The great green expansion: how ring-necked parakeets took over London

Was Jimi Hendrix responsible for the bright-green tropical birds presence in the capital? Or was it Katharine Hepburn?

Electric Ladyland wasnt the only thing Jimi Hendrix released in 1968. One day in that tumultuous year he left his flat on Brook Street, Mayfair, and strolled down nearby Carnaby Street with a birdcage in his hands. I like to think that he was dressed in a tasselled jacket and flares, his favourite Fender Stratocaster slung across his back. Or perhaps he travelled incognito, in a trenchcoat and dark glasses. Either way, somewhere on that street, the heart of Swinging London at the height of peace and love, he opened the door of the cage and unleashed two bright green birds: Adam and Eve, a breeding pair of ring-necked parakeets.

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Jimi
Jimi Hendrix in Montagu Place, London, in 1967 Photograph: David Magnus/Rex Features

As they vanished, a flash of tropical colour against the grey sky, passersby merely shrugged: just more hippy weirdness. Was it a psychedelic stunt? A symbolic gesture of freedom? The result of a week-long drugs bacchanal? No one really knows. What we do know is that this incident is the indisputable origin of Londons population of feral parakeets, which now number in the tens of thousands and have spread from Hounslow to Haringey, Croydon to Crouch End.

Unless that story is not true, and actually Londons parakeets arrived in 1951 with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. The Hollywood stars were in town filming The African Queen at Isleworth Studios (or Shepperton Studios, depending on who you ask). A romantic adventure set in the equatorial swamps of east Africa, the film required exotic extras, so a flock of ring-necked parakeets was unwisely brought on set. Whether these resourceful birds escaped before, during or after filming has not been definitively established they certainly dont appear in the film, which I have watched frame by frame but what lies beyond all reasonable doubt is that these cinematic escapees were the progenitors of todays population.

Unless, of course, that is fake news, and the parakeets owe their current success to George Michael in the 1990s. Either burglars broke into the singers Hampstead townhouse and wrecked his secret aviary he never reported the crime, presumably wary of police involvement or they escaped during a drunken argument involving Michael and Boy George in a flat they are rumoured to have shared in Brockley.

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A parakeet in St Jamess Park, London. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

Unless they made their bid for freedom during the Great Storm of 1987.

Unless they escaped from the livestock transportation area in Heathrow airport.

Unless they fled Henry VIIIs menagerie at Hampton Court Palace in the mid-16th century and somehow remained hidden for the next 400 years.

If you ask random Londoners how parakeets came to thrive in their city streaking in squadron-like formations through parks, down roads and along canals, following regular flyways as punctually as business commuters the chances are that one of these theories will be told as fact. No one is ever sure where they heard it. They are classic urban myths, spreading through word of mouth, mutating and evolving a little with every teller. Whatever the truth, or lack of it, these stories are a sign that Londons parakeets, in their short time among us, have become deeply lodged in the citys collective imagination.

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Katharine
Katharine Hepburn cycles to Worton Hall Studios, Isleworth, in 1951 for work on the film The African Queen. Photograph: PA

Sadly, there is a more prosaic explanation. Small, charismatic and brilliantly coloured though voiced with a horrendous squawk parakeets have been popular as pets for hundreds of years. We have no idea how many arrived in Britain through Londons busy docks, or how many seized the first opportunity to escape, but dozens or hundreds of individuals must have gained freedom over the years, flocking together for protection and enthusiastically breeding.

Their success was limited at first. The earliest recorded sightings were in Dulwich in 1893 and Brixton in 1894. A breeding pair were reported in Epping Forest in 1930. It wasnt until the late 20th century that the first large colony was established, roosting noisily in the trees by the river at Kingston-upon-Thames, where they became such a local feature that many people still know the birds as Kingston parakeets. For decades they were an exotic novelty, exclusive to south-west London.

Then, perhaps 10 years ago, began the great green expansion.

Parakeet expansion in London map

First they spread into Richmond and Kew. Then they crossed the Thames. They established themselves in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Regents Park, and moved north into Highgate and Hampstead Heath, west into Holland Park and Notting Hill, and east along the Regents Canal into Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes. Almost overnight they appeared in places theyd never been in before, and quickly became almost as ubiquitous as pigeons. In the space of a few short years they spread to every borough and even beyond the M25, following in the path of generations of upwardly mobile Londoners by departing the grimy inner city for the Home Counties.

Amazingly, this mass colonisation an audacious ecological shift went largely unremarked upon until very recently. Despite the parakeets colour, numbers and noise, no one (apart from the urban mythologists and boozy anecdotists in pubs) seemed to consider it worthy of attention.

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Henry VIII. Photograph: DEA/G Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images

A clue to their unlikely success can be found in Londons map. The capital soon to be branded the worlds first National Park City consists of 47% green space, including 35,000 acres of parks, commons, woodlands, wetlands, cemeteries, allotments and gardens. To avian eyes it is less urban jungle than, well, jungle. This verdant sprawl offers parakeets an enormous range of habitats, with plentiful opportunities for nesting (in old tree cavities and abandoned woodpecker holes) and feeding (on just about everything, from nuts, seeds, fruit and berries to the offerings on bird tables).

They dont have a problem with the climate. Although people commonly assume parakeets are tropical birds at home, say, in the sweltering jungles portrayed in The African Queen their south Asian native range extends into the foothills of the Himalayas, so they are unperturbed by mild English winters. As temperatures rise year-on-year they will probably fare even better: not so much climate refugees as climate beneficiaries.

What does this population boom mean for native British birds? Do the parakeets spell disaster for indigenous species? Are they wreaking ecological havoc? Their detractors condemn them as illegal immigrants, invaders aggressively driving out the local population, and the tabloids periodically clamour for a cull. The government has quietly ruled this out as no longer cost-effective or viable, concluding that there are simply too many of the birds. In other words, they are here to stay. Their defenders admire their beauty and celebrate their diversity, holding them up as paragons of successful integration. As with the myths surrounding them, often the facts become secondary to what people want to believe. Parakeets are blank canvases on to which Londoners project their own prejudices, values, beliefs, hopes and fears. They have been weaponised.

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A woman feeds parakeets in London. Photograph: Tim Mitchell

The general consensus from experts, as always, is a lot more nuanced. Rather than making dire predictions of avian apocalypse, most ecologists agree it is too early to tell. There is some concern that parakeets smart, fast and sociable can outmanoeuvre garden birds in the feeding frenzy at bird tables, and their choice of nesting sites brings them into competition with nuthatches and other secondary cavity nesters that inhabit old woodpecker holes. But so far there seems to be more than enough food and foliage to go around. In terms of the threats facing native British birdlife, the greatest peril comes not from parakeets, but from native British people.

In an age of climate emergency, with mass extinction ripping apart the fabric of the living world, when the dominant narrative of our times is one of loss and disappearance, collapse and diminishment, parakeets tell a different story. These plucky newcomers beat the odds, not only surviving but thriving. In a nature-depleted culture, when city dwellers are supposedly alienated from the environment and anything that is feral or wild, parakeets are the subject of outlandish speculation, the source of mystery, imagination and everyday wonder. They are a reminder to look up. To keep paying attention.

In the simplest terms, its hard not to find that uplifting.

The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology, by Nick Hunt and Tim Mitchell, is published by Paradise Road

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