Every evening, in almost every major park in London, ring-necked or rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) can be seen (and heard) roosting in their hundreds and thousands. But how have these tropical interlopers managed to adapt so well to our mild climate and what threat do they pose to our beloved native birds?
We asked three expert birders about the problem of parakeets in the capital and beyond.
How did they get here?
No one knows for sure when ring-necked parakeets first came to be living in the wild in Britain. Legend has it that Jimi Hendrix released a pair of the bright green parrots on Carnaby Street in the 1960s, while another tale tells of birds disappearing from the set of The African Queen at Ealing Studios in 1951.
A more likely story, according to naturalist and writer David Lindo, aka The Urban Birder, is that pet parakeets have been escaping into the wild since Victorian times, although it has only been over the last 20 to 30 years that their numbers have really taken off.
‘Many people think of parakeets as recent arrivals, but the earliest record of a breeding pair in Britain dates from 1852 in Great Yarmouth,’ he says. ‘In the past they would’ve hopped aboard ships, but the ones today are probably all descendants of escaped pets.’
The RSPB and The London Wildlife Trust (LWT) both estimate that there are currently up to 50,000 individuals in the wild. The population is concentrated in South London, but is fast spreading into the Home Counties and beyond, with sightings reported as far north as Scotland.
The secrets of their success
The main reason why parakeets have found themselves so at home in England is the abundance of food available in parks and gardens, combined with the lack of natural predators. Being colonial birds has also given them an edge as they are thought to communicate the location of the best food sources to each other during their regular roosts.
‘The fact that we are a nation of bird lovers has enabled parakeets to survive here,’ explains Ben Andrew, Supporter Advisor (Wildlife) for the RSPB. ‘They eat a varied diet of insects, seeds and fruit and are big, bolshy birds that are better at finding food and avoiding predation than budgies and cockatoos.’
It is uncertain whether climate change is also a factor. The birds’ natural habitat stretches from West to East Africa and across India, Bangladesh and Nepal; however, David points out that ‘parakeets can live at up to 4,000ft in the Himalayas, so the weather here is a walk in the park in comparison.’
Nevertheless, Tony Wileman, Conservation Ecologist for LWT, suspects that the warming climate has favoured parakeets, although he stresses that more research is needed to back this theory up.
‘There used to be a colony on Bedfordshire but which died out after a very cold winter in the 1960s,’ he says. ‘My view is that as our towns have expanded and heated up, it has allowed parakeets to spread further and not get hit back during the colder months, and while they do live in the Himalayas, they move down to the foothills in winter.’
Impact on wildlife
So, does parakeets’ successor come at the expense of the UK’s native avian species? Parakeets can strip bird feeders bare within minutes and research shows that songbirds will stay clear of gardens while the parrots are in them.
But the good news, says Ben, is that although parakeets are ‘a nuisance at the bird table,’ there is ‘no evidence that they are having a detrimental effect on any of our native bird species’. In fact, most garden birds that eat the same food as parakeets, such as blue tits, are thriving, although if people can’t bear the sight of the parrots David suggests they try squirrel proof feeders.
It has also been suggested that parakeets, as hole-nesting birds, might drive out other cavity nesters such as woodpeckers, nuthatches and starlings. A recent Belgian study found evidence of competition between parakeets and nuthatches but the researchers concluded that this was unlikely to have much impact on nuthatch populations.
While parakeets may not be threatening other birds, David has observed that the larger roosts, which can number up to 5,000 individuals, ‘can kill trees with their droppings,’ although Tony reassures that ‘this is a natural process that is also caused by other roosting birds such as starlings’.
‘They are very visual, large and noisy birds and easy targets for blame,’ he adds in their defence.
At present, most parakeets have remained in urban areas, but those that venture into the countryside can become agricultural pests and farmers can apply for a licence to kill them if they threaten their crops. However, the UK government has no plans to introduce a nationwide cull — a measure that neither RSPB or LWT would support and that David believes ‘would be too late anyway’.
The government did recently manage to eradicate monk parakeets — South American birds which build huge, potentially unsafe nests on telegraph wires—but according to Tony, most attempts to control invasive species such as the ruddy duck are not good value for money.
‘The cost to the taxpayer would be too high; the money would be better spent on improving wildlife habitats for native species,’ he argues.
Even without a cull Ben is optimistic that parakeet numbers will eventually plateau, because ‘like all birds they will be regulated by food and nest availability and predators’.
Until recently, parakeets have been unchallenged by birds of prey, but peregrine falcons, which regularly predate on pigeons, have begun acquiring a taste for parakeet, while there is also evidence of sparrowhawks and tawny owls taking them down—although only time will tell if this provides a natural control.
What’s the verdict?
Like all invasive species, ring-necked parakeets are likely to continue to provoke mixed reactions for many years to come. Some, says Ben ‘enjoy the sight of the brightly coloured, engaging birds,’ while others ‘complain about the noise and mess they make’.
While David concedes that parakeets are ‘attractive birds,’ which could potentially ‘get more people noticing and interested in birds,’ he regrets that children today grow up more familiar with this tropical invader than with many of Britain’s formerly iconic but now threatened species, such as the turtle dove, the skylark and the cuckoo.
‘I’m not a big fan,’ he adds. ‘Their roosts can be so loud that they drown out the dawn chorus and they are not on any birders’ tick lists’.
But love them or loathe them, it seems that, in London and South East England at least, ring-necked parakeets have firmly established themselves as part of the resident fauna, without any seriously damaging effects.
‘They have fitted into our ecosystem,’ declares Tony, ‘and like grey squirrels and Canada geese, they are here to stay whether we like it or not.’
More bird stories on Love Nature: