intelligent birds, which can build up a vocabulary of 40 to 50 words, and soon long for quiet. The parrots might be set free, Peters said, because they're such loudmouths.

"Believe it or not, people buy these birds and get fed up," she said, her words barely audible over the din of cackling parrots in her store. "Then they just leave them outside."

A decade ago, Michael Cohen, who was leading people on one of the park's Saturday-morning bird walks, looked up and found "three chartreuse birds sitting in a tree," he said. "I thought, obviously, they don't belong here."

The gang of three has become a community of more than a dozen, by some estimates. The parrots have flourished in Seattle, which offers lots of tree cover and berries. Like pigeons, sparrows, starlings and other immigrants, they've found a lush land of plenty and, though winters bring a chill, they've adapted.

"It's just like people with jobs," Gallegos said, "if Seattle has what they need, they can support themselves."

Matthew Craft: 206-464-2194 or mcraft@seattletimes.com

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