If you take a trip to London, it will probably not be long before you hear a loud, sharp “squaarrrk” above the din of the capital’s traffic. You realise that the noise is coming from above and on looking up, see three or four bright green arrow-shaped birds flying very directly and at speed, long-tails trailing along behind. Ring-necked parakeets!
Native to Africa and Asia, ring-necked parakeets did not make their own way to our shores, so how did these gaudy characters make it here? Well, that is a question which will invariably raise a number of different answers!
One theory is that some birds escaped from the set of the movie The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, which was part-shot in Isleworth Studios, Middlesex, in 1951.
Others will tell you that that is rubbish and everyone knows that Jimi Hendrix kept these exotic birds in an aviary, but unfortunately while stoned, managed to let a breeding pair go! Another story claims that a piece of undercarriage fell from a plane, demolishing an aviary and freeing its caged inhabitants.
Nonsense, say still more: everyone knows it kicked off when a long-suffering angry London housewife set free her husband's squawking flock!
Anyway, however they got started, these light green parrots with a red beak and a pink and black ring around their face and neck, are doing very well indeed, thank you very much. They are now thought to have one of the fastest-growing bird populations in the UK, estimated to number more than 32,000 individuals at the end of the breeding season. They are also the most northerly breeding parrot population in the world.
Perhaps what makes these birds even more noticeable is the fact that they have a strong tendency to roost communally. I remember being at Esher Rugby Club a few years back and being staggered at the vast number of parrots streaming noisily into the trees behind the club house as darkness started to close in. It made you think that you were on tour abroad!
Indeed, their numbers are causing some concern amongst a growing group of people. One huge roost of around 4,500 birds at Stanwell, close to Heathrow Airport, is raising the possibility of collisions with aircraft taking off and landing.
It is also known that they are a serious agricultural pest in Africa and southern Asia, and already they are showing a penchant for grapes grown in British vineyards, stripping huge numbers of ripening fruit from one particular grower in Painshill Park in Surrey.
A number of conservationists are also concerned. Ring-necked parakeets are hole-nesters, often taking over old woodpecker nest holes, cracks in trees or larger-sized nest boxes, and because they start nesting early, often in January, they have monopolised all the available nesting holes by the time our native birds are hunting for nest sites. Could this competition cause problems for some of our native birds? The answer is we don’t know.
Strangely, despite being an introduced species, the ring-necked parakeet is protected in the wild under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. However, it may be killed or taken under the terms of some General Licences. It is illegal to release or allow them to escape into the wild. This seems all a bit muddled to me.
What if we do discover that this parrot is pushing out some of our native birds? Could a cull be organised or indeed a move to eliminate them completely? I personally think not, as it is far too late for that. It is also a real Marmite bird – some folk don’t like their brash nature, but others love to see them brightening up their small urban gardens and put out lots of food for them, which is undoubtedly why they are doing so well.
As one spokesman from the London Wildlife Trust put it, no doubt with tongue firmly in cheek - “they are as British as curry”! A team from the University of Kent has been studying the behaviour of these birds, and is really keen to learn about any possible effects they may have on crops.
Led by Dr Jim Groombridge, the team would like to hear from anyone who is located close to nearby parakeet roosts and sees parakeets regularly on their farmland. They are looking to establish if there is, or is likely to be, any impact on farmland, especially with regards to crops. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to find out whether parakeets have so far been recorded near your land then please explore the interactive map.
ParrotNet is an EU project that involves 18 countries and is learning about the growing populations of these green-coloured parakeets across Europe.
Read more from Peter Thompson at his blog.