My New York Obsession

The Badass Birds of Brooklyn: The Borough’s Toughest, Most Colorful Residents

If parakeets can make it here, they can make it anywhere.

Photo by Mayank D./Unsplash

It’s a cliché oft-expressed that Brooklyn is less wild than it used to be. Those streets once ruled by outlaw biker clubs are now overrun by double strollers; the neighborhood where you could buy cocaine at a bar now sports an Apple Store; that corner where you used to get rolled for your milk money is now home to a café that sells $10 smoothies, the respectable way to mug a yokel in 2019.

That Brooklyn is a gentrified playground for bankers and Hollywood actors is beyond true. In the past three decades, the gritty old borough of The Warriors and Do the Right Thing has been replaced by “Division II Manhattan,” as one character described Brooklyn in Kicking and Screaming, a film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, a local boy made so good he lives in Manhattan now. But I’m here to tell you that even in the Instagram-filtered facsimile of Brooklyn, where turf battles only happen at the Park Slope Food Coop’s general meetings and people worry more about crimes against fashion as they catch their Ubers late into the night, you can still find a small, scrappy patch of wildness that refuses to be tamed.

I’m referring, of course, to the wild parakeets of Green-Wood Cemetery.

green-wood cemetery
Photo courtesy of Green-Wood Cemetery‎/Facebook

If you’ve ever visited Green-Wood Cemetery (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), you’re already familiar with the flock of Myiopsitta monachus (aka the Argentine monk parakeet) that roosts in the gothic arches of the 478-acre resting place. With their brightly colored green feathers and pippy little voices, the monks may look like common parakeets, but the birds found living in and around Green-Wood are hard-core.

In the migration narrative, the parakeets, like so many residents of Brooklyn, made their way here from a faraway land.

For one thing, these birds are survivors. They’ve been living here for decades, braving icy winters and scorching summers, holding their own against falcons and red-tailed hawks, not to mention development that can upset an ecosystem. They predate the family-friendly beer gardens and Matt Damon’s $16.745 million penthouse, harking back to a time when the president of the United States was telling New York to drop dead. As anyone who has ever lived in Brooklyn knows, the longer you live here, the harder and tougher you get. Holding onto your roost in a rapidly changing neighborhood takes grit and not a little bit of cunning. These monks don’t just live in Brooklyn: They are Brooklyn.

(It would follow, then, that the parakeets purchased at pet stores—locked in tiny cages where they sing mindlessly and groom their feathers in full-length mirrors and crap on yesterday’s New York Post—are clearly Manhattan: They’re beautiful but trapped by their own small-mindedness.)

Photo courtesy of Green-Wood Cemetery

Another thing that’s so appealing to me about the monks is that no one is quite sure how they came to live in Brooklyn. There’s a frequently cited (but never confirmed) tale that they’re descended from a batch of domesticated birds that escaped from a pet store shipment to JFK Airport in the 1960s. That story feels like an urban legend, something out of a children’s book or a Pixar movie told to delight out-of-towners who can’t believe what they’re seeing when a flock of bright green parakeets goes by. (Hey, but if you believe that story, you might be interested in buying a lightly used bridge I’m selling.) Some bird-watchers claim the monks migrated here of their own free will, an origin story I find much better for what it suggests about the general badassery of the birds but also for what it says about the greatness of the borough.

Holding onto your roost in a rapidly changing neighborhood takes grit and not a little bit of cunning.

In the migration narrative, the parakeets, like so many residents of Brooklyn, made their way here from a faraway land. They endured hardships and had experiences that hardened their resolve and prepared them to make the best possible lives for themselves in a once unfamiliar place they eventually came to regard as their home. Like generations of people drawn to Brooklyn before them, the monks do their part to make the town the colorful, inclusive, wondrous place it still is, even amid the shiny glass towers, short-lived artisanal mayonnaise shops, and free-range Matt Damons. Whenever they got here, whatever route they took, however hard it may have been to endure, the monks made it. Generations later, Brooklyn is still their home and they’ll never, ever leave. Probably because their nests are rent controlled.

Matt Haber is a contributing editor at What Should We Do. He last wrote about The Sopranos.