This year, for World Parrot Day and London History Day on 31 May, Leonie Berwick looks into the stories behind one of London’s most surprising species.
Published on 30th May 2022
Sitting in the beer garden of a West London pub, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve had one too many as a flash of acid green darts past—but you’re not seeing things. There really are parakeets living wild in London.
It is always a little comical to see the faces of visitors who were previously unaware of the presence of the UK’s only naturalised parrot, the ring-necked parakeet, or Psittacula krameria. The look of confused wonder is almost as remarkable as the birds themselves.
Parakeets are classed as a medium-sized species of parrot, belonging to the order Psittaciformes. The name ‘parakeet’ itself is believed to stem from the old French ‘paroquet’, or Italian ‘parrocchetto’ meaning ‘little wig’, perhaps referring to the bird’s head plumage.
Native to Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the ring-necked parakeet is also known as the rose-ringed parakeet, due to the pink hue found around the necks of the males. They can grow to 40 cm in length, with a wingspan of up to 45 cm, and have a diet of seeds, fruits and flowers.
Not just the only naturalised parrot in the UK, the British birds are also the most northerly breeding parrot in the world, with females laying clutches of up to four eggs, which they incubate for between 22–24 days. Their success is evident in the jump in population: according to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), there are up to 12,000 breeding pairs in the UK, most of which are located in south-east England. By contrast, about 3,500 breeding pairs were noted in 1997 (Stone et al 1997.) Their geographic range within the UK centres around London and the Home Counties, but has spread as far as Aberdeen to the North, and Devon to the West. The Parrot Society UK states that they’ve become so successful in some areas that they are even included in bird guides.
However, P. krameria is considered an invasive species, having become established in 35 countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Belgium. In their native range, they are seen as a major crop pest. In their invasive range they are fierce competitors with native birds and other animals for nesting sites, such as European nuthatches (Sitta europaea) in Belgium (Strubbe & Mattheysen 2009), and bats in Spain (Hernández-Brito et al 2018). They are also incredibly loud, and in the case of London, add to the noise pollution of an already noisy city. In 2021, Madrid planned a cull of 11,000 ring-necked parakeets to deal with, amongst other things, the pressure on native bird species, and a government source revealed to The Telegraph in January of that same year that Defra was considering a cull in the UK. Currently, P. krameria is protected by the UK’s The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Yet there are also some positives to this invasive species, besides the colour they bring to a grey day in London. By enlarging the nesting holes they use, P. krameria create improved living space for subsequent species like stock doves (Columba oenas, Czajka et al 2011), and the presence of these parakeets can also offer a level of protection for smaller birds nesting nearby (Hernández-Brito et al 2014).
A little London mythology
A tell-tale screech signals the arrival of a parakeet, often louder than many native species you’ll find in the London area. But why are they here? Various stories have snowballed over the years; I remember arriving in London and being told that they were the result of a plane crashing into an aviary at Syon Park in Isleworth. Yet, there are a number of myths that have become lodged in the public consciousness. Nick Hunt covers several in his book The Parakeeting of London: An adventure in gonzo ornithology (2019), including a far-fetched tale that centres around a burglary-gone-wrong at the Hampstead home of the late singer George Michael, but the most-commonly circulated are outlined here.
Was the famed Tudor monarch Henry VIII responsible? Rumour has it that ring-necked parakeets escaped from his menagerie at Hampton Court and bred in the wild. Perhaps this tale might be an amalgamation of the real story of Henry VIII possessing an African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) and the existence of a more famous menagerie by another Henry—Henry I, whose Royal Menagerie was established at the Tower of London in around 1235. (Henry VIII image by an unknown artist, oil on panel, perhaps early 17th century, based on a work c. 1542. NPG 496 © National Portrait Gallery, London.)
'The African Queen'
Is the parakeet boom the fault of Hollywood legends Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn? Since the 1950s, rumours have abounded that during the filming of Bogart and Hepburn’s The African Queen (1951) at Shepperton Studios, ring-necked parakeets brought in to dress the set escaped and successfully started breeding. (As a side note, the movie was not filmed at Shepperton, but at Worton Hall Studios in Isleworth.) Shown here is the 1952 US release poster for The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. (Wikipedia)
The story goes that Jimi Hendrix, god of guitar and psychedelia, released a pair of ring-necked parakeets on London’s Carnaby Street, a short walk from his 1968–1969 home on Brook Street in Mayfair (now a museum to both Hendrix and composer George Frideric Handel), and the parakeet pair went on to colonise most of London and the South East. The tale is very likely apocryphal, with no evidence of this ever happening. In Hunt’s words, Hendrix was also a ‘noisy, brightly-plumaged foreigner who made London his home’. Jokingly, Hendrix was cleared of all blame in 2019 by the BBC. This 1968 promotional image of The Jimi Hendrix Experience was taken when Hendrix was living in London. (Wikipedia)
A more methodical explanation
While some still consider the story of The African Queen to be the most reasonable, it’s likely that none of these tales really hold water. Accounts of the first parakeets spotted living wild in the UK are from around the 1860s, according to a study by a team at UCL. Using geographic profiling (more commonly used in criminal cases), the researchers found that analysis of spatial patterns, utilising official records from the late-1960s onwards and hits within the British Newspaper Archive, did not back up any of the aforementioned myths.
