Feral Parrots in the UK
November is a cold, wet month in England. As I write this article, the rain is beating down and although it is only 5 o'clock in the afternoon, it is almost completely dark. This is only just the start of our winter: soon the days will be even shorter and the nights frosty, maybe even a touch of snow.
This isn't the kind of environment that comes to mind when we think of parrots - and yet there are wild parrots in Britain that are not only surviving but actually thriving!
Almost any parrot species may be encountered but most of these will be escaped companion birds. What I'm interested in for this article is feral populations. That is, groups of two or more individuals that are breeding here.
The British List documents 13 parrot species. Of these, there are 4 species that are well-established. They are (click to show image):
- Ring-Necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)
- Alexandrine Parakeet (Psittacula eupatria)
- Monk Parakeet, also known as Quaker parrot (Myiopsitta monachus)
- Blue-Crowned Conure (Aratinga acuticaudata)
If you see bright green parrots in the wild in England, it is most likely that they are of this species. It was first documented as breeding in this country as long ago as 1855 in Norfolk but in recent times the story starts at Gravesend in Kent in 1969. Astonishingly, there are now considered to be as many as 6000 of these attractive birds in the United Kingdom, mainly located in the South East. Ring-Necked parakeets are hugely successful in their native India and Nepal but are also natives of north eastern and north central Africa.
Thames Valley parakeets
In October 2002 I was helping my friend Graham Durrant with his boat on the River Thames when we sighted a large flock of parrots near Shepperton Marina. At the time, I did not know what kind of parrot I was looking at - and it was during the process of finding out that I decided to feature 'wild British parrots' on the New Life Parrot Rescue web site.
From Shepperton we continued to see Ring-Necked parakeets both in small groups and large flocks (20+) as far east as Hammersmith Bridge. I have never seen any of these birds in central London but they have been spotted at Greenwich and of course Gravesend. Travelling west along the Thames, flocks of over 100 birds are often seen at Wraysbury, Bray and Maidenhead. For more Berkshire locations try the Berkshire Birds web site.
London's suburban parakeets
In the London area, if you want to see Ring-Necked parakeets, one of the easiest places to find them is Bushy Park. Another good place to see them is Esher Rugby Club where there are said to be over 2500 of them. There are over 600 of these feral parakeets in Lewisham (Hither Green) cemetery (they are alive and well!). There is a flock of about 60 birds at Kew Gardens and another flock has been spotted at Heathrow Airport.
Parakeets in Margate and Ramsgate
Ring-Necked parakeets are also thriving in the Isle of Thanet area of Kent where there are said to be several hundred birds. A flock of around 70 birds has been seen roosting in a tree near Ramsgate railway station. Over 20 have been seen in Margate cemetery (what is it about cemeteries and these birds ?) and at Northdown Park, North Foreland, a flock of 30.
Parakeets in Redhill and Reigate
A separate population of Ring-Necked parakeets seems to be present in the area of Redhill and Reigate. Flocks of 50 or more individuals have been seen.
Limits of distribution
If you are interested in the distribution of Ring-necked parakeets in Britain then you really must read about Chris Butler's study on feral Ring-necked parakeets in the National Geographic, 2004. Butler has since concluded his research project aimed at assessing the potential threat posed by these birds to agriculture and had a wonderful database of sightings on his now non-existent website. He documented, however, that to the North, Ring-necked parakeets had been sighted as far away as Glasgow and to the West, in Merseyside and in the South West they had been seen in Dorset.
These are much less frequently encountered in England, although some sightings may have been lost because it is easy to confuse identification with the more common Ring-Necked. Flocks of Ring-Necked parakeets sometimes comprise an Alexandrine too. Alexandrines are essentially natives of India but stretch in a band from Afghanistan through to Indochina.
