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Parakeets Go Cockney in London

by , Nov 1, 2008

In the foothills of the Himalayas, there is nothing quite like the green flash against the blue sky of a flock of ring-necked parakeets as they swoop over your head and away to the horizon. However, these particular parakeets have, over recent years, become a common sight in the suburban gardens of London. What’s going on?

Image by Author

There is, of course, some urban legend around the appearance of the ring necked parakeet in London gardens.  The best by far is that the rock and roll artist Jimi Hendrix released a pair as a symbol of peace in the nineteen sixties.  The hippy parakeets began to breed and slowly a population was made up, spreading love wherever they went.

Image Credit Zed.Cat under CC

This (quite possibly untrue!) myth aside, love and peace are usually the last things on one's mind when these parakeets are first encountered.  This writer's first introduction to the phenomenon was being woken up at dawn by a strange sounding squawking.  Thinking that there was some sort of avian commotion going on in the garden, I opened up the curtains (simultaneously yawning and stretching) and had one of the few genuinely WTF moments in my years living in the silence of suburbia.

Image Credit Laurencea under CC

There, a few meters away from me, were two large birds with gorgeous, emerald feathers and ruby colored beaks.  Not quite the colors one expects of ‘native' species in the United Kingdom.  Now, I may have been looking at them with sleepy (if not wide-eyed) curiosity but the look they gave me back was a combination of disdain, disinterest and - it has to be said - disrespect!  The cheek of it!

Image Credit Neilhooting under CC

I had, of course, listened incredulously to accounts of parakeets in other parts of London.  There was always one part of me that didn't quite believe the stories, perhaps because I was a little jealous of not having seen such a spectacle myself.  There, they were though, right in front of me.  Time to do a little research, I thought!  A much more likely reason for their new found preponderance in London is that they were released from captivity by owners who could no longer (or did not want to) look after them.  Another tale has a flock of about twenty of them escaping from their cages on arrival at Heathrow airport.  There is, additionally, the "African Queen" theory.  This movie, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn was filmed at Shepperton studios on the outskirts of London.  Although it cannot be properly corroborated, legend (again!) has it that the birds flown in to give the set-bound film a little realism escaped in to the ‘wilds' of suburbia at some point during production.  After Hendrix, that has to be my favorite!

Image Credit Wit under CC

London has thirty three boroughs and it seems that parakeets are resident in all of them.  Although they have yet to spread to the north of the UK or the countryside in general, the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) estimates that there already thirty thousand of them in London.  That number is expected to rise to fifty thousand within the next two years.  My purely garden-based observations lead me to believe that this is being conservative.  In the space of a few months between my first sighting and the present, these birds have already extended the length of my two mile commute work.  These parakeets are here to stay - and in ever increasing numbers.

Image Credit Neil Phillips under CC

The UK is getting warmer, so everyone says, but even now it can get extremely cold in the autumn and winter.  How can these birds, which look like they would be at home in a hot and humid rainforest, live in a climate such as ours?  The ring-necked parakeet actually originates in the foothills of the Himalayas, which can get significantly colder than the UK. So, the wet and warm climate they have found here is, if not ideal, one they can cope with easily.

Image Source - taken by author

So far so good.  As can be seen above, the birds do not mind a sudden April snowfall either.  However, there are more factors involved in whether or not a new species can adapt to a new habitat.  The climate is not a problem for our green friends, but what about the other factors, namely a constant food supply and the threat to them from indigenous species.

Image Credit Neil Phillips under CC

The British love animals.  When they are not hunting them and eating them they have a tendency to feed them.  Every second suburban garden has a bird feeder, laden with all sorts of goodies to tempt birds in.  Many feeders are designed so only the brighter birds can get at the seeds and nuts inside and these are mostly smaller species, like the various species of tit that can be found in the UK.  Cylindrical feeder? No problem for parakeets.  So, generally speaking, food is not a problem.

Image Source - taken by author

What about the native species?  There is no evidence yet that they are having a negative impact on our local bird life, although I have seen them have the occasional spat with the local wide boys - the magpies.  They don't seem phased by another immigrant species either - the grey squirrel - and will happily feed side by side with them.  The vocabulary of the other birds has increased markedly and they now demonstrate an ever increasing grasp of modern slang, tenses and clauses.  Seriously, the only real fear is that the birds will become too numerous.  They live a long time - up to forty years - and can breed for the greater part of their life.  If they become a threat apparent to the native species then there is the possibility of a cull in the future.  Let's hope that doesn't ever have to happen!