When the tour group first convenes, Steve Baldwin, equipped with a baseball cap and DSLR camera, hands out his cards before the group sets off, on the off chance someone gets separated. On the left-hand side of his card is a close-up shot of a small, bright green bird perched on a branch. On the right, alongside his name, website and contact information, it reads: “Celebrating the wild Quaker Parrots of Brooklyn with free Wild Parrot Safaris.”
To watch sixty-year-old Baldwin narrate the parrot safaris, which he’s been leading since 2005, is to witness a born performer. His rapport with his audience is perhaps bolstered by his combined decades of experience performing as a musician and tour leader. But what comes through most is Baldwin’s passion for the feral parrot colonies of Brooklyn, and his excitement at being able to share that passion.
He says his goal is “to create positive PR” for the birds, also known as monk parakeets, which are widely recognized as agricultural pests. He refuses to accept any form of payment for the tours, and emphasizes that his reasons for leading a small group of strangers around for an hour and a half once a month are more incorporeal. “Giving the safaris is a reason to get up and out, and I know I’m going to meet some cool people.” He pauses. “I mean, I like being on my own a lot, but not completely.”
The tours meet at eleven a.m., usually on the first or second Saturday of the month, at a side entrance to Brooklyn College across the street from a Caffé Bene location. As a safari group walks, Baldwin tells the origin story of the monk parakeets: In the 1960s and ’70s, the popularity of keeping birds as pets was growing. At the same time, the Argentinian government’s agricultural interests were expanding into the parrots’ native habitat. After a failed attempt at extermination, they came upon a two-birds-one-stone solution: sell them as pets. In either 1967 or ’68, after landing at JFK airport, a shipment of parrots went loose. The actual logistics of the incident are unknowable, as, according to Baldwin, an insurance claim was never filed, let alone a police report. Regardless of what really happened, the monk parakeets have colonized a number of urban spaces throughout New York and beyond, surviving now for generations.
Baldwin grew up in the West Village of the 1960s. “There’s a nostalgia for that era,” he says. “I remember walking by these marquees: Frank Zappa, Andy Warhol…but New York was going broke. I got beaten up a lot. I feel like a monk parakeet – like a survivor – of that New York.”
When Baldwin was growing up, there was a shop on the corner of Bleecker and Morton in the West Village called Exotic Aquatics, run by a hippie named Gabe. Baldwin and his sister used to frequent the store and especially liked visiting the African grey parrot that lived in a cage by the register. The creature charmed them so much that eventually they took him home, and he lived with the Baldwin family through the ’70s, until Baldwin’s parents gave the bird to the Bronx Zoo.
The family’s relationship with the parrot, named Mr. Earl, was the beginning of Baldwin’s lifelong fondness for birds. Many of his happiest memories involve his family and their pet parrot. “He loved my father,” Baldwin says. “Hated my mother, though.” He laughs. “Saw her as a competitor for the number two spot. Parrots want to know, ‘Who’s the president? Then they want to be the chief of staff. ‘Who’s the dictator?’ They want to be his minister of propaganda.”
On the safaris, Baldwin emphasizes the surprisingly sophisticated social hierarchies and language capabilities of monk parakeets. While he notes the many reasons monk parakeets make great pets, he reminds people on the tours that these are, at the end of the day, wild animals, and that the naturally social creatures are happiest when they are free among their own kind.
The main stop of the tour is on a residential side street not far from the college. You hear the squawking before you see the birds’ bright green bodies swooping down, and then you see the nest. Monks are the only breed of parrot that construct their nests instead of taking up in a tree hollow. This one is huge, and pre-dates Hurricane Sandy. Baldwin requests that nobody reveal the exact location of the so-called “Tree of Life,” for fear of poachers, who have tried a number of times over the years to capture and sell the birds, to varying degrees of success.
“I’m not a scientist or an ornithologist, just a citizen,” Baldwin insists, but his dedication to these birds extends far beyond that of an average hobbyist. He regularly updates his website, and is a fount of facts and figures, able to cite names of many ornithologists and documentarians who have studied the birds, from Chicago to Portugal.
When asked to describe the types of people who join the safaris, he says they fall mostly into two groups: “About 75 percent are people (not necessarily birdwatchers) who are looking for something ‘off the beaten track’ to do in NYC,” he estimates. Take, for instance, an older couple who joined a tour when Baldwin was still taking people around Edgewater, New Jersey (where another Quaker parrot colony lives). They didn’t speak much during the tour, but afterward the husband took Baldwin aside, telling him the tour was the first time his wife had smiled in years.
The second type of tour participant are what Baldwin calls parrot people. “[They] own parrots and are jazzed by seeing them ‘in the wild’ where they’re pretty happy,” he says. Not, he concedes, that the areas where he takes tourists have much in common with real wilderness.
While on first glance the birds may seem out of place, they, like so many others before them, have constructed their home in New York with whatever was available (in this case, twigs and some string).
“Growing up in Manhattan,” he says, “I always regarded the outer boroughs as foreign continents – exotic, often dangerous places. The word ‘safari’ captures my old way of feeling about Brooklyn. It’s also kind of a funny idea – trekking with safari hats and sedan chairs through a completely settled environment in search of strange avian invaders.”
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Melissa Bunni Elian is a Haitian-American journalist based in New York who uses words, photos and video to tell multimedia stories. See more of her work and contact her via her website.