LondonIt’s a mild day in late October, and I’m standing near the Peter Pan statue, J.M. Barrie’s monument to childhood, in Kensington Gardens, in the heart of central London. Next to a fenced-off area, about 20 people are feeding a noisy group of parakeets. The exotic, emerald-green birds with lipstick-red beaks are used to the attention. They swoop down, unafraid, onto the outstretched hands of delighted children and grown-ups, who hold out apple cores or nuts for them to feed on. Some even perch on people’s heads.
David Kaminski, a 53-year-old writer for an aviation magazine, has been coming to the park from his home in South London for a decade. When I meet him, he has a pigeon on his shoulder and a parakeet on his head. “I’m fascinated by flight and wildlife,” he said. He points to an ancient fenced-off chestnut tree. “People used to come and stand under the tree and feed the parakeets. There were so many people, they were trampling the grass. It was like a pagan ritual. I called it the Church of the Parakeet.”
Kensington Gardens is one of numerous places throughout the British capital where ring-necked parakeets are thriving—an estimated 30,000 of them today. Sometimes called rose-ringed parakeets, they’re not meant to be here; their native ranges are Southeast Asia and Central Africa. So how did a bird that’s common in the foothills of the Himalaya and the equatorial forests of Africa come to London?
One urban myth is that in 1968, Jimi Hendrix, newly arrived in Swinging London, left his flat in Mayfair and walked toward Carnaby Street carrying a bird cage. Then the famous guitarist, who’d recently released the psychedelic album Electric Ladyland, opened the cage and set free two electric-green parakeets. Another story has it that two parakeets were released during the filming of The African Queen, starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, in London in 1951.
The truth is more prosaic. As the hub of a global empire for hundreds of years, London was a conduit for every imaginable product and creature. The earliest recorded sighting of a parakeet was in Dulwich, in South London, in 1893. But it was not until the 1950s that the birds became a thing.
“My suspicion is that there were a whole lot of releases over a period of years of pet birds or birds in aviaries,” says Paul Walton, head of habitat and species for the Scottish branch of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). They were either freed deliberately or escaped. “Often what happens is that you get a really small number of breeding populations that could be there for a number of years without being detected.”(Read about how the pet trade itself is threatening some species of parrots.)
By the 1980s, a sizable colony existed in Kingston-on-Thames, in the southwestern part of the city. Since then, the parakeets have spread like a green wave right across the capital. Nick Hunt, author of The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology, calls it “one the most audacious ecological shifts in the world.”
Why have they been so successful? One reason is that London—with 47 percent of its area given over to green space, including 3,000 parks, three million private gardens, not to mention a huge number of allotments, or garden plots, and sprawling Victorian cemeteries—is the perfect city for birds. And England’s mild winters, which are becoming more temperate, present no obstacle to their survival. (Cemeteries have become havens for urban wildlife.)
They’re taking hold elsewhere in the U.K. too. “In the past three or four years, they’ve started breeding here in Glasgow,” Walton says. “Clearly, they can cope with winters in this country. But their distribution is still very much centered in urban areas.”
Meanwhile, both ring-necked and monk parakeets have been showing up elsewhere in Europe, from the Netherlands and Belgium to Germany and Spain. In all, there are now 200 parakeet populations in the EU, and their numbers are growing.
Londoners are divided over the parakeets. One gardener posted a series of YouTube videos showing him constructing an elaborate decoy to attract the birds, then picking them off with an air rifle. Others embrace them. “There’s a wide range of opinions,” says Hunt, who conducted many interviews for his book. “We rarely had anything in the middle. People seem to either love them or hate them.”
But, he adds, “A lot of the conversations very quickly went into areas that had nothing to do with parakeets at all, such as immigration. People projected their fears onto parakeets. We did our research leading up to the Brexit referendum, and there was definitely anti-immigrant rhetoric creeping into these conversations about birds.” On the other side, some people saw them “as paragons of coexistence and diversity. So they were projecting their ideas about multiculturalism onto the parakeets.”
It’s not clear yet what, if any, negative effects the parakeets are having on native species. According to the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture (DEFRA), “ring-necked parakeets are known, or have the potential, to impose a range of detrimental impacts in their native and introduced range, as they are considered a major crop pest, potential vectors for disease and potential competitors for breeding sites with other cavity-nesting species.”
The ring-necked parakeet is a “secondary cavity nester.” In other words, it doesn’t go to the trouble of making a nesting hole in a tree—it just pops into one that’s already there (like the cuckoo). Parakeets nest earlier than most native species, so by the time a nuthatch or owl starts searching for accommodation, it’s likely to find a No Vacancy sign. Parakeets also have long incubation periods, so they monopolize nesting sites longer.
