Ringnecks over Ramsgate: where did Britain’s parrots come from?

It has been suggested some escaped from Shepperton Studios during the filming of The African Queen in 1951.

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There are rumours, says Hazel Jackson, that the ring-necked parakeets near the railway station have been gassed. In any case, she says, we’ll have more luck glimpsing them in the park: the woods here are a perfect habitat for the birds, which nest almost exclusively in tree holes. That doesn’t make them any easier to spot, even at midday. With light-green feathers, red beaks and round eyes, the parrots disappear when they fly into the oaken canopy above.

“That’s them!” whispers Jackson, as we look up in the direction of a squawk. An evolutionary biologist at the University of Kent, Hazel Jackson is a member of ParrotNet, a European forum for researchers investigating the spread and behaviour of ring-necked parakeets. For many years, she has been visiting King George VI Park in Ramsgate to observe the birds in the wild.

The ring-necked parakeet is described by the RSPB as the UK’s only naturalised parrot, of which there are estimated to be as many as 32,000 clustered mainly in the south-east of England. They can also be seen in city parks across Europe, from Paris to Helsinki, idly munching on leaves and fruits.

They have so completely dominated these patches of urban greenery, however, that colonies are beginning to spread into the countryside, where local authorities are increasingly concerned at how these invasive birds can strip gardens bare and also drive away native bird populations such as nuthatches and woodpeckers.

How the ring-necked parakeet first came to Europe remains unclear. Native to sub-Saharan Africa and the foothills of the Himalayas, they began to be noticed in parks and suburban gardens in the 1960s. It has been suggested that some ringnecks escaped from Shepperton Studios during the filming of The African Queen in 1951 and that the rocker Jimi Hendrix released a breeding pair in the late 1960s.

“That’s my favourite one,” says Jackson. “He [Hendrix] released two birds in Carnaby Street to inject psychedelic colour into the streets of London. Love it.”

More likely is that there have been multiple introductions. Ringnecks are notoriously noisy – their dawn chorus could be compared to a symphony of squeaky dog toys – and it isn’t unreasonable to think that owners would release them. Others may have escaped from homes, in transit, or from storm-damaged aviaries.

The birds’ wide appetites – they can eat plants, flowers and berries that are toxic to other species – have made them unwelcome visitors to some gardens. “I’ve had people call me and say, ‘How do I attract parakeets to my garden? How do I get them to come and [sit] on my bird feeders?’” says Jackson. “And then six months later they’ll contact me and say, ‘How do I get rid of these parrots?’”

In parts of India, ringnecks are regarded as an agricultural pest, and similar attitudes are beginning to form among farmers in southern Europe. An unpublished  study conducted outside Seville in Spain showed that the birds could wipe out 10 per cent of a sunflower crop. But in northern Europe, where fewer fruits and flowers are grown commercially, incidents of crop damage have remained largely anecdotal.

Why, then, do they need to be controlled in Britain?

ParrotNet’s vice-chair, Diederik Strubbe, explains that while it can take a long time for ringnecks to establish a sizeable colony, once they do, management becomes almost impossible. Even small populations are difficult to remove, as the birds are often intelligent enough to avoid the usual traps laid by pest-control teams. “I would tell the policymaker that if he wants to do something, now is the moment,” says Strubbe.

Then there’s the question of how global warming might affect their further spread. “Climate change is not only going to change the climate itself, but may also have [an] impact on which type of crops we grow,” Strubbe told me. There have already been sporadic accounts of ringnecks dive-bombing vineyards in the North Downs. A warming climate could result in more of the same, as farmers adapt to rising temperatures.

ParrotNet’s members are finalising a policy brief for the UK government that pulls together all its recent research about ring-necked parakeets. The recommendations will include further public education about the birds, stricter regulations on their import and release, and measures to arrest their spread. Factors that could decide the removal of new colonies in the UK include close proximity to crops they could feed on, or nesting in places that act as staging areas from where they could wreak havoc on gardens and farms.

ParrotNet prefers to leave specific control methods up to policymakers. Yet, in cases where preserving native bird species is a priority, capture and removal of parakeets may not be required: in Spain, where the arrival of ringnecks has threatened the population of the greater noctule bat, there are proposals to instal special nest boxes that are inaccessible to the parakeets. These measures could be complemented by new rules that regulate further import of the birds as pets. There are also signs that nature might be instituting its own controls in Britain, with peregrines taking a liking to parrot meat.

In extreme cases, such as if a colony of ringnecks presents a serious threat to crops or the conservation of a native species, shooting is also an option (gassing, it turns out, is almost never practised). Nevertheless, ParrotNet does not endorse a nationwide cull, as several readers of a recent Guardian article quoting Hazel Jackson about the organisation’s preliminary recommendations assumed when they sent her hate mail. “There is nothing like that planned for the UK,” she says. “We’re just interested in learning about them and about how and why they do so well.”

By this point in the conversation, we have seen and heard a couple of ringnecks swooping and soaring above. It is only after we part that I see not one but three parakeets flying in formation towards Ellington Park, close to the railway station. 

This article appears in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder