Following a week when the “Beast from the East” rampaged across Britain, spare a thought for London’s ringneck (or rose-ringed) parakeets, the world’s most northerly population of wild parrots. The “Beast” that swept the country was a weather front from Siberia. London was fortunate in that it only experienced freezing temperatures and a dusting of snow, but many parts of Britain – where the “Beast” collided with “Storm Emma”, which had formed in the Bay of Biscay – ground to a halt as they were blanketed with snow.
No matter how often I notice them in London, I’m always taken aback when I see a parrot flying above me or a flock perched high up on a tree. Although they’re more visible in greater numbers in the summer months, it’s during winter that the sight of these emerald-green-feathered, red-beaked, tropical birds is most jarring. They huddle on branches of trees denuded of leaves, drawing attention to themselves by their loud squawking noise as much as by their bright plumage.
It’s something of a mystery as to when and how these medium-sized parrots (they measure around 40cm in length and have a wingspan of around 45cm) were first introduced to England. It’s thought that the colonies of ringneck parakeets that have established themselves in London and neighbouring Kent and Surrey originally hail from India, though the species is also found across central Africa. For centuries exotic birds have been brought to England and presumably in this time many would have either escaped captivity or were released.
It has long been said that the escapees came from the set of the 1951 film “The African Queen”. People recall that little green birds started appearing soon after this in their gardens near the studio in Isleworth, a short distance to the west of London’s Kew Gardens. This may well be an urban myth, but in the 1960s the first pair of parrots were reported, with some certainty, to have bred in the wilds of London.
Since then, parrots have made homes in London’s suburban gardens and they’re also often spotted in Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Kew Gardens and Richmond Park, the latter being best known its red and fallow deer.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has calculated that there are 8,600 breeding pairs of ringneck parakeets in England, but there may well be twice that number of these birds. (To put these numbers in perspective, the RSPB says that there are some 1.4 million jackdaw pairs in Britain and around 6.7 million robin territories.)
Just as there’s debate as to the number of parakeets in England, there’s also discussion as to their ecological impact. While parakeets do not feature in Britain nearly as high on the hate list of “invasive” species as, say, the grey squirrel, these birds have become a growing cause for concern. [Grey squirrels were introduced to Britain in the 1870s and have since largely displaced the native red squirrel. These American “invaders” have been regarded as an especially aggressive species, but recently the fact that grey squirrels are more intelligent (or, rather, better problem-solvers) than red squirrels has been linked to their relative success.]
As far as parakeets go, the main issue is the extent to which they compete for food and nesting sites (typically tree hollows) with native bird species. Although they’re not considered to be aggressive, their noisy and gregarious behaviour can deter smaller birds, such as blue tits and robins, whose numbers are in any case in sharp decline. As the number of parakeets increase, there has been some discussion as whether culling might be necessary. The Daily Mail – widely known for its anti-migrant positions – has been predictably hysterical on this topic, with an article in 2016 saying, “Should we cull the squawking parakeets? 50,000 of them are threatening British birds, gobbling crops – and they are breeding like crazy.”
Fortunately the RSPB takes a far more measured line. While recognising that parakeet numbers should be monitored, the RSPB does not consider the threat to other birds as yet being sufficiently serious to warrant culling.
For the time being, it’s the cold that must surely be London’s parrots’ key concern. But despite their tropical origins, they are a remarkably hardy bird – as evident by the fact that they’ve been thriving in the wild in England for the last 50 years. In fact back in the red-necked parakeet’s original Indian habitat, a prime area of concentration is the foothills of the Himalayas, which also regularly experiences periods of intense cold. (Ironically, in India ringneck parakeets are decreasing in number, not least because they’re targeted by trappers as they are popular pets.) Despite parakeets being thoroughly acclimatised to England, it’s safe to assume that those in London will be happier when the temperature rises again – and the same can surely be said for the other birds, animals and humans with whom they share the city.