London can be a pretty grey sort of place when the sun isn’t out – which, as this week’s sudden slide from glorious spring sunshine to muggy, overcast day on which the air is like soup has reminded us, is quite a lot of the time. It isn’t just the sky, either: the roads, the buildings, even much of the wildlife. All can be a little on the beige side.
It can be a delight, then, to spot a flock of the bright green parakeets, a species of parrot, that live wild in the capital. It can be less of a delight to have them nest immediately outside your window for long periods, because they travel in large numbers and love nothing more than to make a deafening squawking noise to reassure their companions that they’re still there. There are threads on online forums which begin with a post from someone asking for tips on encouraging them to visit their garden. Four posts later, they’re asking for tips on encouraging them to leave once again, because bloody hell.
But where did they come from? The ring-necked parakeet, the particular species to which London’s bright green residents belong, originated in the Indian subcontinent. So how on earth did large flocks of them end up living wild on an overcast island off the north west coast of Europe?
There are a lot of theories you can find flying round the internet, no doubt making squawking noises all the while. Among the more prominent:
- The 1951 film The African Queen was filmed at Isleworth Studios. At some point, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn’s parrot co-stars escaped, did what parrots are prone to do and made a lot more parrots. This explanation fits with the fact that the birds are seemingly at their most numerous in the south western corner of London. It doesn’t fit with the fact there aren’t any parrots in The African Queen. Also, in some versions of the myth, it’s Shepperton Studios they escaped from, which is odd as The African Queen wasn’t filmed there.
- The Great Storm of 1987 caused devastation across northern France and southern England. It took out no fewer than six of the eponymous oaks of Sevenoaks. And, apparently, it blew open aviaries in the Surrey area, allowing some parrots to make a bid for freedom. Again, though, there’s very little evidence, and it doesn’t explain why London has only one type of exotic bird.
- The parakeets escaped from the house of pop star George Michael (yes) after burglars broke in and trashed the place some time in the 1990s. This theory fails to explain why George Michael – who was not shy of shouting about things in general, except for, amazing man that he was, the vast amounts of charitable giving he was involved in – never mentioned it.
- The first wild parrots were released after a plane crashed into the aviary of Syon Park some time in the 1970s. Again, this fits the geography. Again, this seems a curiously specific and dramatic explanation.
- This is probably the most romantic of the various stories to explain the parakeets. In 1968, with London swinging all around him, Jimi Hendrix released a pair from a birdcage in Carnaby Street, as a sort of stunt. Tragically for fans of romance, though, there’s no evidence of his ever doing anything of the sort. Brilliantly, a 2019 BBC story on some research into the parrots origin is headlined, “Jimi Hendrix cleared of blame for UK parakeet release”.
That story was one of many reporting analysis, conducted by researchers at UCL and published in the Journal of Zoology, in December 2019. That plotted nearly 150 years(!) of parrot sightings, dating back as far as the 1860s – a long time before any of the urban legends listed above – onto a map in an attempt to trace the parakeets’ origins. It concluded that the truth, prosaically, is almost certainly a lot of small incidents of escapees, although it also suggests that bouts of panic about the dangers of “parrot fever” in 1929-31 and 1952 may have led to large numbers of individual parakeets being set free. Eventually, numbers rose enough for some serious breeding to get going, and nature took its course.
London isn’t the only place to have become home to the noisy green birds. They’ve been spotted all over England, and even in parts of Wales and Scotland, though they’re at their most common in the capital. The report also found they’ve made their home in 34 countries on five continents. They’re an example of what is known as a successful invasive species: they’re happy in a lot of different climates, they’re open minded about what they eat, and they don’t have many natural predators. So once there are a few of them about, their population may explode – leaving the locals wondering how to get the noisy buggers out of their gardens.
“The RSPB is not in favour of a cull of parakeets at this time,” notes an ominous page of the charity’s website, “but believes it is important that the spread of the ring-necked parakeet is monitored and its potential for negative impacts on our native bird species assessed.” In other words, there’s a risk that those pretty little birds might become just a bit too successful for the locals. For the moment, though, they brighten the place up beautifully – even if they do make a lot of noise while they do it.
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