Pretty Pollys or Pests?

By Steve Anderson

You tend to hear them first. Small, faint chirruping that swells into a chaotic chorus of trills, whistles and squawks. And then you see them; bright green missiles careering almost in formation, swooping above the traffic on Chiswick High Road, soaring past joggers on the riverside. They are Ring-Necked Parakeets, found in and around this area for more than 30 years, but now there seem to be more than ever.

The Parakeets usually make two daily appearances in Chiswick – around 8 in the morning and between 4 and 5pm. Many head for the London Plane Tree outside my house. When it was pollarded last week, about 100 landed in a smaller tree nearby. I recorded a video of them, posted it on social media and the response was instant.

‘Send them back where they came from,’ posted one close friend, her language at odds with her noted pro-Remain sentiments.

Well, where do they come from?

The Ring-Necked Parakeet – Psittacula krameri – is a native of a wide expanse of dry tropical countryside stretching from West Africa through India to south of the Himalayas, where it is most commonly found.

So how did they turn up around 6,000 miles away in Chiswick? Opinions differ. Many believe that parakeets escaped from the set of The African Queen when it was filmed at Isleworth Studios in 1951, though the fact that they only became evident in recent years tends to undermine that theory.

Even more exotically, Jimi Hendrix is supposed to have released a pair of parakeets in Carnaby Street in the 1960s. No-one can confirm this, probably because they were there in the Sixties and can’t remember if it ever happened but hey, it’s a good story.

Images above: photograph by Jon Perry; painting by Romaine Dennistoun

More plausible is the claim that in the Great Storm of 1987, a number of aviaries were wrecked in the Surrey borders. The first mass sightings of the parakeets occurred a few years later.

‘They are taking over’ another friend posted on Twitter…naturally.

Are they? The current estimate is that there are 8,600 mating pairs of parakeets, so at least 17,200 at large and flying around a house near you.

A friend who lives near Richmond Park claims the parakeets ‘have killed all the woodpeckers’. The RSPB doesn’t think it’s that bad yet but is aware of the ‘potential impact on native bird species such as woodpeckers, starlings and nuthatches, through competition for nest holes.’

The RSPB ‘is not in favour of a cull of parakeets at this time’ (my emphasis) but wants them watched in case too many of them cause too much harm to native birds.

‘Jeez,’ posts another friend, ‘what do they eat this time of year?’

Back to the RSPB. “Despite their tropical origin, parakeets are able to cope with the cold British winters, especially in suburban parks, large gardens, and orchards, where food supply is more reliable. They feed on a wide variety of fruit, berries, nuts, seeds, grain and household scraps. Parakeets are colourful and frequent visitors to bird tables and garden feeders, particularly during the winter months.”

Follow Steve at @steve1anderson on Twitter (yes, he’s aware), and go here if you want to read more about parakeets.