Those of you who have followed this blog across the internet from its old home may well be aware of my slight obsession with the green parakeets that live wild in large flocks across parts of London and south east England. Not everyone does, but I absolutely love them – for their noisy, colourful, unmissable cheerfulness in this grey and often miserable city. They make me smile.
I was first told of their presence in London about ten years ago, and my initial reaction was one of complete disbelief until I saw a small flock of them noisily squawking their way over my parents’ back garden one summer afternoon. I was then intrigued enough to do a little research on these colourful birds, and soon realised that, for them, living in London must be the equivalent of a tropical holiday in comparison to their native environment. It may surprise some that these birds, whose natural home is among the foothills of the Himalayas, happily thrive in such an urban environment as London, but they do – and to such an extent that there is now talk of a cull to reduce their numbers, despite the fact that they are, at present, protected by law.
For those who have not yet encountered these brightly-coloured and noisy birds, you probably soon will; particularly if you live in south east England – it is estimated that there are currently 30,000 of these Ring-necked (or Rose-ringed) parakeets living wild across south-west London, Surrey, Sussex and Kent, and the RSPB further estimates that their numbers will increase to at least 50,000 by next year.
They are a beautiful and distinctive emerald green, with a ‘ring’ around the neck (pink and black on the males, grey on the females, although some of the latter have no neck rings at all), and, unlike most common domestic garden birds, they are comparatively large, often measuring as much as 16 inches (40cm) from top to tail-tip. They can frequently be seen in and around domestic gardens, parks and the many green spaces that can be found in the London area, where they feed on a stable and reliable supply of berries, buds, nuts and seeds. They are now the 15th most common bird in London, having become a friendly and familiar sight in my neck of the woods as well as further afield.
But, interesting and informative though all that is, it doesn’t explain exactly where they came from in the first place and how so many of them ended up concentrated in the south-eastern corner of England, squawking inquisitively at anyone and anything in their path. Not surprisingly with such an exotic bird, there are plenty of local myths and legends associated with their cheerful presence in this area, some of which are more convincing than others. Despite the fact that a few green parakeets have been observed in the wild in this country since the 19th century (these were probably escaped exotic pets), it has only been within the last thirty or forty years that they have been settled enough to breed and their numbers have rapidly increased, meaning that some of the most amusingly far-fetched of all the explanations of their origins are unsurprisingly associated with the 1950s and 1960s.
There’s the fanciful story of how Jimi Hendrix released a pair of parakeets into the psychedelic late-60s skies above London’s then-swingin’ Carnaby Street, which flew off to eventually spawn the thousands of birds in the city today. Or there’s the theory that a breeding pair escaped from the famous Shepperton Studios, just outside London, during the filming of the classic 1951 Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn movie, The African Queen – a slightly more plausible tale, considering the particular concentration of the birds along the stretch of the Thames that meanders through the local area surrounding Shepperton. Another suggestion is that there was some sort of parakeet-style Great Escape from a consignment of birds travelling through Heathrow Airport sometime during the 1980s, although it is not recorded if one of them legged it (or should that be winged it?) over the airport perimeter fence on a parakeet-sized motorbike, dressed as Steve McQueen!
It seems that the most plausible of all the explanations for this emerald-coloured avian population explosion is that several breeding pairs were deliberately released into the wild, either separately or together, and settled quite happily into our mild climate.
However, there are some who would rather the parakeets weren’t so settled, although there is also some debate as to whether the proposed cull is strictly necessary. Admittedly, these birds are very unpopular in certain quarters – there is no getting away from the fact that they are very loud creatures indeed, with a distinctively noisy squawk, and that they have a habit of flocking together in huge numbers to roost, which is indeed a sight (and a sound) to behold.
They are also inveterate crop-raiders, favouring fruit and berries in particular, something which is getting right up the collective noses of the south-east’s wine makers – apparently, this summer, parakeets pinched enough grapes to make three thousand bottles of wine from one producer alone. Considering the fact that the market for English wine is expanding rapidly (and the wine itself is no longer the joke it used to be), I can see that the loss of the equivalent of three thousand bottles of wine could possibly do significant damage to such a developing business. In fact, according to the BBC website, this particular vineyard is spending at least £5,000 a year on bird-scarers and repairing the damage caused by their over-active avian visitors – although they could, legally, already shoot the birds, as the law allows for culls of parakeets in orchards and similar food-growing environments.
Their detractors have even more complaints about these green feathered friends, accusing them of squatting all the best nesting sites (usually used by other domestic birds) because they begin their breeding season as early as January, as well as having other, and seemingly non-specified, negative impacts on native bird life, including woodpeckers and starlings. However, there appears to be little evidence for this alleged avian bullying, with our green-winged heroes seemingly co-existing with native species – something which has meant that organisations such as the London Wildlife Trust have become increasingly concerned that these accusations are being used as an excuse to introduce a wider cull, simply because some people find the parakeets noisy and downright cocky (a factor which is actually part of the appeal for parakeet fans like me!). If the cull is extended, individuals would legally need a licence to shoot the birds, but there is also some concern that this will be ignored in favour of a free-for-all, which could put other birds (such as the similarly coloured and much rarer green woodpecker) at risk from being shot by some idiot who can’t tell a parakeet from his elbow, instead of leaving these cheerful and colourful birds alone to get on with squawking loudly at most of south-west London – which, after all, is what they do best.
“It’s not pining, it’s passed on! This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late parrot! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch it would be pushin’ up the daisies! It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible! THIS IS AN EX PARROT!“
Let’s hope not…