Jonn Elledge: Where do London’s noisy green parakeets come from?

Jonn Elledge: Where do London’s noisy green parakeets come from?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Jonn Elledge is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter. Photo of parakeet outside its nest on Hampstead Heath by James Ó Nuanáin (Creative Commons).

OnLondon.co.uk provides in-depth coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources, plus special offers and free entry to events. Click here to donate directly or contact davehillonlondon@gmail.com for bank account details.

Categories: Culture

12 Comments

    1. Peter says:

      Yes Andy, ring necked parakeets, as John Elledge identifies in his third paragraph.

      I’m sitting in our garden in Guildford in early September and for days now there have been flocks of these birds noisily flying overhead, mainly south east to north. I agree with Toby Coulson’s comment comparing their ‘invasion’ to that of the grey squirrel and am concerned for our native bird life. Locally, out of London, I’m aware that they have settled along the Thames near Hampton Court and in Windsor’s Great Park, judging by the squawking.

  1. Philip Virgo says:

    One flock appears to have moved from West Norwood Cemetery to Brockwell Park now that the Peregrine Falcons have returned to St Lukes. Perhaps nature will provide the “solution”.

    1. Harley says:

      They’re definitely still present around West Norwood Cemetery, and all over the general area. There aren’t quite enough Peregrines around to force an exodus yet. Even the pigeons have taken to braving the streets today, to my surprise.

  2. Craig Sheridan says:

    Had them here in wedesbury December over Xmas I posted video about them breeding like mad in sandwell I’ve got videos of them close up been watching these birds for over 3 year s now in the sandwell area west midlands people didn’t believe me at first until I came across them in December 1000s of them landed in wedesbury WS10 area some are still here want any video s get in touch I posted to ITV central and they put my video up in the Dec

  3. John says:

    Back in the 1970s a friend of mine owned a kennels near Iver Bucks. His father owned the kennels before him and I remember being told that there was once an aviary with parakeets on the site but they had got out ever since then there has been a large flock in the Iver, Little Briton, and Cowley area.

  4. Toby Coulson says:

    They’ve driven out little owls and lesser spotted woodpeckers from near to where I live. They are going to cause the same amount of damage to our local bird life that grey squirrels helped do to our indigenous reds. Just because they’re a vibrant colour does not make them a welcome addition to our natural ecology. They are a invasive species.
    Beware of what you wish for.

  5. Maria says:

    It would be interesting to tell where the species comes from… These birds have invaded the South of Spain and they are taken over the native birds. They are pretty aggressive and territorial. I don’t see the point of an article that only mentions myths and fails to even say the name of the species.

  6. alexandra thrift says:

    My brother has a group of them that hang out in his garden in a village called Coupvray near Disneyland, France. He loves them.

  7. Serena says:

    They are very cute. Humans should be more worried about the damage they are causing to nature and to other humans, rather than being bothered by birds singing.

  8. Rachel says:

    We have a small group who come and join the tits, robins etc who enjoy the 3 feeders I put outside my kitchen window. They seem to usually come later in the day, leaving the coast clear for all the small birds at other times. But I must say that they all seem to get along quite well, the feeders are quite close to one another and it is common to see a parakeet on one and a tit on another.

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