Feral Parrot Population Soars in U.K., Study Says

James Owen in London, England
for National Geographic News
July 8, 2004
Flocks of bright green parrots that drown out traditional birdsong with
piercing squawks are becoming a familiar sight—and sound—in
Britain, according to a new study.

Researchers found that the feral parrot population is soaring by 30 percent each year and expect it to hit a hundred thousand by 2010.

The study heightens concerns that the raucous invaders' rise up the pecking order threatens Britain's native bird species. The parrots' appetite for fruit and other crops means they could also become a serious agricultural pest.

The four-year study focused on the rose-ringed, or ring-necked, parakeet (Psitacula krameri), a type of parrot. The study was led by Chris Butler, a biologist at the University of Oxford, England, at the time.

Butler, who now works at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, said parakeet numbers in Britain have soared from fewer than 500 birds in 1983 to as many as 20,000 today. There are around 10,000 in the London area alone.

Butler says the study uncovered several possible factors behind the population explosion.

The researcher found that pairs of adult parakeets usually produced two chicks each year—not a single chick, as previously thought. Males were also shown to reach sexually maturity by their second year, a full year earlier than scientists once believed.

Butler also noted that parakeets have no natural predators in Britain. "They live for a very long time—up to 34 years in captivity," he said. "It seems likely [their numbers] will continue to increase for the foreseeable future."

Freed Pets

Rose-ringed parakeets are native to the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa.

Various tales speculate how the birds first became established in Britain. Some say film studios set parakeets free after they were used on movie sets. Others suggest the birds escaped airport quarantine or arrived as bedraggled castaways that flew ashore after a cargo ship capsized near London.

But the most likely scenario, experts say, is that the birds escaped and were deliberately released from homes and pet stores. Once free, the parrots began breeding.

Until recently feral parakeets in Britain confined themselves to urban areas, principally London. Yet Butler's study shows the birds are now acquiring a taste for the countryside.

No longer dependent solely on bird feeders, the parakeets are increasingly feeding on wild and cultivated fruit, nuts, berries, seeds, and tree buds.

The birds are now turning up in many parts of Britain—from Wales in the west to England's east coast and as far north as Glasgow in central Scotland.

Some ornithologists fear the wider presence of parakeets could potentially spell disaster for a number of native birds, including owls, woodpeckers, and falcons. Like parakeets, these native birds nest in tree holes.

"I have met several birders who don't like parakeets at all and feel they are causing declines in native species," Butler said. "There is the potential for parakeets to have a negative impact on native species, because they begin breeding in early March, which is earlier than other cavity-nesting species."

Chris Perrins is a professor at the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology in Oxford. He said native British birds that could lose out include the little owl, green woodpecker, and kestrel.

"Parakeets don't excavate their own holes so are dependent on finding a natural split in a tree or finding a hole made by another bird," he said.

Wrecked Orchards

Another concern is the possible impact of marauding flocks of parrots on farms and orchards.

In Britain rose-ringed parakeets have been observed feeding on fruits such as apples, grapes, pears, plums, raspberries, and strawberries, as well as cereal crops like barely and corn.

The worry is that as parakeets colonize rural regions, more farms will be targeted.

"I've met people who've had their apple or pear orchards wrecked," Perrins said. "Damage is on a tiny scale at the moment, but that may not be the case when numbers go up to a hundred thousand."

Fruit crops near southwest London have suffered numerous raids in recent summers.

One vineyard, for instance, was stripped only weeks before the grapes were to be harvested. Enough were left to produce just 500 bottles of wine instead of the several thousand forecast.

Feral parrot populations are also on the increase in many other western countries, especially in urban areas.

The monk parakeet, a native South America specie, is now well established in Brussels, Belgium, for example. In Barcelona, Spain, rose-ringed parakeets are now ranked the fourth most numerous bird.

Bakersfield, California, has more than a thousand rose-ringed parakeets. The population is believed to date back to a hurricane-force storm that destroyed an aviary in 1977. The birds have been observed fighting with woodpeckers over nesting holes.

In southern Florida, utility companies now grapple with monk parakeets and the massive, nettlesome nests they build atop transmission poles.

In Britain, however, it might be too late to control booming populations.

"With the current rate of increase, you'd have to have a pretty big blitz to keep numbers from rising," Perrins said. "It would be difficult to get rid of them anyway, because they retire into towns, where it's not so easy to pursue and shoot them."

Love them or loathe them, it appears that in Britain, at least, these exotic invaders have already flown the coop.

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