Ring-Necked Parakeets

Following the recent announcement by DEFRA to consider the control of these birds, this article is an attempt to provide some background on the bird, the issues and what we could do to possibly reduce negative impacts.


I recall the first time I saw a ring-necked parakeet. It was around 15 years ago and I was cycling along the path on the Great West Road in Hammersmith. I almost had a heart attack as I saw a bright green bird, dead on the path in front of me. I am surprised I didn't go over my handlebars given how quickly I braked.


I naturally assumed it was an escaped pet that met an unhappy end but soon realised that there were groups of them flying around west London. They used to annoy me as they devoured the food in my terrace bird feeder within a day.

The ring-necked parakeet, also known as the rose-ringed parakeet, are endemic to Africa and southern Asia. The adult male has a red and black neck ring, whilst the female and young either have no neck ring or it is pale to dark grey. They are also a long lived species, known to live to over 30 in captivity (this would be less in the wild).


The myths surrounding their presence in London is wide and varied with a lot written about it, so I will leave that to you to look into. However, in 20 years they have increase by 1,455 % numbering around 50,000. Therefore, given their abundance across the city, you would need to be both deaf and blind to not know about them.


They feed on buds, fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries and seeds. In addition, they forage in farmlands and orchards and as such, can cause extensive damage. A warming climate is advantageous and they are the only parrot to breed so far north being found in many northern European countries.


Their diversity of food provides them with a huge advantage and as we no doubt all know, they devour food from bird feeders.

On stored grain and a common sight in our gardens (Photos by J.F. Gmelin and the Telegraph)


They are commonly found in woodland, urban parks and cultivated areas surrounded by trees. In the UK, they appear to prefer urban habitats populated by humans with no signs of them colonising the countryside. However, they have now moved from London and can be found in Birmingham, Oxford, and Manchester and the North East.

Parrotnet Parakeet sighting map, Kent Uni

They prefer to nest in pre-existing holes in trees (secondary cavity nesters) although they have been know to reside in buildings and less commonly, rock cavities.

Parakeets at Horsenden Woods, NW London

Whilst they are undeniably beautiful and brighten up a grey London sky, they are listed amongst the top 100 worst alien species in Europe. As such, this month the UK announced that DEFRA are considering shooting 'satellite populations'.


So, what are the reasons for this?


Issues

Competition: The problem with any non-native species is that they can have a negative impact on native fauna and flora.


Being relatively large and noisy birds, they can be aggressive towards other species, dominating food. A 2007 Belgian study showed that the nuthatch were the species most likely to suffer from competition as they all nest in cavities. This is partly because the parakeets start breeding earlier than nuthatches, therefore they select nest sites before the nuthatches can.


Both the Belgian and a German study found that the starling species had low competition due to different tree species use and tree diameter. Observations have been made of starlings taking over two nests occupied by parakeets in addition to one case of the reverse. This demonstrates that whilst parakeets can be dominant, starlings are capable of evicting their unwanted friends.


There have been accounts of other species such as tits, doves and bats suffering from the competition including direct killings observed against raptors and corvids and dead or weakened bats being found close to trees used by ring-necked parakeets. In Seville, ring-necked parakeets have been found to displace rare and vulnerable bat species.


In the UK, the species most at risk from nest-sites include: kestrel, stock dove, green woodpecker, jackdaw, starling, great spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, great tit, tree sparrow, little owl and tawny owl. A 2003 study reported the majority of nest cavities used by parakeets were originally excavated by green woodpecker.


Damage: The effect of the parakeets on native flora has been poorly studied although crop damages have been cited across many European countries. A 2014 study found Parakeets can damage crops. Whilst a study in Barcelona showed that monk parakeets have caused a 30% reduction in corn, plum and pear harvests.


Whilst uncommon, in 2005, 1 out of 54 and in 2006, 2 our of 44 bird strikes in Heathrow were caused by parakeets with each bird strike costing in excess of £20,000.


However...they are not without their predators:

Species that could potentially predate on parakeets in the UK, either on eggs, nestlings or individual birds include sparrow hawk, hobby - seen attempting to catch parakeets in flight at a roost in Surrey, peregrine falcon, gull species, corvids and grey squirrels.

Sparrow hawk predating on parakeet, Surrey Photo: Mark Stanley

What is DEFRA proposing?


Ministers are apparently concerned about the ring-necked parakeet's rapid expansion from London's parks to locations much further afield. As a result, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are considering shooting 'satellite populations' of ring-necked parakeets for the first time. They are in discussions about a cull, with no definitive plans made.

  • Complete removal of existing parakeet populations is not feasible and the government (DEFRA) are looking to prevent the colonisation of new areas.

  • Removing populations of species still in the early stages of their invasion will avoid future parakeet problems.

What others say:

As a whole, there is no strong evidence that parakeets are causing significant negative impacts. However, it is likely that if tree cavities were to become more limited, competition could affect native species more significantly.

People are very divided about them: some hate them, some love them! Nick Hunt, co-author of, The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology unashamedly loves them. Whilst not a scientific based reason to protect them, he has found that whilst people's views on the birds were mixed with many providing them with hope in a time of despair.

Taken from Twitter, Nick Hunt @underscrutiny

The RSPB is

not in favour of a cull of parakeets at this time, but believes it is important that the spread of the ring-necked parakeet is monitored and its potential for negative impacts on our native bird species assessed.

I have to admit, that I felt the same when carrying out research for this piece. I am not saying it is not there, but I couldn't find anything recent or with a focus of their impact in London or across the UK.


On walks in local woods, I see a great many parakeets, noisily flying around and calling to others, but these woods are filled with jays, magpies, thrushes, blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits, thrushes, blackbirds, crows, robins, all sharing the same habitat so it would be interesting to understand whether locals have in fact seen a decline in birds in this area. Starlings do appear to be absent, however, this would need to be investigated to understand the reasons for this, as I don't know if they were ever present. In addition, I have no idea about the bat populations in this area.


What can we do?


Bird feeders - use bird feeders which prevent access of the parakeets to the food while still allowing access to other species.


Pet owners - many of the populations have come from unwanted pets that have been released into the wild. People need to be educated about the huge risks of doing this with possible systems that enable owners to relinquish unwanted exotic pets.


Citizen science - via sites such as parrotnet, citizen science can provide efficient means of monitoring the population across the UK in the long-run, combined with experimental field research to investigate further their impacts.


Report damage - things such as damage to properties, could be reported so that parakeets can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis at a local scale.


Lobby government to protect nature - as a final point, I have to admit that there is part of me that wonders how much of the decline of native species is due to the government's general neglect for the environment. With projects such as HS2 seeing the destruction of ancient woodlands and hundreds of trees, it seems non-sensical culling birds that are likely to be competing with native birds for trees due to more limited space.


So, whatever the government decides, it looks like these bright green noisy beauties are here to stay.




Photos: Roosting in trees, my own. All others from unsplash or internet sourced


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