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It's hard to miss acid-green arrows screaming through a grey British sky. Ear-splitting and eye-watering, the long tails and bright colours of ring-necked parakeets are becoming more familiar across the UK, but not without ruffling a few feathers.
Records of parakeets living wild in the UK can be found going back to the mid-nineteenth century, but it is only since the late 1990s that the raucous green parrots have been seen in London and southeast England in significant numbers and started to settle elsewhere in the country.
Commonly known as the ring-necked or rose-ringed parakeet in reference to the band around the male birds' necks, Psittacula krameri is native to Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
To pinpoint the ancestral home of the birds living in Europe, researchers from the University of Kent took DNA samples from wild birds and museum specimens, including some cared for at the Natural History Museum at Tring. The scientists traced the majority of the UK's parakeets to Pakistan and northern areas of India.
None of the birds made the journey here under their own power - they were taken from the wild and brought here as exotic pets. As with many animals introduced by the pet trade, some birds either escaped or were released.
Our climate proved a good match for the cooler areas these birds grew up in, and as adult birds taken from the wild, they had the skills to survive where domesticated birds might not. In the late 1960s experts confirmed ring-necked parakeets were breeding in London and Kent, and some imaginative tales for how they got there began to circulate.
A popular theory was that the birds escaped from the set of the 1951 film The African Queen, filmed in West London. Another rumour was that Jimi Hendrix released a pair on Carnaby Street, right in the centre of the capital. But according to a study which mapped historical news reports of sightings of the birds, none of these urban myths are true.
The researchers from Queen Mary University of London wrote, 'most ornithologists believe the parakeets' spread in the UK is more likely to be a consequence of repeated releases and introductions'.
But why would someone give up a precious pet? In the early 1930s and again in the 1950s, 'parrot fever' made headline news, the researchers found, with cases of bird owners catching psittacosis, a respiratory disease that can result in pneumonia and can jump from birds to people.
The Ministry of Health banned the import of birds for 20 years and scientists suspect pets may have been released by fearful owners or dodgy pet traders during this time.
Accidental escapes, such as when aviaries were destroyed by the Great Storm of 1987, could also have boosted wild populations - and not just in the South East.
Ring-necked parakeets have now been recorded in most English counties, much of Wales, past the Scottish borders and even across the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland. The British Trust for Ornithology estimated 12,000 breeding pairs in 2016, with numbers growing.
While the birds may have gradually spread out from their London stronghold to the surrounding counties, populations further north are thought to be the result of separate introductions. They do particularly well near humans and have made their homes in many of our cities and suburbs - from London's Richmond Park to Didsbury in south Manchester and Glasgow's Victoria Park.
Ring-necked parakeets tend to congregate in suburban parks, large gardens and orchards, which offer more reliable supplies of food as well as nesting opportunities. They have been spotted in the following cities:
Check out the ring-necked parakeet UK distribution map on NBN Atlas.
Florin Feneru is an Identification and Advisory Officer here at the Museum and a devoted parrot fan who enjoys watching the green parakeets in his own London garden. Picturing our high streets and built-up environments, you might assume urban spaces have little to offer the birds. Yet Florin explains that the mosaic of gardens, parks, mature trees, mixed hedges and older buildings with suitable holes for nesting actually mimics the fragmented forest habitats the birds favour in their native range.
'Parakeets are opportunistic feeders,' adds Florin. 'They have learned to exploit a variety of foodstuffs - all sorts of seeds and fruit. They eat flowers and young buds. They even eat tree bark. They're very adaptable.'
Our fondness for importing exotic species extends into our gardens, where a wide variety of plants from around the world provide food resources whatever the season. And even in the depths of winter, bird feeders are kept well stocked, and parakeets are muscling their way to the front of this free buffet.
If you want to prevent parakeet flocks from snaffling all your seed and suet, you'll need to hang caged feeders or those designed to deter squirrels.
When parakeets first appeared in the Museum's Wildlife Garden, Florin advised staff to shoo them away. He explains, 'The idea is to give them the impression that the place is dangerous.' It worked - no parakeets returned to the garden after the first ones were scared away.
Unfortunately, this approach might deter native birds, too. For harmony, you may wish to provide a mix of protected and unprotected feeders, saving the higher-value fat and seeds for the harder-to-access feeding stations. But it is harder to discourage parakeets once they are used to coming for food.
