Parakeet Explosion in London

It’s really cheep now in London. The reason: a big explosion in the number of wild parakeets:

Native to the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa, the rose-ringed parakeet is enjoying a population explosion in many London suburbs, turning a once-exotic bird into a notorious pest that awakens children, monopolizes garden bird feeders and might even threaten British crops.

When I lived in India as a student from January – May 1972 and later when I returned after attending the Medill School of Journalism and became the Chicago Daily News’ prolific stringer there, one of the highlights of New Delhi life were the many beautiful and noisy parrots in the trees. There are also beautiful feral parrots in some parts of Southern California. Parrots and bigger parakeets can lend a nice touch. But this New York Times article notes that many in Great Britain are finding the wild parakeet population there a bunch of pests.

One rough estimate put the population in Britain at 30,000 a few years ago, up from only 1,500 in 1995. Researchers at Imperial College London are now trying a more scientific census through its Project Parakeet, which enlisted volunteer birders around the country for simultaneous counts on a recent Sunday evening.

“I was delighted when I first saw one in my yard, but when you have a flock of 300, it’s a different matter,” said Dick Hayden, a retiree who was volunteering at Long Lane Park. “They eat all the berries. They ate all the food from my feeder in one day; it was ludicrous. I had to stop putting it out because it got too expensive.”

There is wide agreement that the Adams and Eves behind the current population boom did not fly here from Asia or Africa but escaped from British pet cages or were intentionally released by their owners. The great mystery is what allowed the parakeets to procreate with such phenomenal success just in the past decade.

Throughout much of the 20th century, there have been occasional sightings around Britain of escaped parakeets, which are hardy enough to survive the foothills of the Himalayas. But their numbers remained low, and most scientists assumed that they were not adapted well enough to breed readily.

Theories abound. Is it that gardeners are planting more exotic ornamental plants, effectively providing imported food to match an imported bird species? That suburbanites are installing more feeders and putting out more seed? The booming British gardening industry guards sales figures and has provided little guidance.

Alternatively, some scientists suggest that a slightly warmer climate has indeed helped tip the balance, perhaps increasing the parakeet’s metabolism during its February breeding season, bolstering the growth of some of its favored food or killing off a predator.

The parakeets should be allowed to live their lives. After all, they have the right of freedom of beak.