How parakeets escaped and made Britain their home | Birds

Yet another opinion poll was published last week, focusing on British people’s attitudes towards new arrivals on our shores.

They didn’t get here on small boats, and they won’t feature in the TV election debates. They’re not human beings, but birds: ring-necked parakeets.

Nevertheless, they are highly divisive, with the poll revealing that the colourful creatures prompt reactions from downright hostility, through grudging acceptance, to a warm welcome.

Almost 4,000 UK residents were interviewed for the online survey, published in the open-access journal NeoBiota. Researchers from Imperial College London, the Universities of Exeter and Brighton and the British Trust for Ornithology discovered that 90% were aware of the gaudy birds, and just over half knew the name of the species, which is also known as the rose-ringed parakeet, after its pink and grey neck ring.

The vast majority of people – roughly five out of six – consider parakeets aesthetically pleasing, yet at the same time almost half have negative opinions about them. In rural areas, this rises to almost two-thirds, with some suggesting that these noisy, screeching birds disturb the bucolic peace – hence the title of the research paper, Not in the countryside please!

Age also makes a difference: older respondents are far more hostile to the birds than younger ones, who mostly accept their presence, especially in London, their main stronghold. Comments varied from “very colourful and interesting to see”, to “a pain in the backside – so intrusively noisy”, which can’t really be argued with. Newspaper columnist Hugo Rifkind once likened them to young men on a stag do.

Others welcome them as a splash of colour in what they see as nature-depleted urban environments.

I’ve been aware of these exotic birds for almost half a century. In the late 1970s, only a decade after they first began to colonise Britain, I caught sight of one near my childhood home, on the outskirts of west London. To say it stood out among the drab suburban birdlife would be an understatement.

Ring-necked parakeets remained fairly scarce for decades, but from the late 1990s onwards numbers began to rise exponentially. Twenty years ago, when my youngest offspring were born, we lived in a small house in the London suburbs, with a tiny garden. The parakeets soon discovered our bird feeders, and would happily stay put even as the children played only feet away from them.

Today I see – or more often hear – them almost anywhere I go in London. They are also found in cities elsewhere in the UK, but their preference for gathering each evening in large communal roosts has limited their spread – I’ve yet to see one in my adopted home of Somerset.

Jimi Hendrix was not responsible for the arrival of parakeets. Photograph: Bruce Fleming/Rex Features

Over the years, I’ve heard many myths about how they got here in the first place. “They were released by a stoned Jimi Hendrix, who let them out in London’s Carnaby Street…”; “They escaped from the film set of The African Queen…”; “They made a bid for freedom when their cage broke during the Great Storm of 1987…”

But as Nick Hunt and Tim Mitchell point out in their entertaining and informative book The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology, all these apparently convincing stories are urban myths. Hunt and Mitchell were actually the first to investigate people’s response to these exotic new arrivals, speaking to those who were surprised to come across them in their local neighbourhood.

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The truth about the parakeets’ presence here is rather a letdown: as popular cagebirds, it was inevitable some would escape. And because they live in the foothills of the Himalayas, they are easily able to cope with the worst of the British winter, and not just survive, but thrive.

There are genuine concerns about the birds’ ecological impact, including the devastation that a flock can wreak on fruit crops. They could also harm native species, by competing for nest-holes with jackdaws, stock doves and starlings. Conversely, London’s growing population of peregrines are delighted by the arrival of the parakeets, whose slow, direct flight makes them far easier to catch than the faster and more manoeuvrable pigeons.

Numbers are rising, too. The latest population estimate, from the British Trust for Ornithology, suggests a UK breeding population of 12,000 pairs, a 10-fold increase in the past 30 years. If this exponential rise continued, then by the end of this century parakeets would rival the wren as our commonest bird. Fortunately, perhaps, the signs are that their numbers have finally begun to level out. Nevertheless, conservationists are keeping a close eye on the expansion of the species.

Although I appreciate the ecological arguments against these birds, and have some sympathy with the suggestion that they should be culled to avoid problems in the future, I also have a real soft spot for them. And on a winter’s evening, when a hundred-strong flock streaks across the darkening sky like a green meteor, I can’t help admiring their sheer chutzpah, and be thankful for the way they brighten up our dull city lives.

Stephen Moss is an author and naturalist, based in Somerset. His latest book is Ten Birds that Changed the World (Guardian Faber, £16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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