It is a common misconception that cabbies always have their meal breaks in the green huts scattered around London. For those wishing to discuss England’s sporting woes or the decline of the cab trade these refuges offer a haven for refreshment and conversation. Once in a while I prefer my own company, and one of my chosen spots for quiet reflection is perversely opposite the entrance to London Zoo.
There one can listen to the exotic sounds of the jungle while eating a cheese sandwich. Recently one animal cry has drowned all others – green parakeets. This little invader – psittacula krameri to give them their correct Latin name – which once confined itself to the City’s suburbs has now colonised parts of Regent’s Park.
The numbers of these colourful if noisy birds has risen dramatically in recent years, adapting themselves to London’s less than tropical climate. Inevitably scientists point out that this is another consequence of climate change. Presumably if mankind doesn’t change his ways the capital will become an Equatorial jungle, the parakeets being just the tip of the melting iceberg.
Their numbers might be increasing in line with the temperature, but how did a non-migratory species get to our island in the first place?
Firstly there is a record of a breeding pair in Norfolk around 1855 at a time when the keeping of exotic birds was fashionable. The reasons postulated for their recent appearance in London are as diverse as their colonies.
The earliest for the modern infestation is that the parakeets were escapees from the set of the Humphrey Bogart classic The African Queen (1951) that was supposedly shot at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. From there it is suggested they have bred and spread across the region. Yet, according to film studio historian Ed Harris: “It’s a myth that these noisy creatures had anything to do with the filming of The African Queen”, he explains. “Not only was it filmed at Isleworth but there is not a shred of evidence to suggest they were required as ‘extras’ during filming, so you can discount that legend absolutely.”
Rock stars have been blamed. In one Jimi Hendrix was strolling down Carnaby Street one day when he released a pair of green ’jungle pigeons’ to give the City some psychedelic colour; or another interpretation ’as a symbol of freedom’; or as some claim were Jimi’s pets accidentally released after his death – take your pick.
Not to be outdone David Bowie fans claim the advent of flocks of these colourful creatures are a result from his wedding, when parakeets were released to mark the great man’s nuptials. Another explanation is that maybe they fled from exiled King Manuel II of Portugal’s Fulwell aviary in the 1920s.
A more prosaic explanation is that the Great Storm of 1987 damaged aviaries. The deliciously named Project Parakeet claims that feral parakeets increased significantly in the early 1990s. Simon Levey their Research Officer estimates numbers have risen from 1,500 in 1996 to over 30,000 now and to be found as far west as Wales as as far north as Glasgow.
Apparently there now are more parakeets to be found in London than nightingales, but to be honest I’ve never seen (or heard) a nightingale in Berkeley Square.
Did they arrive courtesy of Bogie, Bowie or Hendrix or the result of melting icebergs? We shall never know.
What we do know are they are very adaptable in what they eat – dining out on fruit trees, orchards and bird tables – and they aren’t vulnerable to many diseases. Plus, there’s the lack of predation in the London, the only exception being sparrow hawks, which generally prefer to feast on other small prey.
In future years at London Zoo visitors will experience exotic birds in and out of cages.
Image: Garden Bird Watching (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).