Owen Brear had a welcome distraction from his revision for A-levels this summer when he was strolling through Pool on 31st May and suddenly saw a squawking ring-necked parakeet sitting on a conifer in the new Hollies housing estate . Now whilst we must assume this was an escapee it is still only the second sighting of this exotic parrot in the WNS records – the first was as long ago as September 10th 1972 when there was a probable sighting at Swinsty Reservoir. Having boldly stated that it was probably an escapee, this species is running wild in the south of England around London and is close to becoming a pest there, so I thought people might like an update on the current status of this species …
Parakeets in the Wild
Parakeets are a species of the parrot family that occurs over a wide area. Its natural range includes Afghanistan to Burma and south to Sri Lanka. It is also widespread in sub-Saharan Africa north of equator. It is the most widespread and successful of any parakeet species, thriving wild in 36 countries. In India it is usually found in small parties, but will roost in larger flocks, which can typically run to many 100’s or 1000’s. It is considered a serious agricultural pest there, where it lives only on plant food – predominantly seeds, fruit, flowers and nectar.
The species is famous for its loud squawks in flight and the racket made when perched in groups during roosting. During courtship the male feeds and prunes the plumage of female, then dances for her to win her over. Birds are monogamous, with the pair bonding for a long duration, and possibly for life. Breeding pairs are solitarily; pairs are mostly well separated in urban parks, although sometimes there can be two nests in a single tree. Birds are not territorial except in the immediate vicinity of their nest-hole.
The species was first brought to Europe by Alexander the Great in 4th Century BC although with unfortunate results (for the bird) since they were eaten as a delicacy by the Romans. The first live specimen was brought to England in 1504 by a merchant.
In India they are bought at markets on festival days so they can be released to bring luck to buyer; in this country they became a popular cage bird in Victorian times. Apart from their bright plumage they are very intelligent. They start to speak by the age of one and can eventually master 250 words. They have almost human characteristics. They go through a ‘teenage’ stage at few months old when a previously docile bird may threaten to bite its owner – in order to establish who is in charge. They are tamer if kept singly because they then pair-bond with their owner – as if the latter was a fellow bird!
Many birds have escaped or been intentionally released and the species is now breeding regularly in several countries throughout Europe (and in North America). The first documented record of breeding was in Norfolk in 1855, but the current invasion of the British countryside almost certainly dates from the post-war period. Various myths exist for what triggered the expansion. These vary from a mass breakout from a quarantine holding pen at Heathrow; to the release of birds during filming of The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart, which was made at the Shepperton Film Studios in 1951 (or possibly during the making of another film there in the 1970’s). It has also been suggested that those seen at many places in the Thames valley came from a homing flock at an aviary near Marlow. What is certainly true is that by the early 1970’s many were roaming free in London’s outer suburbs in Surrey, Kent and Sussex. It is interesting, and an important feature of their expansion, that whilst they were becoming common in the Thames Valley they were uncommon in the adjacent county of Hampshire. They were first seen there in 1972 and in most subsequent years (with a peak of 10 sightings in 1984), but there is only one record of breeding there in the period to 1990. This is because the species is a very gregarious one so that they spread to new areas only very slowly. Their presence in the north has been much more limited. They have been recorded in Yorkshire since 1976, typically once or twice a year. There were also reports of a sub-population in the North West, but this appears to have died out sometime before the early 1990’s.
The usual sighting you’ll get is of one or two flying over as shown above. Their shape is impossible to mistake from any other species. You may see them in the countryside around London or in the Thames valley, but the best place to see them is in one of the larger London Parks, especially Richmond.
However, if you want a real ornithological experience I strongly suggest you head for the Esher Rugby Ground, currently the largest roost in the London area – a total of 6918 were counted there last August. You need to arrive an hour before dusk and then just sit back and wait for the trees around the ground to fill up with the squawking multitudes!
All this might seem like a bit of exotic birding fun, but the prospects are far more serious. Experts believe the wild population in England is exploding. Parakeets are building thriving colonies in parks and gardens. Originally they flourished in suburbs where they relied on food in bird feeders, but they are now moving into the countryside and feeding on fruit, nuts, berries, seeds and tree buds. The species is robust and adaptable and can survive our winters – it is thought that they have benefited from shorter, milder winters of recent years, although it remains to be seen what would happen if we had another severe winter. It is estimated that there are currently 20,000 birds (with 10,000 in London alone), but this is expected to reach 100,000 by the end of the decade. Dr Butler of Oxford University who is studying the situation believes it is now too late to stop the spread. He estimates they are currently growing at 30% per annum, much faster than expected .
The prospects for the future are worrying on two counts. Firstly, there are concerns that as numbers grow they will begin to inflict widespread damage on farming crops (a vineyard in southern England was recently badly hit by the attentions of a flock of parakeets resulting in wine production falling from 3,000 to only 500 bottles). Secondly, there are fears for native species, such as starlings, jackdaws, kestrels and little owls. Parakeets are more aggressive. They nest in holes in trees and other bird’s nests – and do so a month earlier than British birds, thereby claiming the best sites.
So perhaps we ought to hope that it’s another 30 years before we see our next bird in the area…………?