The Home of Midwood Science Research

Parrot nests removed for study

Posted on Monday, November 4, 2013 by for Media.

Observant students and passer-bys may have noticed a small change in the outside appearance of our school this month. That is because two birds’ nests that have been perched underneath air conditioners on the fourth floor of the building were removed for scientific study by students in the science research program. Tasnim Halim ’14, the person behind the nest removal, is researching the construction of these very special nests

Halim is a researcher working at the Biomimetic Cognitive Robotics (BCR) Lab at Brooklyn College. The lab’s research focuses on the behavioral psychology of a number of animals, including Monk Parakeets, and the ways in which their behavior can be applied in the creation of robots.

"I needed to take down the nests because they contained sticks and nest material that I could analyze and find patterns in," said Halim, who has been a member of the lab since September, 2012. "Studying nest composition helps us to understand the psyche of the monk parakeet."

Monk Parakeets may be a familiar sight to many New Yorkers, as they are widespread throughout the city. It may come as a surprise then, that these birds are not at all native to the United States. Monk parakeets are an invasive species, first introduced through the pet trade in the 1960s. They came all the way from Argentina, but their behaviors have helped them adapt well to the U.S. climate and significant populations can now be found all over the country.

The parakeet’s presence within the city has not gone unnoticed over the years. Aside from their very loud and distinct calls, they also have the unique behavior of building large nests where dozens of the birds reside year-round. Because of the parakeets’ tendency to build these nests atop electrical and utility poles, the nests occasionally cause local power outages. This concern has made them the subject of research not just by the BCR lab but also by ConEdison, which has a whole department dedicated to the removal of the nests when they become an obstacles.

"Practically, these animals are invasive species and a pest to urban infrastructure" particularly urban power systems," said Dr. Frank Grasso, Head of the BCR Lab and Halim’s research mentor. "Understanding how nesting behavior relates to power structures could lead to means of saving lots of money in power generation."

The BCR lab has been monitoring the parakeets in the city since 2001. Over the years the lab has collected data on their daily activities, the locations of their nests, calling signals, nest make-up, and more. Halim’s research is a continuation of years of meticulous scientific study of these birds.

The two nests on the school had been there for years. The one facing Glenwood was the older one, having been there for about ten years, while the one facing Bedford Avenue was just about a year old.

"I know the parrot nests have been in those locations for several years," said school principal Mr. Michael McDonnell, "They could probably interfere with the proper working of the air conditioner," he added.

Collection of the nests was not easy. The nests were built directly beneath large air-conditioning units, and these had to first be specially removed by two custodians in order to expose the nest beneath. The nests themselves were full of dirt and dust from the birds and masks were needed to avoid breathing in anything potentially harmful. The nests hung precariously from the window, clinging on to the building by just a few branches that were inserted between the frame of the A/C and the wall.

In order to make sure that the nest would not fall off onto someone below, Jeffrey Tsui ’14, another member of the BCR lab since September, 2012, stood on the sidewalk and kept the path clear of people.

"It was a very interesting experience, I never did anything like that before," he said. "A lot of people got worried when I told them we were taking down the bird nest but I assured them that the nestwas no longer occupied by any monk parakeets and that it’s all for scientific research."

The nest facing Bedford inroom 466 was the first to be taken down on September 13. After taking out the A/C unit and uncovering the nest, the team made a surprising discovery when they came upon a second, smaller nest built on top of the large one. This smaller nest was put into a separate bag and it is believed to belong to some smaller kind of bird, perhaps a sparrow, that found the abandoned parakeets nest and used it as a platform. The rest of the nest was taken down relatively intact and placed into a large garbage bag.

The second nest facing Glenwood in room 483 was taken down September 25. The removal was going smoothly until a large part of the nest fell off and came crashing to the ground below. Fortunately, the nest survived the four-story fall thanks to the parakeets’ superb construction and Tsui was able to pick it up and put it into a bag.

Mr. Gary Collins, the teacher in room 483, said that the nest removal was bittersweet for him.

"I recall seeing it at least seven years ago and it’s been a lot of fun watching all of these parrot come and go," he said. "It’s grown a great deal over the years. In a way it’s sad to see it go but it was a beautiful thing while it was there."

For Halim, the work with the nests has only just begun with their removal. At the lab she will measure the diameter, length, and weight of each stick, as well as identify the species of tree that the stick came from, all in an effort to learn something about the behavior of these fascinating birds. She will submit her findings to a number of scientific competitions, including the Siemens Intel Science Talent Search and NYCSEF.

"This is an example of science intel at its best," said Mr. McDonnell. "These nests were never looked at by anyone else until this student took the skills she learned in science research and applied them in the real world."

Samuel Genchikmakher
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 edition of Argus.