Polly Want A City? Population Boom Sparks Call For Cull Of London’s Invasive Parakeets

When someone imagines London, they probably visualise Big Ben, Buckingham palace, and an overly patriotic use of the Union Jack. What they probably don’t picture is flocks of bright green parrots occupying every tree branch and streetlamp in view. However, urban populations of invasive parrot species are becoming more readily observed globally, and in London, there are fears the population may be growing too fast!

Earlier this year, the UK saw headlines announcing that the government has been advised to cull the iconic birds following a recent increase in numbers. But with their bright colours making them a unique addition to the fauna of the city, and their nonchalant nature towards locals and tourists, many are opposed to the cull. So what is the right thing to do when we get attached to an invasive species? And are parrots on their way to becoming the next globally distributed ‘pest’?

Parrots are taking over the world. Quite literally. Over 38 species of feral parrots have been documented globally, establishing populations in many non-native rural and urban environments as a result of escapees and deliberate releases. And for one species, the Ring-necked, or Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri), the invasion has been exceedingly successful. From its original range of North Africa and South Asia, this species is now known to occupy over 35 countries – covering North America, The Middle East, and Europe as far north as Norway!

Read More: Parrots in Norway

The initial problem with trying to control an invasive parrot, or any charismatic invasive species for that matter, is that people do not tend to view them as your typical invasive species, but an attraction. The term ‘invasive’ is much more likely to send our thoughts down the path of rats, vultures, pigeons, the kind of animals associated with trash and pest control. However invasive species are, by definition, simply anything non-native that influences its newfound ecosystem. As the human population has stumbled its way across the globe throughout history, we have brought non-native plants and animals to almost every corner of the planet, resulting in huge impacts to native ecosystems when such species decide to settle. Irrespective of the aesthetics of the species, this is quite often not a good thing!

The Parakeet’s Origins

The earliest recorded sighting of an invasive parrot in the UK was in 1855 in Norfolk, with the first large nesting colony settling in London’s Kingston-upon-Thames in the late 20th century; earning them the nickname ‘the Kingston parakeets’. Since then, as many as 25,000 breeding pairs have established themselves across the country, with a population increase of nearly 1500% between 1995 and 2015. They can now be seen in most London parks, with the largest populations at Kensington Gardens and Regent’s park.

Although nobody really knows where the population came from, many like to speculate on the various ways in which individuals have been released into the city. The most popular of these includes the famous pair ‘Adam and Eve’ released by Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s, a flock released during the filming of ‘The American Queen’ in 1951, and zoo escapees during the Great Storm of 1987. The more popular theory nowadays is that multiple released/escaped pets, during a time of popularity keeping this species, contributed to the large well-established group we see today.

We’re Going To Need A Bigger Stone

In January this year, DEFRA (The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) advised that a cull of the species in the city would be necessary to slow their population growth, with many conservation groups concerned that their presence may reduce populations of nuthatches and woodpeckers as a result of nesting site competition (they all like to nest in holes in trees). The parrots are also being increasingly viewed as pests by many across the city, producing as much waste as the local pigeons, and harassing unsuspecting park visitors for peanuts. A cull could reduce both these negative impacts, killing two birds with one stone if you will.

Despite my concerns for native wildlife, I found great joy in meeting the parrots at St James’ Park in 2019 (Image Credit: Charlie Woodrow, CC BY 2.0)

This is not the first time concerns have been raised about the birds. Between 2017 and 2019, gamekeepers of London’s Richmond Park culled 117 of the local parakeets to reduce the population size, and since 2009 landowners have been legally allowed to poison or shoot Ring-necked Parakeets without special permissions.

The RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; the UK’s largest nature conservation charity) stated it is not in favour of the newly announced cull, but does believe the population, particularly in the south east, should be watched carefully to monitor negative effects on local wildlife.

Charismatic Park Residents and COVID Lockdowns

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK has been in and out of lockdowns since March 2020, leading many to pick up hobbies such as birdwatching, and generally getting outdoors more than they normally would.

From chats with friends and family living in London over the last year, it seems that the Ring-necked parakeets have been one of the saving graces of the pandemic, bringing great joy to those with limited access to nature, and given them some positive moments amongst an otherwise depressing and tiresome situation.

I would hedge a bet that such joy would not have been provided had an invasive pigeon species taken over the city!

The Verdict

London’s parakeets may not be of interest to many, and for those with a love for local wildlife they will come as a concern; but for many residents, they are a friendly flash of green in an otherwise industrial jungle. While the cull may be faced with great backlash, is it really so bad to knock down the numbers? After all, if the population can grow by 1500% in 20 years, it certainly won’t take long for them to recover! Perhaps park managers in London could seek to implement strategies for long-term management to keep both the parrots and the local wildlife happy.

As for the global situation with this species and other invasive parrots, it will be interesting (and concerning) to watch how their distributions change over the coming years, particularly as we see global temperature increases permitting the movement of these birds to rapidly warming sub-arctic regions.

Charlie Woodrow is a PhD student at the University of Lincoln, UK. He is interested in the evolution of animal communication and ecology, and is currently researching the morphological and functional variation in katydid ears. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieZoology.

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