I first saw a flock of them last October at Hollow Ponds, Epping Forest. Without my glasses, I could just make out a cloud of luminous green accompanied by a tremendous squawking. The green cloud disappeared into treetops, but the squawking continued.
The friend I was with told me they were parakeets. She said they weren’t unusual and she sees them all the time.
But what were they doing here? And where did they come from? How does an exotic bird survive here?
Ring-necked parakeets (psittacula krameri) are not just surviving, but thriving in the UK. There are no exact figures but anything between 30,000 and 60,000 birds are said to exist on this island.
The ring-necked parakeet is the UK’s only naturalised parrot. They possess fantastic red beaks and glamorous long tails. Often kept as pets, they can be great talkers, and live well into their teens. Yet, the parrots’ own adolescence has been compared to that of a human.
Evidence suggests that there is a developmental period where the brains of some parakeets show similar hormonal changes to human teenagers’ brains as they grow from childhood to adulthood.
The teenage angst, called bluffing, is common in many parrots. In captivity, this can lead to brattish behaviour and door slamming, of a kind. In the wild, there have been very rare occasions where bluffing was said to explain certain actions, such as an isolated incident whereby a flock of young parakeets tore shingles off the roof of a listed building. They did not intend to nest or feed there. But random acts of vandalism are rare.
There are a few theories that could explain their existence in the UK. Some people blame Jimi Hendrix. Not content with doves, in the 1960s Hendrix released a pair of parakeets into Carnaby Street, central London, as an act of psychedelic peace and love. What an act of love it was, if nearly 60,000 parakeets were spawned from that one pair.
Another theory is that they escaped from Shepperton Film Studios in 1951 during the making of The African Queen, which starred Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. However, both of these theories are disputed, as it seems the first sighting of the vibrant birds in the UK was documented in the 1850s – well before Bogart, Hepburn and Hendrix were born.
Their continued residency could be also a side effect of global warming.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) communication office for the south east region, Tim Webb said it is a possibility that their population has soared in the last forty years as a result of climate change.
Webb said: “We don’t know, but perhaps in the past it was a point of a degree too cool for them. They never used to breed in such large numbers, but in the last couple of decades, they’ve rocketed.”
It is estimated that around 2,000 ring-necked parakeets roost near the Lee Valley WaterWorks nature reserve.
Walthamstow Wetlands tour guide and filmmaker Stephen Ayres said he has seen hundreds of parakeets flying over the wetlands in groups of around 30 birds. “They are very colourfully green, with beautiful long tails. I especially like it when they fly low overhead, or when they fly in synch as a group moving in unison.”
Ayres said has never spoken to anyone who doesn’t like the parakeets, although he admits people could be put off by their sound.
“They are quite a noisy bird with their screeching call, which is loud and harsh and not very beautiful.
“I know that there are people that don’t like them, but I’ve never met them. Their screeching certainly would get annoying if you lived somewhere they frequented.”
Indeed there are people that don’t like them.
A government scheme to eradicate a small population of monk parakeets also found in the UK cost the government £259,000, according to the Daily Mail.
And in the Telegraph in April 2014, Jasper Copping asserted that they were “pushing out the country’s other wildlife and threatening their numbers”.
However, Copping’s assertion was not backed up by any hard facts. What he did discover was that at feeding tables, smaller birds were wary of bigger birds.
The RSPB’s Webb said: “As far as I’m aware, all of the scientific studies carried out have found no evidence that they are having a detrimental effect on any wildlife species.
“The people who say they are having an impact are the people who are seeing parakeets come into their gardens and scare smaller birds off the feeders.”
The same rule applies to birds bigger than parakeets. The parakeets will disappear from a feeding table when birds larger than it appear, such as magpies or rooks. And once the magpies have gone, the parakeets appear. And so on.
“They live quite happily alongside starlings and woodpeckers and other birds,” explains Webb.
“What I like about them most is that they get people to look at what else is around them.
“People should just enjoy them being around. They are great survivors. Let’s celebrate that and learn from them.”