The African Parakeets Ruling Britannia – Forbes Africa


Breaking the mundanity of everyday urban living in London are the vibrant ring-necked parakeets, a species indigenous to Africa and with a squawky story.
BYALASTAIR HAGGER
LONDON, AT ANY TIME OF YEAR, CAN BE stubbornly, oppressively grey; it is not unusual to wonder, after weeks of overcast skies, what grudge the sun holds against this part of our world. So when an explosion of lime green flies chattering across a city park, or alights on a street wall, or settles on a telephone line, it can stop the most city-hardened Londoner in their tracks, and bring unexpected joy to the mundanity of everyday urban living.
These bursts of sound and color are flocks of ring- necked parakeets, a species indigenous to Africa and the Indian subcontinent but that has now taken up permanent residence in these far cooler and less sun- kissed climes. As strangely incongruent as they are aesthetically irresistible, the birds have also spawned a variety of enduring and eclectic urban myths about how they even arrived in the British Isles in the first place.
“In 2016, we estimated there were 12,000 pairs in the UK,” says David Noble, Head & Principal Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology.
“And that’s growing every year. We have surveys done on 4,000 sites across the UK every year; we’ve
had a good index since about 1995, and we know the population has increased about 20 times over that period. They’re in London, Cardiff, Sheffield, Manchester… as far as Edinburgh.”
The species is hardy and resourceful, and prefers to tough out the winters in urban United Kingdom (UK) centers rather than migrating to southern Europe or the hotter ecosystems of their homeland.
“There are a lot of good reasons why they like cities, apart from the microclimate,” he says. “In urban places, people feed birds, and they really exploit that resource.” They can be seen on bird tables across the country, competing with indigenous species for seeds and fruit, and their preference for nesting in tree hollows make them regular visitors to city parks, where they often enjoy the patronage of a cooing human fan base and its tasty proffered treats. Noble says the birds will even kill competing tree-dwellers, such as squirrels, but can also be easy pickings for European birds of prey such as sparrow hawks and goshawks.
So which bird was the ‘parakeet zero’ of this UK invasion? In 2019, a team of researchers from Queen Mary University, University College London (UCL), and Goldsmiths University of London undertook a spatial analysis to trace the journey of these vibrant visitors, using a methodology usually reserved for catching a human killer.
“The original idea came from a colleague of mine, the late Steven Le Comber at Queen Mary University, who was an expert on this method called geographic profiling,” says Tim Blackburn, Professor of Invasion Biology at UCL.
“It was originally developed in criminology to try and catch serial offenders. One thing you can do is use the locations of crimes to try and work out where the offender is traveling from. That gives you a likely source. In the UK we have an organization called the National Biodiversity Network, and they collate systematic records from the public about the occurrence of these birds, going back 50 years, that we can mine from.”
This geoprofile of more than 5,000 unique records showed that Britain’s parakeet population was the result of intentional releases of pets in the late 1920s and early 1950s. “Keeping birds as pets was a pretty widespread hobby – more people were keeping birds as pets at that time than had cats or dogs,” he says.
The dates coincide with outbreaks of the ‘parrot fever’ psittacosis, which can lead to pneumonia in an infected human host. While the
1929-1930 outbreak affected less than 800 people worldwide, the media ran with the story – and encouraged parakeet owners to run their beloved pets out of town. The parakeets thrived on their freedom, and the rest is history.
But history loves a squawkier narrative, and so the 2019 academic study also interrogated the more romantic urban myths surrounding the parakeet’s enduring presence in the UK – including the belief that the birds were released into the London skies by American musician Jimi Hendrix, or escaped from the set of The African Queen during filming at Ealing Studios.
“As a south Londoner, I’ve also heard a rumour that a pair escaped during a row between George Michael and Boy George at a flat they shared,” says Sarah Elizabeth Cox, Press Officer at Goldsmiths, who assisted with the study.
“Essentially with this research paper we just wanted to spoil peoples’ fun! My work in the British Newspaper Archive did not uncover any evidence to support these origin myths. The maps Steven’s team created supported the theory that the birds’ establishment in Britain is more likely to be a consequence of repeated releases and introductions in different times and places.”
Though the parakeets’ story is much less strange than fiction, there is a perhaps an appropriately heartwarming ‘truth’ at its core. “If you or your child were a keeper of exotic birds, and kept reading stories about how being near them might put you at risk of disease and death, what would your natural reaction be?” asks Cox. “Kill a much-loved pet – or let it out the window?”
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