Learning about the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco

San Francisco’s wild parrots are such peculiar and wonderful creatures, not to mention the perfect opportunity for urban wildlife education. It came as a surprise to me when I found out about the existence of these feathered friends living in my hometown of San Francisco. 

I grew up and was raised in San Francisco for practically my whole life. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the San Franciscan life. But, little did I know, there were these mysterious, green-feathered, and red-capped neighbors who were living right under my nose the entire time. My first encounter with these birds, which are classified as a mix of species of cherry-headed conures and mitred conures, came as a confusing but intriguing mess. Right on my windowsill, multiple parrots were seated nicely, making it a perfect green living experience. On my walk back and forth from school, many of them were squawking in a tree. Even while sitting in my own house, a pandemonium of them would fly by while communicating with one another. 

I always assumed that these birds were managed and taken care of by some parrot owner nearby. However, I quickly learned that my assumption was wrong. A quick search on the internet, and I found out everything there was to know about these birds. You can find even more in-depth information in our "Parrots of Telegraph Hill" Coloring, Activity, and Informational book, an excellent resource for both urban wildlife education and green living activities.

Turns out, these parrots have been a part of San Francisco for years. Decades even. Cherry-headed conures, also known as red-masked parakeets, are native to Ecuador and Peru. Mitred conures originated from Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. Yet, a lot of these wild conures reside in San Francisco to this day. According to an article, written by Peter Hartlaub, from the San Francisco Chronicle, the most popular theory for how these parrots living in S.F. came to be was that their ancestors escaped from a local pet store around the late 1980s and started to repopulate outside of captivity. Today, the wild parrot population in S.F. sits around more than 200 feral parrots. 

In addition to San Francisco, these birds are also known to have wild parrot populations residing in other California cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego. Something I learned recently about the history of these parrots, according to a KQED news article written by Jessica Placzek, is that the company of cherry-headed conures bred with another flock of a different species of parrots, the mitred conure, to create hybrids. This reveals why there are two different breeds of conures that live in San Francisco, but it also explains how they look so similar to one another with their distinct green body and red facial markings. I could barely tell between the two species myself, and I thought they were all just the same breed of parrot. The difference, according to Jessica Placzek, is that “Cherry heads have slightly smaller bodies and a red helmet pattern on their heads, whereas mitred conures have a more blotchy pattern of red and feet that are a slightly darker hue.”

More recently, something I did not expect to happen indeed happened. I never even knew San Francisco had an official animal, let alone a voting contest that would determine what that animal would be. Until today.

Peter Hartlaub, from the San Francisco Chronicle, stated, “Heather Knight and I started the Official Animal of San Francisco contest on the Total SF podcast after Heather discovered the city has no official animal.” Sea lions are a beloved staple of the city, as I'm sure many San Francisco birdwatching enthusiasts are aware of. Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf are my favorite places to go whenever I have free time, and others would say the same. Unexpectedly, in a turn of events, the finalists of the “Official Animal of San Francisco contest” were the sea lions versus the wild parrots. In June of 2023, San Francisco supervisors officially declared the wild parrot as San Francisco’s official animal through a unanimous vote, making it a significant milestone in parrot conservation and an excellent opportunity for birdwatching and parrot information for children.

Every time I hear the distinct call of San Francisco's wild parrots in my area, I always look up to the sky and try to catch a glimpse of them. I see a few of them fly overhead and often wonder about what they are discussing or where they are planning to head towards. I find it fascinating and, yet, I still think about how other fellow San Franciscans react to these birds. I wonder if they point up to the sky and yell, “Look!” or if it's just another common occurrence for them. This is urban wildlife education right in front of our very eyes. After uncovering more about the background of these parrots, I learned that there are still so many things I do not know about these birds. We hope to share this knowledge with fellow San Franciscans and bird enthusiasts of all ages, especially through our "Parrots of Telegraph Hill" Coloring, Activity, and Informational book." This book is not just a parrot coloring, but a fairly comprehensive parrot conservation and sustainable wildlife education resource that encourages eco-conscious kids' books enthusiasts and young nature lovers to embark on a green living journey while celebrating these endangered parrot species.

Written by Karina Kwong (September 2023)

Image: Aratinga erythrogenys San Francisco feral parrot 8b by Wikimedia Commons

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