The RSPB’s Walton doesn’t seem too worried about the presence of parakeets, however. “We know that there are major agricultural problems in other parts of the world, like Asia, where seed crops get heavily impacted by parakeets,” he says. “But that’s not happening in this country.” And he doesn’t think the birds are harming other wildlife. He says studies in Belgium show that they might be affecting nuthatches by competing with them for nesting sites, but that’s “not likely to be a serious conservation problem.” In Spain, parakeets have been documented attacking bats, but in the U.K., “evidence for actual impacts on wildlife really isn’t there.”
Is culling an option?
In 2019, in Spain’s capital, Madrid, where monk parakeets had increased by 33 percent since 2016, the city government ordered a cull of 12,000 of the birds by sterilizing their eggs.
In London, rumors occasionally circulate that many of the city’s parakeets will be reduced by hired guns. But would animal-loving Brits stand by as government marksmen blow thousands of birds out of the trees?
Conscious of the sensitivities, in March 2021, DEFRA ruled out the idea of a cull. “Even if parakeets were having major ecological impacts, which they are not, so far, the RSPB’s position is that it’s already too late to attempt eradication,” Walton says. “Ring-necked parakeets are simply too well-established.”
According to Walton, the explosive growth of London’s parakeet population provides an important lesson. “Human-introduced invasive species are a massive problem,” he says. “They’re one of the fundamental drivers of biodiversity loss and one of the generators of the nature and climate emergency” by altering habitats and starving native species of food and resources. “The key message is that human beings must be much smarter about how we move animals and plants around the planet.” People should never release non-native animals or plants into the wild. (Exotic pets are a major driver of invasive species.)
Do parakeets offer any ecological benefits? “I’m certainly not aware of any positive impacts,” Walton says. “But what I would say is that they are beautiful birds. And many people I know derive huge enjoyment from these colorful, lively birds. And that’s not a minor consideration. It’s actually quite significant in our view.”
Londoners increasingly seem to share that reaction. Three quintessential British institutions—a women’s rugby club in Esher; a pub, The Anglers, in Walton-On-Thames; and Bexley Brewery, in southeast London—chose parakeets as their emblem.
Parakeets “bring an everyday engagement with something surprising and unusual, and that can be quite thrilling,” Hunt says. “People who ordinarily would have no interest in birds or wildlife have been tuning into what is going on in the sky and the trees.”
Homes among the dead
From Kensington Gardens, I headed for Kensal Green Cemetery, one of London’s “magnificent seven” Victorian cemeteries, in a densely populated neighborhood in northwestern London. The final resting place of engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and novelist Wilkie Collins encompasses 72 acres of protected land—a haven today for some 32 species of birds, parakeets among them.
The sun was beginning to set. By chance, a film crew was using the cemetery’s gothic atmosphere to shoot an episode of Lockwood & Co, the Netflix supernatural detective series. A few people were laying flowers at the graves of their loved ones. In the background, a Tube train rattled along the tracks. Following a path between graves, I caught sight of a group of about half a dozen parakeets, squawking in the tops of a row of tall birch trees. They were being harassed by crows, which regularly kill parakeets.
“At the beginning, there were just a few pairs, and then they began to establish themselves,” Michele Hester, the cemetery gatekeeper, told me. That was in the early 1990s. “Now, there are a couple of hundred.” She chuckled. “They wake me up every morning.”
Hester said they head out to forage for food during the day, returning to the cemetery to roost at night. “They’ll start to arrive in half an hour or so,” she assured. “You’ll have to watch your head, though, as they fly really low.”
I took a seat on a bench by the entrance to watch the show. It was about 5 p.m., and the sky was turning pink in the west. Soon, a few parakeets swooped in, settling in the trees around me. As the setting sun began to make the brick and stone graves glow red, more birds arrived in groups of two or three, sometimes four, some skimming no more than 10 feet above the ground.
After 20 minutes, I set off for the nearby Tube station—I had a train to catch. The sky was now a Turner-like firmament of gold and pink. Crossing a busy road, I looked up to see a squadron of about a dozen parakeets zipping over the roofs of a row of semi-detached houses in tight formation, their wings almost touching. They moved fast, in perfect convoy as they turned into the cemetery. Moments later, another, even larger flight of 20 or so poured over the road, jinking between the trees and buildings, flashing through the cemetery gates with the accuracy of cruise missiles.
Parakeets are known to have regular flyways through the capital, navigating the same routes every morning and evening, as though following invisible pathways in the sky. It was exhilarating to see these exotic birds flying home to their roosts above the sleeping dead.
For Nick Hunt, London’s parakeets carry hope on their wings. “The dominant backdrop of our times is of decline and extinction, of wild species disappearing,” he says. “So, to see a species that is not only surviving, but thriving, I can’t help thinking: Good on you, you’re bucking the trend.”