You can get extremely close to the parakeets in London's Kensington Gardens, not far from the Peter Pan statue, as the birds there have been 'habituated', meaning they are so used to interacting with humans they will take food from your hand.
You won't see so much natural behaviour there, though, and mixing with wild birds presents a risk to health and safety - a lesson we should have learned from the 'parrot fever' scare. Instead, Florin recommends finding a roost and watching the parakeets return in groups at dusk.
There are around 10 locations in the capital where ring-necked parakeets shelter for the night in huge numbers, including the poplars at Hither Green Cemetery, which can host thousands of birds overnight. Richmond Park, Kew Gardens, Wormwood Scrubs, Hyde Park and Brockwell Park are other popular spots to see the spectacle of the wild parakeets flocking together.
The calls of ring-necked parakeets are one of the reasons some people label the birds as 'pests': their squawks are repetitive, squeaky and shrill (listen on xeno-canto). Florin explains that the parakeets communicate primarily in flight and in social settings such as a roost, but they will stay quieter around nesting sites to avoid the attention of predators.
Tawny owls, sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons will all feast on parakeets, especially if there are a lot of them in one area. Their eggs and young chicks can also be taken by grey squirrels, and Florin says he has witnessed tussles between the species. The parakeets aren't always the victims though.
'For years I've been witnessing their fights with squirrels and other birds such as starlings and jackdaws,' he says. 'They can be aggressive and violent. They've been known to kill small mammals such as bats in tree hollows.'
Averaging 40 centimetres long and with a powerful beak for breaking open seeds, ring-necked parakeets are tough characters that fight to win.
They nest in tree hollows and have plenty of competition for resources in their native habitats from other parrots and bird species. It's exactly this competitive instinct that makes people nervous about how parakeets could be affecting UK wildlife forced to adapt to these bright green foes.
Dr Hazel Jackson is a research affiliate at the University of Kent and a parakeet specialist. She is hesitant to call the ring-necked parakeet a 'problem' in the UK but says further scientific study is needed to determine whether they are an invasive species causing harm to native wildlife.
She explains, 'One UK study showed they dominate garden bird feeders, as you would expect due to their size, making it harder for our smaller native species to access the food put out for them.
'Ring-necked parakeets are cavity hole nesters, so may compete with our native nuthatches and woodpeckers for these sites. The only hard evidence for this is from Belgium, but there is lots of anecdotal evidence through video footage, for example.'
The green parakeets haven't just settled in the UK - they are found in 35 countries outside their native range, making them one of the most successful introduced species globally.
In other parts of the world, ring-necked parakeets are causing significant damage, destroying crops and threatening vulnerable wildlife. But in the UK, another species of parakeet has earned a worse reputation and been dealt with decisively by officials.
The monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) is native to parts of South America, but escaped pet birds settled in the wild in London from the 1990s. Unfortunately, they have the inconvenient habit of building their communal nests on important infrastructure, including a mobile phone mast on the Isle of Dogs, London, where their numbers were greatest.
Concerned about reports from the USA, where the parakeets have damaged fruit crops and caused fires where they nest on electricity pylons, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) took action. From 2011, monk parakeets were humanely captured and eggs and nests were removed. Eight years later, Defra reported fewer than 20 birds remaining in the wild and they expect them to be gone by 2022.
Conservation charities are keeping a watchful eye on ring-necked parakeets, but most agree that the control programme for the monk parakeets won't be repeated for their ring-necked cousins.
Hazel says, 'Ring-necked parakeets are here to stay - they number tens of thousands and their population size is growing.
'They have been here for around 50-plus years now and there are no obvious and significant impacts to UK wildlife reported so far. Many feel they have found their own niche here. And they are a second favourite [prey] for our London peregrines.'
At the beginning of 2021, media reports sparked controversy by suggesting new hunting licences could allow the ring-necked parakeets to be killed to protect native species. A Defra spokesperson clarified that 'while ring-necked parakeets are one species which could be considered for control under general licences, this should not be taken as implying that Defra is planning a cull'.
Whether we should be celebrating our resident ring-necked parakeet population is still up for debate. Some people love the bright birds, while others are concerned by their competitive habits. Ultimately, we're responsible for introducing the parakeets, and for helping them to thrive.
For now, while trying to attract them to our gardens might not be a good idea, studying their behaviour at least helps us to better understand the impact of introduced species.
'If we learn from this and drastically reduce the international trade in wildlife, we could prevent many more such introductions,' says Florin.
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