What they also found was that the stories relating to Hendrix and The African Queen did not start gaining traction in the UK press until as late as 2005. The study does reveal, however, that descriptions of escaped birds are more prevalent from the 1800s into the 20th century, with The Essex Herald reporting on one breeding pair living ‘on familiar terms’ with sparrows in Lincolns Inn Fields, London in July 1886. The Middlesex County Times reported more sightings in Loughton Cemetery and Epping Forest in 1932 (Heald et al 2020). Two ‘parrot disease’ scares, in the 1930s and 1950s respectively, claimed that psittacosis was affecting parrots and owners alike, and probably resulted in many deliberate releases of pet parakeets into the wild (the latter tidily fitting in with the timing of The African Queen).
Another study overseen by researchers at the University of Kent tested the DNA of museum specimens (the ‘native range’) and samples from live birds across Europe, Mauritius and the Seychelles (the ‘invasive range’) in order to determine the origin of the current invaders. Using DNA samples and data taken from the CITES Trade Database between 1975–2007, they found that 75% of all P. krameria imported to Europe via the bird trade were Asian in origin. Unusually though, the UK imported more ring-necked parakeets from Africa than other European countries, but this does not show up in their nuclear and mitochondrial DNA (Jackson et al 2015). Success in countries with divergent climates was also apparent, with birds imported from differing areas in their native range being more likely to thrive in a similar climate i.e. those from a more northerly native range succeeded in the UK and Germany, with the more southerly succeeding in Spain, etc. (Jackson et al 2015). In general though, as warm-blooded animals they are more likely to be able to adapt to areas cooler than their native range than to those that are warmer. According to Jackson et al, the success of an invasive species is likely due to ‘environmental and anthropogenic influences’. This seems to be supported by many of the studies so far.
Whether you see them as an appealing addition or an environmental nuisance, what is very evident is the fact that these small, unusual ‘invaders’ have stirred the imaginations of all who see them, with Hollywood stars, rock giants and infamous monarchs becoming supporting players in their story.
Leonie Berwick, Publications Manager
Many thanks to my colleagues Padma Ghosh for the book, and to Isabelle Charmantier for helpful comments.
Czajka C., Braun M. P. & Wink M. (2011). Resource use by non-native ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri) and native starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in central Europe. The Open Ornithology Journal 4: 17–22. http://dx.doi.org/10.2174/1874453201104010017
Heald O. J. N., Fraticelli C., Cox S. E., Stevens M. C. A., Faulkner S. C., Blackburn T. M. & Le Comber S.C. (2020). Understanding the origins of the ring-necked parakeet in the UK. Journal of Zoology 312: 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1111/jzo.12753
Hernández-Brito D., Luna Á., Carrete M. & Tella J. L. (2014). Alien rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) attack black rats (Rattus rattus) sometimes resulting in death. Hystrix 25: 121–123. https://doi.org/10.4404/hystrix-25.2-10992
Hernández-Brito D., Carrete M., Ibáñez C., Juste J. & Tella J. L. (2018). Nest-site competition and killing by invasive parakeets cause the decline of a threatened bat population. Royal Society Open Science 5: 172477. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.172477
Hunt, N. & Mitchell, T. (2019). The Parakeeting of London: An adventure in gonzo ornithology. Paradise Road.
Jackson H., Strubbe D., Tollington S., Prys-Jones R., Matthysen E., & Groombridge J. J. (2015). Ancestral origins and invasion pathways in a globally invasive bird correlate with climate and influences from bird trade. Molecular Ecology 24(16): 4269–4285. https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.13307
Jones, A. K. (2020). Free-Living Parakeets: A success story? https://theparrotsocietyuk.org/site/index.php/parrot-information/articles/articles-on-parrot-species/ring-necked-parakeets/ Accessed: 29/05/22
Stone B. H., Sears J., Cranswick P. A., Gregory R. D., Gibbons D. W., Rehfisch M. M., Aebischer N. J. & Reid J. B. (1997). Population estimates of birds in Britain and in the United Kingdom. British Birds 90: 1–22.
Strubbe D. & Mattheysen E. (2009). Experimental evidence for nest-site competition between invasive ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri) and native nuthatches (Sitta europaea). Biological Conservation 142: 1588–1594. 10.1016/j.biocon.2009.02.026