The parks and skies of London are home to thousands of ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri). Famed for their notorious squawk and brightly-coloured feathers, these tropical birds may look alien to visitors, but to locals they have become familiar neighbours.
They are an invasive species that originate from hot climates in South Asia, with DNA tests confirming most of the U.K.’s population derives from Pakistan and India. As the U.K. continues to be swept with warmer temperatures, their numbers in the wild are set to increase further; but how did they get here, and why are there so many of them?
The Myths Surrounding London’s Parakeets
Theories have long circulated of how the parakeet first came to be introduced; from film sets to Jimi Hendrix, the myths surrounding these birds have interested people for decades and baffled the public and ornithologists alike. With no real concrete evidence or research being accepted until December 2019.
A popular theory that quickly gained momentum at the time was that a series of parakeets escaped from the set of The African Queen in 1951, which was being filmed in Ealing, West London.
Others believed that the Great Storm of 1987 was responsible. Aviaries were completely destroyed as the storm engulfed the country, allowing birds to flee in large numbers, many of which were not native to Britain.
After debris from a plane ripped through its roof in the 1970s, the aviary at Syon Park in London was damaged, leaving their flock of parakeets to flee. However, the damaged aviary theories were later called into question as it is common for aviaries to house more than one species of exotic bird, yet only the wild parakeet seems to prosper.
Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix was also not exempt from blame. As the story goes he released a pair, supposedly named Adam and Eve, on Carnaby Street in the 1960s. Their numbers increased drastically in the 1970s, with the dates aligning many believed that the pair Hendrix set free continued to breed until a healthy population of parakeets was eventually established.
This is a speculation that Hendrix’s sister contests, she told CoventryLive: "Did he set free a pair of ring-necked parakeets in London? If he were alive today, I think he would say, 'You can't believe everything you see and hear, can you?'”.
The 2019 Study
All have since been relieved of their blame, as a study published in 2019 highlighted that the truth behind the parakeets’ blossoming numbers is slightly more complicated and slightly less riveting than the urban legends still spoken of today.
The study printed in the Journal of Zoology explored the origins of the parakeet in the U.K., and used “geographical profiling to analyse the spatial patterns of the ring-necked parakeet, from the first detailed records in the 1960s to the 21st century”.
Researchers found virtually no evidence that solely supported any of the mentioned theories. Their arrival into the wild and their increasing populations are instead due to both a series of purposeful and accidental pet releases, not a single event. They also managed to trace an isolated sighting of the ring-necked parakeet back to Norfolk in 1855, so it is clear small flocks existed long before The African Queen was filmed, and Hendrix was on Carnaby Street.
Setting Them Free
Outbreaks of psittacosis, otherwise known as parrot fever, in 1931 and 1952, coupled with a plethora of exaggerated newspaper headlines intended to scaremonger the nation, led Britain into a mass release of captive birds. The Daily Herald reported in 1952 that we must: “Stop Imports of Danger Parrots”.
Many of the birds released were beloved family pets, as it has been established that the birds did not make their way to the U.K. willingly, but rather through the exotic pet trade, which was rife in the early to the mid-20th century.
As Sarah Cox, who was involved in the research said: “It is easy to imagine these headlines leading to a swift release of pets. If you were told you were at risk being near one, it would be much easier to let it out the window than to destroy it.”
As of now, the wild ring-necked parakeet is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act; however, conservationists across the U.K. are continuing to monitor their presence in case they do become an issue for native British wildlife in the future.
Dr. Hazel Jackson, a parakeet expert, said: “They have been here for around 50-plus years now and there are no obvious and significant impacts to UK wildlife reported so far. Many feel they have found their own niche here.”
If you find yourself in London and want to witness the parakeets in all their green glory, visit Kensington Gardens. The exotic birds have learned to co-exist with the bustling city crowds, so it is not uncommon to witness them taking food directly from hands.
Edited by: Kavya
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