FOR SOME Rehoboth Beach, Del., regulars, a trip isn't complete without a bucket of Thrasher's french fries, a promenade along the boardwalk or a win at the arcades.

But a growing number of vacationers have adopted another Rehoboth ritual: a pilgrimage to a small strip of woods near Silver Lake. There they hope to be rewarded with a sighting of the town's rare birds: South American monk parakeets.

Motorists cruise Lake Drive slowly, eyes trained on the trees instead of the road. Joggers pause, cyclists dismount. Newcomers gawk at the sight of the vivid birds fluttering around a small, North American seaside town that, while located in a region known for its bird-watching opportunities, isn't exactly the place you'd expect to find very large, bright-green parakeets.

How the parakeets took up residence in Rehoboth is a mystery that has spawned many theories. What's more certain is that the birds, often regarded as pests in other areas graced or plagued with their noisy, colorful presence, have made a home for themselves in the hearts of both residents and visitors.

The appearance of the 11-inch birds is arresting -- bright-green heads and backs, blue flying feathers, yellow belly bands and gray chests and foreheads -- as is their headache-inducing squawk. Their communal nests match the attention-getting quotient of their looks and noise: huge balls of sticks with several round openings -- kind of bird apartments, with water view.

Dorothy Colburn, a resident of Middletown, Del., who owns a beach house in the area, came across the parakeets while running one day -- "I heard this godawful squawking, like no bird I'd ever heard before" -- and has been captivated ever since. Colburn has been watching the birds for years, she said, and is concerned because she thinks the population is declining. "I've been by three times this year just to check them out."

"I ride my bike here and inevitably someone will be here," said Dolph Spain, who summers in Rehoboth. "It's like a tourist attraction."

The monk parakeets, which are the only parrots in the world known to build stick nests, do their construction in trees by the lake and on utility poles. The best place to observe them this year seems to be near a nest-topped utility pole on Lake Drive, though there is another active nest on a pole on nearby St. Lawrence Street.

The birds' proclivity for roosting on the poles has aroused some concern at Delmarva Power & Light Co., which once knocked down the St. Lawrence Street nest, fearing that the transformer would ignite it. When the birds immediately rebuilt their home, "We decided we're not going to beat these guys," spokesman Jay Mason said. So the company resorted to simply putting more insulation and a cage around the transformer.

Monk parakeets, so called because of the gray "hood" on their heads, are native to southern Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. They have established colonies in several of the United States, including Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Florida. Because the birds eat fruit and cereal crops, becoming agricultural pests, many of those colonies were eradicated through control measures, according to Peter Dunne of New Jersey's Cape May Bird Observatory, making Rehoboth "one of the few places you can go and actually see the birds now."

The birds were first noticed in Rehoboth about 10 years ago, when about six to 12 parakeets, demonstrating some real estate savvy, chose to move into the high-rent Silver Lake neighborhood -- an area of large vacation homes surrounding a peaceful duck-and-goose-inhabited lake. According to Alan Garey, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Rehoboth, the parakeet population grew rapidly over the next several years, approaching 200 by the summer of 1995. But the cold winter that followed had a devastating impact on the birds, he said, and he thinks only about 25 are left.

There are many theories about how the birds arrived in Rehoboth. According to the most enduring explanation, which has taken on the aura of an urban legend, a crate of imported birds was accidentally released at New York's Kennedy Airport in 1968, and the Rehoboth birds are related to those escapees. Other speculation involves owners tiring of the birds, a liberation from a pet shop, a release from a ship in Baltimore. Garey has his own theory, though. "My personal opinion is that it's the result of an intentional release," he said, "by somebody that had been around a wild colony in the past and just thought it was neat to be around a colony and wanted to see if it would work."

The non-migratory birds find plenty to eat around Rehoboth, Garey said, including bird seed, the buds of white cedar trees, fruit and weeds. Monk parakeets roost as well as breed in their communal stick nests -- which, according to bird guides, are created by each new pair of birds building against another pair's nest. Although the nests look deceptively loose and haphazard, they are carefully constructed of tightly interwoven twigs -- preferably thorny twigs, because they bind together better and can help thwart predators. A communal nest may contain up to 10 pairs of birds, each of which has its own compartment, with its own tunnel entrance. The compartments have at least two rooms, one of which is for breeding. Garey said the birds live in an almost constant state of home improvement. When not dispersed in search of food, they can often be found busily working on their nests, accompanied by much screeching and chattering.

While some people have complained about the noisy neighbors, no one has made a serious proposal to eradicate the colony. "I think that people have been irritated, but when they brought it up to their neighbors they found there are more people that like them than dislike them," said Garey, who believes the birds have hundreds of human fans.

"I think people for the most part take kind of a pride that this is one of the interesting curiosities about Rehoboth," said Dennis Forney, publisher of the Cape Gazette newspaper.

Nellie Jones, who lives near the St. Lawrence Street nest, said, "I don't object at all {to their presence}." But not all members of her family share her tolerance, she added. "Sometimes my grandchildren will complain because they'll be squawking early in the morning and waking them up."

The birds are most active around their nests early in the morning and at dusk, especially from late summer to late spring, said Garey, who fields requests for directions to the birds' nesting area almost daily. But during the summer nesting season, it's possible some birds will be around all day.

Visitors who don't catch the birds at home or who want to get a close-up view of a monk parakeet can stop in at the Gareys' shop (49 Baltimore Ave., 302/227-5850), where a year-old bird named Harry, adopted by Alan and his wife Sherry when he fell out of a nest last summer, holds court.

Harry, who lives on a diet of seed, dried fruit, fresh fruit and vegetables and plain pasta, has learned to speak English and seems somewhat intelligent, the Gareys report.

As an example, they cite his sometimes-appropriate use of language. When Harry becomes unusually agitated and noisy and they put him in a dark room for some peace and quiet, he'll squawk in protest, promising, "I'll be a good boy."

MONKISH PURSUITS -- To walk to the nest: From the southern end of the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, walk up Queen Street to King Charles Avenue. Take a left, then follow the curve to the right onto Lake Drive. The nest is in a utility pole on the left side of the street, near the lake shore. By car from Rehoboth Avenue approaching the boardwalk: Turn right on First Avenue, which turns into King Charles, and follow the curve to Lake Drive. CAPTION: Harry, who squawks English, eats fruit and pasta and roosts at Wild Birds Unlimited in Rehoboth. CAPTION: Monk parakeets' condo: huge balls of sticks with round openings, on top of a utility pole.