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Lessons from Nature Episode 3: Parakeets

Anthony Wall

1st December, 2005

An open-air performance of La bohème in a Surrey park. Mimi is dying, her lover is distraught, the audience can hardly breathe for emotion. Puccini’s opera reaches its unbearably poignant climax…

Then, without warning, tragedy descends into unscripted farce. A gang of yobs bursts on to the scene – rowdy, irreverent, wrecking the atmosphere. No, not teenagers – parakeets. Ringnecked parakeets, a huge, boisterous flock of them.
 
These flashy immigrants, once rare, are increasingly common in parts of South East England. They number tens of thousands. Green plumage, red beak, long tail, strident voice… the birds make an instant impression on all who see and hear them. Many enjoy their acrobatic clowning in town trees and gardens and welcome them as a colourful distraction from dreary grey winters.
 
But the parakeets are not universally loved. Indeed, some people would happily throttle them. One such is Mark Ebdon, estate manager at Painshill Park, setting of that interrupted opera. He can forgive the birds’ bad manners, but not their destructive ways.
 
‘They’ve been raiding our vineyard for the grapes. Painshill produces award-winning wine – up to 5,000 bottles a year, but this may fall to 500 bottles when the parakeets get busy. They seem immune to scarecrows, things that go bang, and other deterrents.’
 
At nearby Garsons farm, Bob Thompson also dreams of wreaking revenge on marauding parakeets that regularly plunder his apple orchards.

‘They don’t really eat the fruit, just peck it two or three times – enough to make it unsaleable. It’s too expensive to cover the trees with nets, and you can’t insure against bird damage. Something’s got to be done…’
 
Supremely adaptable, ring-necked (or roseringed) parakeets exploit every opportunity – including human help, which has enabled them to spread to 35 countries throughout Europe and the Middle East. Urban and suburban life suits them particularly well; there are thriving settlements in London, Amsterdam, Istanbul, and Cairo.
 
Far from their native haunts (India and central Africa), parakeets made their British debut as long ago as 1855 when a breeding pair was recorded in Norfolk. The birds came and went, an exotic aberration. Or so it seemed until, in the 1970s, ring-necked parakeets staged a startling return. By 2003, the population had topped 10,000. Today, it is rising by 30 per cent a year. Myths abound as to how they arrived and set up home here. Take your pick: they were released by a film company… broke out of airport quarantine… became bedraggled castaways from a capsized ship in the River Thames… the list goes on.

Perhaps, more mundanely, they were escaped pets.
 
Dr Chris Butler, of Oxford University Zoology Department, has been following the parakeets’ progress with some awe. ‘There’s a touch of the pirate about them, though, resourceful, unstoppable. In theory, if all other circumstances were favourable, these birds could hit the one billion mark by 2051.’
 
They are early and prolific breeders, live a long time (up to 34 years in captivity) and appear to have no natural predators here. Sparrowhawks trying to catch them will fail – and may even experience united retaliation. ‘Harmless’ herons are also likely to be mobbed by parakeets, which react pugnaciously to any potential enemy or rival.
 
Generally speaking, ornithologists show little enthusiasm for the pushy incomers, seen as a threat to other birds. A parakeet is more than capable of ousting a woodpecker, say, from its nest hole. And several observers claim that such evictions – plus possible competition for food – are causing declines in certain UK species.
 
In India and Africa, farmers dread the flocks that ravage rice and maize crops. Is British agriculture equally at risk? Not on the same scale, but ‘our’ parakeets have a growing appetite for apples, pears, grapes, barley, cherries, plums, raspberries and strawberries.
 
How to counteract the birds?
‘Shoot them.’ James Hodge, of the National Farmers’ Union, advocates radical action should ring-necked parakeets threaten to swamp the countryside. He can point to a precedent: in 1953, a colony of monk parakeets was exterminated in Bedfordshire after spoiling many tons of apples.

Oxford University’s Chris Butler says that, even if we want to, it’s probably too late to displace the invaders. ‘The time for that was when they were in their hundreds, not thousands, let alone tens of thousands. Heavy, regular culling would be needed to keep the population from continuing to soar.’
 
City-dwellers may succumb to the parakeets’ cheeky charm. Quite understandable. But most conservationists take a tougher view and stress the dangers of sentimentality. After all, wouldn’t it have been better to curb and control the alien grey squirrel while we had the chance…?

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2005

 

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