Curious questions: Are parakeets a treasure or a curse?
Rose-ringed parakeets have settled in London and beyond, but how did these birds come to trade tropical climates for our gray shores, Claire Jackson asks.
The last notes of Mozart’s overture Figaro’s wedding end triumphantly, but, as the applause reverberates through the audience in Opera Holland Park, there is a loud, prolonged scream. Figaro and Susanna’s assessment of their future marital quarters is interrupted by rowdies from a nearby chestnut tree. It seems that the parakeets are not fans of comic opera.
For some, the songs of birds – the occasional peacock also makes its presence known – enhance the charming setting of the former London home of the Earl of Ilchester, but others vibrate with the penetrating gusts. They’re not just in Holland Park: Rose-ringed parakeets have well and truly taken up residence all over London, with colonies now stretching across England and beyond; there have even been recent sightings in Scotland. But how did these gregarious green birds come to swap tropical climates for our gray shores?
Wild parakeets were first documented in the UK in 1970, when they were observed living in London parks. The flocks were hypothesized to be from released birds from across The African Queen at Shepperton Studios in 1951. Similarly, Jimi Hendrix is said to have unleashed his parakeets along Carnaby Street. As tantalizing as these tales are, it is unlikely that the birds of today can be directly attributed to these escapees.
However, the first breeding pairs were undoubtedly former pets; the ring-necked parakeet was a popular addition in Victorian households attracted by its bright plumage.
Less appealing were the parrot’s frequent, resonant vocalizations, which may have contributed to multiple releases. Some birds escape on their own: artist Mouse Macpherson (‘The mouse that roars’, August 4, 2021), wrote about the “dark day” when her lovebirds flew out of an open window.
Frequent releases and favorable circumstances — in the case of parakeets, busy city parks and rising temperatures — allowed the birds to become established.
Acid-green parrots bring a touch of glamor to bird tables, like well-groomed strangers at a cocktail party, and their iridescence evokes exotic landscapes (their native range is a wide belt of arid tropical countryside stretching from West Africa through Lower India, south to the Himalayas).
With an estimated population of 25,000 pairs, parakeets are now unavoidable. But there are concerns about the impact the birds can have on native species, especially other nesting birds, such as woodpeckers, nuthatches and starlings.
“Human activity is reducing biodiversity locally, nationally and globally,” says Paul Walton, head of habitats and species at RSPB Scotland. “There are five key elements: habitat degradation, climate change, exploitation of natural resources, pollution and invasive non-native species.”
Parakeets fall into the latter category and, like the introduction of rhododendrons to the temperate rainforests of Scotland, they have the potential to cause serious problems. “People have deliberately moved animals and plants around the world, but more often than not accidentally and allowed them to settle in areas from which they did not originate,” says Dr Walton. “The main drivers of biodiversity loss work synergistically, so parakeets are able to develop strongholds in the UK due to milder winters.”
The recent spread of the parakeet beyond the capital has led to whispers of government intervention, but it has been announced that the culling will not take place – partly because the population is too well established and that there is not yet enough evidence of the impact on native species. to justify controversial and complex measures. Controlling a bird that thrives in populated areas, especially gardens and public spaces, is rife with complications.
Dr Walton says the RSPB is a ‘nature conservation organisation, not an animal welfare organisation’ and, although the official position is that the body is ‘not in favor of a cull of parakeets for the moment”, he stresses that “we must monitor the situation closely”.
The Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens is a not-so-secret spot for close encounters with parakeets. No self-respecting Londoner would be seen dead here, but, as a foreigner (and owner of the Emma Bridgewater parakeet mug), I have no shame in joining tourists covered in green-feathered friends.
I intend to stick to a strictly journalistic observation, but, when a small child offers me his apple to attract a nearby bird, it is impossible to resist. Within moments, a parakeet lands on the fruit in my waiting hand, allowing me to stroke its head. I’m sending a photo to a friend who grew up in North London. “I hate them so much,” she replies.
Feeding the parakeets is not encouraged in any of the royal parks. The charity has launched a campaign called ‘Keep Wildlife Wild’, which asks visitors to refrain from bringing food for the animals. Hyde Park attracts 13 million visitors every year, which is a lot of apples for parakeets. The resulting overcrowding can bring disease and further disrupt the ecosystem. Once again, humans are at the heart of the UK parakeet problem.
• The first sighting of a wild ring-necked parakeet in the UK dates back to 1855, when one was spotted in Norfolk.
• Rose-ringed Parakeets, like all birds, are protee in the wild under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Species may be controlled under license where there is evidence of a threat to native species, crop damage or for aviation security purposes
• Media coverage of ‘parrot fever’, a rare but life-threatening condition, may have caused an increase in rejections in the 1950s
• The case of the parakeet is not isolated. “There are problems in fresh produceareas of water where turtles have been released and established,” says the RSPB Scottish Paul Walton. the the import of red-eared sliders was banned in 1997, due to concerns over wildlife numbers, but animal owners have switched to yellow-bellied sliders, which have been sighted in UK waterways
We’ve all used the phrase ‘busy as a bee’, but is it justified? Or are the bees just as responsible
The age-old image of the clever owl has persisted for centuries – but are they really the intellectuals of the