If you take a stroll on a summer’s day through any of London’s many parks and green spaces, you will probably enjoy checking out the local wildlife and watching the local native bird population thriving and going about their daily lives. However, if you happen to find yourself in Central London, Kingston Upon Thames, Richmond, Twickenham, or some areas of South London such as Catford and parts of Battersea, you may find yourself face to face with a totally different species of bird entirely! It comes as a surprise to most people who are not local to London to learn that London plays host to several large and thriving colonies of feral parrots, which can easily be seen and heard in several areas of the city, particularly during the summer months. But how did these wild and exotic birds end up living in the parks and green spaces of London, how have they survived, and where did they come from? Read on to find out more!
While there are a couple of different species of parrots living wild in pockets of land across the city, the largest colonies of most commonly seen wild London parrots are feral rose-ringed parakeets. These birds are a prolific Afro-Asian species, easily identifiable by their bright green colouration and, on the male of the species, distinctive red ring around the neck. A mature adult bird stands around 40cm tall, including the tail feathers, and they have a loud and piercing squawking call. Rose-ringed parakeets are popular as pets, and like many parrots, can be trained to mimic human speech. Monk parakeets are another species that is growing exponentially in amongst the native wildlife of London, being similar in appearance to the rose-ringed parakeet but with a white chest and slightly sturdier build. Parakeets build large nests, often forming several feet across, and live mainly in trees and high bushes.
There is some debate as to how non-native parrots came to settle and reproduce in significant enough numbers to form entire colonies within the city, and the total number of wild rose-ringed parakeets living in London is now estimated to be well over 6,000 individual birds. Parrot colonies have only resided in London in significant numbers since the 1990’s, and various theories have been put forward to explain their presence. It is generally accepted that just one single breeding pair of rose-ringed parakeets being released into the wild could have formed the basis of the existing London parakeet colonies. It has also been suggested that a flock of the birds escaped from London’s Ealing studios during filming, that a container of the birds fell open at Heathrow airport, and that a large aviary collapsed during the storms of 1987, releasing a significant number of the birds into the surrounding area. The exact origins of monk parakeet colonies in London and the Home Counties are less widely conjectured, although again, just one single breeding pair could have been enough to form the basis of the wild monk parakeet population that is now some 200 birds strong!
Particularly long, cold winters tend to have a natural culling effect on the wild parrot populations of London, although for birds of tropical origins, they are surprisingly hardy and generally quite capable of weathering the British cold. Wild parrots eat berries, seeds, nuts, buds, vegetables and fruit, and are often credited with decimating entire orchards and gardens within just a few weeks. Many gardeners and fans of native wildlife are unhappy with the presence of these undoubtedly beautiful and striking birds, due to the effect they have on the natural ecosystem and native bird population of the area.
Deliberately or accidentally introducing a non-native species such as parakeets into the existing ecosystem of an area generally has a negative effect on the existing native species, and the presence of the London parakeets is no exception. The London parakeets are widely accepted to eat plants, fruit and food from bird tables that is provided for native birds, often starving smaller native species out of the area. Rose-ringed parakeets are currently subject to agricultural controls in order to cap their numbers and the effect they have upon the environment, and DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has already announced plans to instigate similar control and culling measures on the monk parakeet population before they too, breed out of control.
You may be lucky enough to spot one or more wild parrots across various parts of London and the Home Counties, and small flocks of parakeets have even been reported as far north as Manchester. The best time of year to go looking for the birds is during the summer months, when they are easily identifiable by their loud and distinctive calls. All of the following areas are ‘parakeet hotspots’ and an afternoon spent in any of these areas should yield a good chance of seeing a feral parrot colony up close.