One morning at the tail end of the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown in June 2020, Joe Eckersley was startled by a screech from above while on his walk to work in Leeds, a former industrial city in northern England. He looked up and did a double take: Sitting in a tree was a ring-necked parakeet, its bright green feathers blending into the early summer foliage. Eckersley, an enthusiastic birdwatcher, ran straight back home to grab his camera.
Ring-necked parakeets are native to parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but more than 30,000 of the birds now live in Britain. While they were initially found primarily in London, recently they have been turning up in further north in cities like Leeds. Photo of a parakeet in Leeds by Joe Eckersley.
More of the parakeets soon started popping up and, over the coming months, Eckersley trekked to the local park where they had settled almost every other day, joined by a growing group of fellow enthusiasts. “Every couple of weeks, the numbers just started doubling,” he says, still audibly thrilled three years later. “When it got towards November, we were up to 18 parakeets in the park. Then they started roosting.”
Ring-necked or rose-ringed parakeets — named for the pink and black ring that frames the head of male birds — are native to parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. They have long colonized cities across Europe, from Amsterdam to Barcelona, but the largest population by far can be found in Britain: Estimates now put the number of breeding parakeets in the country well above 30,000, a more than twentyfold increase since the mid-1990s. “They’re doing exceptionally well outside of their native range. They’re all over the place,” says Hazel Jackson, who wrote her PhD on the genetics of ring-necked parakeets and found that most of Britain’s parakeets can trace their origin to Pakistan and northern India.
Urban legends about how they arrived in Britain have long proliferated. Some maintain that Jimi Hendrix released a pair on London’s Carnaby Street when the surrounding neighborhood was the epicenter of the Swinging Sixties. Other rumors tell of a flock escaping from the set of The African Queen, a 1951 adventure flick starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, or from an aviary damaged by falling aircraft debris.
The truth is likely less sensational: Researchers have recently used spatial analysis and old newspaper records to show that the UK population was probably the result of repeated releases dating all the way back to the Victorians, who loved keeping parakeets as pets. As early as 1886, The Essex Herald, a local newspaper, reported a breeding pair with five young living “on familiar terms” with sparrows in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a west London park. In the 1930s and 50s, newspapers widely reported on outbreaks of psittacosis, an infectious disease spread by birds, which may have led many owners to set their pets free.
All of this likely explains how the birds became a familiar sight throughout London’s parks and gardens, and slowly spread into surrounding areas of southeast England. But after staying relatively local for decades, the birds have started populating the rest of the country in recent years — turning up in Leeds and other cities further north, from Norwich to Newcastle. “We’re starting to see new populations further afield,” says David Noble, the principal ecologist for monitoring at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).
Although some breeding populations, like one in Glasgow, Scotland, are believed to stem from local releases, Noble suspects that some of the London colonies have grown so large that small groups are indeed splintering off to settle elsewhere. Milder winters due to human-caused climate change probably mean they can survive farther north as well. Wherever they move, parakeets tend to stick to cities and suburban areas, where they can find abundant food and shelter, anyway. “They’re going where the people are, in some ways,” Noble says.
That has brought its own problems, since not everyone is a fan of the birds’ shrill squawks and their fondness for garden feeders and fruit trees. Some people worry they could start causing more significant damage, too. Researchers have documented parakeets taking over nest holes from native nuthatches in Belgium and displacing bat species in Spain. (On occasion, the parakeets have run into problems of their own: During the first Covid-19 lockdown, London’s peregrine falcons hunted parakeets in larger numbers to make up for a decrease in pigeons, which had migrated out to the suburbs when food scraps became scarce in the city center.)
Even in the birding community, many see the non-native parrots as unwelcome intruders — with some refusing to even document sightings of the birds. The BTO’s database relies in part on birders and other nature enthusiasts to send in detailed observation records.
“They think, ‘they shouldn’t be here, we don’t count them,’” says Alan Swain, a 68-year-old birdwatcher from North Yorkshire, not far from Leeds. Swain started birding in the 1970s and, after running his own business and raising a family, picked up the hobby again in retirement. He remembers marvelling at the parakeets on holidays to Spain but never seeing them back home. So he was delighted when they turned up in Leeds over lockdown and now regularly travels there to get his “year tick” — crossing the species off the annual field list that is every serious birder’s bible. Still, he compares parakeets to Marmite, the love-it-or-hate-it British yeast spread. “They just don’t float certain people’s boats.”
What’s certain is they’re here to stay. While the more disruptive monk parakeet has been culled to near-extinction in the UK, its ring-necked cousin is now so plentiful that few believe it could ever be controlled. “That ship has sailed,” says Noble. “They’re here and there’s not much we can do about it.” Notwithstanding regular tabloid stories about an imminent cull, Noble also notes that killing parakeets en masse would be “terrible PR” for the government.
The Leeds parakeets, meanwhile, have continued expanding their range. Eckersley is pretty sure the birds were not local escapees, but migrated here; some had recently born young with them and none showed any obvious signs of domestication. He has kept track of them via a local WhatsApp group, where people regularly report new sightings on their streets and in their gardens. This past winter, some two dozen birds were once again roosting near a cafe car park abutting the local lake. While Eckersley understands why people consider them a nuisance and potentially even a threat, he can’t help but enjoy their presence. “They’re exotic, they’re pretty,” he says. “For me, they’re just lovely birds.”
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