Surrey's parakeets: friends or foes?
PUBLISHED: 02:10 01 December 2011 | UPDATED: 23:40 23 February 2016
A familiar sight in Surrey's gardens, the county's famous flock of parakeets have made a colourful addition to our native bird life. MATTHEW WILLIAMS finds out more about these exotic creatures and how they came to make their home here.
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2008
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SOME say that 60s icon Jimi Hendrix brought them to Britain and released the Adam and Eve of British parakeets to 'bring some psychedelic colour to London's skyline'. Others believe that a small number of the birds escaped from Shepperton Studios in 1951, during the making of The African Queen, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
Whatever the truth behind their introduction to Surrey's landscape, the humble ring-necked or rose-ringed parakeet, which normally makes its home in a broad belt of arid tropical countryside stretching from West Africa across lowland India, now seems to have made itself just as comfortable on our own doorstep.
A familiar site in the county, until recently the largest population of parakeets in the UK was right here in Surrey. Some 7,000 birds roosted alongside Esher Rugby Club, though whether the parakeets are fans of the game remains pure speculation... At one point, however, the population was so dense that the footpath below the roost had to be closed for health and safety reasons because of the sheer volume of guano deposited by the birds.
"We all loved them and our girls team is even called the Parakeets!" says Mags Davison, the marketing manager for the club. "Sadly, though, the parakeets have left us for the moment, as our trees had to be cut down because they were rotten. We're not too sure where they have gone, but there have been some parakeets down the road in Bushy Park."
Hendrix and Britain's parakeets...
While the thought of Jimi Hendrix playing Little Wing as he releases parakeets into the skies might be a rather romantic one, there is a far more plausible theory for their introduction to British wildlife. Parakeets have been popular pets since Victorian times and inevitably many birds have escaped or been deliberately released over the years (although the latter is technically illegal, it can prove hard to enforce).
A number of them have also escaped from aviaries across the south. During the storm of 1987, a group made their getaway from Northdown Park, in Kent, and it is thought that a piece of a plane's fuselage dropped onto an aviary near Gatwick, leaving its inhabitants to make a bid for freedom.
While it may all sound rather like the plot for a follow-up to Chicken Run, the fact remains that parakeets have unexpectedly flourished in Britain - especially in suburban parks, large gardens and orchards, where food supply is more reliable.
They feed on a wide variety of fruit, berries, nuts, seeds and grain, and have also struck gold with the increasing number of people putting bird feeders in their garden. Plus, apart from being well fed, parakeets have few natural predators on these shores.
Some people believe that, due to their tropical-sounding origins, global warming must also have something to do with the birds' population explosion - but this is actually a myth.
"I think they are doing so well because they have nothing competing with them for food," says Jeffery Wheatley of the Surrey Bird Club, which is the county's official bird recorder and estimates the population to be about 6,000 birds. "What affects their numbers is winter food supplies, not the cold, and that's probably due to the fact that they do originate from a coldish climate in the foothills of the Himalayas.
"One of the reasons we see them in and around London is that they prefer waterside habitats. They are most common along the Thames Valley, but also roost in the Mole Valley and the Wey Valley, towards Guildford, though in fewer numbers."
Until last year, the parakeets were generally considered a welcome addition to the county's wildlife, and though their squawking and squabbling would cause consternation amongst some, for most people the sight of the colourful birds hopping from tree to tree was an enjoyable spectacle. However, over the last year, worries about their population explosion, with the potentially damaging results to the country's indigenous species, have led to calls for stricter control over the colourful newcomers.
"Recent media coverage has suggested that a cull of ring-necked parakeets may be necessary because of concerns about their potential impact on native bird species and competition for nest holes," says Paul Outhwaite, the RSPB communications manager for the South East of England. "However, there is currently no strong evidence to suggest that such impacts are occurring in the UK, and the RSPB is not in favour of a cull of parakeets at this time.
"If the parakeet population continues to grow, however, the implications for our native species must be closely monitored - in fact, the Government is obliged to ensure that non-native species do not adversely affect native wildlife."
What the future holds for parakeets...
So, whether in the immortal words of Jimi Hendrix 'the wind cried Mary', or we witnessed the ornithological equivalent of The Great Escape, the parakeet brings a touch of tropical glamour to our suburban gardens in Surrey that looks set to stay. And bedecked with emerald green feathers and a rose red beak, they certainly add a splash of interest and colour to our surroundings. A splash that one would hope can thrive without stepping on the toes of the wildlife we might be a little more used to from our childhoods.
Parakeet spotting: Top 10 places...
- Bushy Park, Richmond
- Hampton Court, East Molesey
- Kew Gardens, Kew
- Esher Rugby Club, Esher
- Nonsuch Park, Ewell
- Richmond Park, Richmond
- River Thames at Chertsey
- River Thames at Staines
- River Thames at Walton on Thames
- Selsdon Park, Sanderstead
Plus in and around the larger open spaces and bigger parks of Reigate, Carshalton, Wallington, Hackbridge and Cheam.
HAVE YOUR SAY! Are the parakeets a welcome addition to our wildlife or an ear-splitting nuisance? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org