The Victorians loved their caged birds and ring-necked, or rose-ringed parakeets were a special favourite, their emerald green plumage and pink bills adding a touch of exotic tropical glamour to drawing-room or aviary. How astonished the eternally slumbering caged-bird fanciers of Nunhead Cemetery would be today if they could awake to hear the screeches of the many parakeets who’ve now colonised this once peaceful spot and whose numbers have placed them among the 20 most sighted birds in London.*
People first began spotting psittacula krameri in south-east England 40 years ago - surprising sightings for a species whose natural ranges were in central Africa and southern Asia. Some folk speculated that perhaps an imported air freight assignment had somehow gone astray from Heathrow. Others fantasised that staff at Shepperton Studios had inadvertently lost some avian “extras” while The African Queen was being shot there.
Instead, it seems that the old criteria of adaptability (that could take advantage of an ecological niche when it showed up), good parenting, high intelligence, physical toughness, plus a reliable food source lie behind this “foreign invasion.” Population estimates for ring-necked parakeets predict that their numbers will be up to 5,000 breeding pairs by next year. “The population is growing at around 30 per cent each year,” says Kate Risely of The British Trust for Ornithology, an independent scientific research trust that investigates the numbers, movements and ecology of all wild birds in the British Isles. “ Since our Breeding Birds Survey began in 1994, there’s been a 450 per cent rise - and the graph is getting steeper and steeper…”
The birds’ core population (probably a mix of caged escapees and deliberate releases) occupied just four ten kilometre squares in Surrey and the Isle of Thanet, east Kent. Then Greater London began to see more and more parakeets. They’ve now been recorded in all counties in England and have reached Wales and the Scottish borders. Cold winters don’t deter them unduly (these birds live in colonies and shelter from the elements inside tree trunk hollows). Their “natural” habitat traditionally includes the foothills of the Himalayas. And, although their diet includes fruits (which can make them a pest to commercial growers), berries, nuts and seeds, the UK parakeets are omnivorous and will take any kinds of scraps from bird tables and feeders, including meat.
Suburban gardens stocked with bird-feeders - especially those nearest their nesting sites - are ideal larders for them, as many Dulwich householders living near the boundaries of Dulwich Park will attest.
The RSPB reckon the rise and rise of parakeet numbers is a natural result of natural population growth. Parakeets are highly successful at protecting and rearing their young to maturity. One major reason for this is that they get a very early start, beginning nesting activity in January, long before most of our usual hole-nesters (starlings, woodpeckers, tree-creepers) are thinking about sorting out a nursery. “If a starling shows up at a suitable tree cavity in Spring and finds something small and meek already sitting inside, they would probably try to evict it,” says Kate Risely. “But parakeets are bigger than the other birds and probably more aggressive.” They don’t just get in first, they continue to nest-prepare and egg-lay through to June.
It’s believed that parakeets’ preparation of a nest deep within the cavity of a hollow tree trunk, ready to receive the female’s two to four eggs - is aimed at deterring snake egg-snatching and attacks on the young in their native habitats, the distance from the entrance hole being sufficiently far to deter the intruder and prevent a surprise sneak entry.
But the fear that such nesting timing and efficiency may mean parakeets are out-competing “native” UK species (although which starlings are resident and which are migrants further clouds the issue somewhat) worries many wildlife watchers and bird-lovers. There have been reports on the Continent, where suburban and urban parakeet populations are also high (3,200 in Amsterdam alone) that they are having an adverse effect on other birds. It should be noted, however, that in Dulwich Park, starlings and parakeets have been sharing the same tree in recent years - using opposite sides of the trunk, the entrance holes at slightly different heights.
The forthcoming UK Bird Atlas project, due to be completed in 2011, may give us a clearer picture of what is going on. Meanwhile, although it is still against the law to release (an “alien” species) parakeet or allow one to escape from its cage, those that are here already are officially “the UK’s only naturalised parrot” and, as such, have the full protection in the wild of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
* (RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch).
Angela Wilkes, Chair, Wildlife Committee
(Wildlife Rescue, by Angela Wilkes, is published by Broadcast Books, £15.95)