Male/Female and adult/juvenile variations as well as mutations and perhaps the effect of differing diets all serve to confuse identification but the Alexandrine is, at 60cm a significantly bigger bird than the 42cm Ring-Necked. In addition, the Alexandrine has a bigger bill with both upper and lower halves coloured red. Alexandrines have a red shoulder patch which the Ring-Necked parakeets do not - but in the field you may not be able to see this.
Alexandrine Parakeets in Cambridgeshire
A juvenile Alexandrine was spotted at Elton in Cambridgeshire during August 2001. Unfortunately, this information is no longer available on the Internet.
Alexandrine Parakeets in Kent
Chris Butler estimates that there are only 10 or so of these parakeets in South East England. I have personally sighted 3 Alexandrines, flying together, on two different occasions at Sidcup (on the Green, near Queen Mary's Hospital).
Alexandrines have been sighted at Foots Cray Meadow but this is so close to The Green at Sidcup that the birds might have been the same ones.
Monk Parakeets (Quakers)
These are small parrots about twice the size of a budgerigar (and hence 4 times the weight: approximately 130 grams). The back is green and the chest grey or buff with dark blue primary wing coverts. Unlike most parrots, Monk parakeets build a social nest of twigs housing several birds: I have seen one nearly a metre in height and 50 cm wide.
They are natives of central Bolivia and the south of Brazil. I know of only one feral colony in the UK and that is at Boreham Wood in Hertfordshire which comprises about 20 individuals.
Blue-Crowned Conures (also known as parakeets)
These are relative newcomers to Britain's feral parrot population. The first two were spotted in Bromley in South East London in 1997. By 1999 the number had risen to 15. In April 2001 a nest with eggs in it was seen in a park in Lewisham, London. The birds have also been seen in Lewisham cemetery.
These birds are distinctive in colour, with, as the name suggests, a blue head on a generally green body plan. The tail is relatively long, olive green from above but flushed with red on the underside. The birds are about 37cm long and are native to Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Uruguay.
Other Feral Parrot Species
Almost any kind of companion or aviary parrot may escape and therefore be mistakenly perceived as a 'wild' British parrot but the key question is whether or not the species is surviving and breeding successfully over here.
In the Longfield area of Kent I have seen Cockatiels and several times Budgerigars. The latter over a number of months spanning the winter so they would seem to be surviving but breeding is another matter. However, there are supposed to be feral budgies in the Scilly Isles. Budgerigars and Cockatiels are both natives of the Australian interior but absent from Tasmania.
There was an intriguing report by Jonathan Downes on the internet of a group of feral Macaws in Woodbury, Devon! The author admits he did not actually see them himself so one wonders whether this is a hoax but I should like to believe it is true.
Strategies for Survival
How is it that these birds are doing so well ? How are they managing to find enough to eat during our winter?
To be frank, I don't know the answer to these questions but it is striking that the distribution, especially of the Ring-Necked parakeets, is largely suburban rather than wholly rural and they are not found in central London. This suggests that humans and their gardens and garden bird tables may be very important. Indeed, there are some charming photographs by Stephen Tarling of parakeets on a feeder at the Parakeets of Norwood Grove web site. Stephen has kindly allowed me to copy these lovely photos.
I read once that, peanuts expressly destined for birds are imported into this country not by the ton but by the hundreds of tons so this is certainly one food source. In the autumn and early part of winter we have plenty of wild berries. Parakeets have been seen eating mistletoe berries. These, I would have thought would have been toxic but of course, in the jungle parrots are known to be able to eat relatively noxious foods - is this how they manage over here ? In the early spring, new tree buds form part of the diet (not endearing the birds to farmers - see this MAFF Study.)
Feral Ring-Necked parakeets start brooding earlier than native birds so providing the chicks can survive the cold this would give them a head start. Social behaviour may be an advantage too: there must be some competitive advantage in the Monk parakeets' communal approach to nest-building. All parrots are undeniably highly intelligent, presumably an important contributory factor to their success.
If you can't afford a ticket to the Rain Forests to go parrot-spotting then get one to Ramsgate, Bushy Park or Kew Gardens!