On location: parakeets in London

One of the more bizarre changes I’ve witnessed over the past 20 years or so has been the vast increase in the numbers of Indian rose-ringed parakeets on my manor. Commonly referred to as the ring-neck parakeet, Psittacula krameri manillensis is a bird of such raucousness that were I to get my hands on one, I would cheerfully wring its neck.

I first noticed them when walking to the west of London in the late 1990s – at that time there were already flocks numbering in their thousands around Kingston. The urban myth is that the British-based parakeets weren’t economic migrants, nor asylum-seekers, but bona fide immigrants with jobs to go to as extras for the filming of The African Queen at Isleworth Studios in 1951. Once their decorative role was done, the parakeets escaped into the adjacent and bosky ’burbs. Not that this is an exclusively metropolitan phenomenon – there are colonies of ring-necks established as far afield as Sefton Park in Liverpool, and south Manchester.

Actually, the parakeets are quite handsome birds, pale green in hue, with a distinctive dark-grey neck ring. In flight, their long, forked tails lend their appearance something – though not much – of our native swallow. At any rate, once they open their distinctively psittacine beaks (red and hooky) to give voice, you wonder if you’re not in Kingston any more, Dorothy. In some ways the ring-necks’ cry is reminiscent of any typically cheep-cheeping native British garden bird; yet there is no melody to it, while the timbre implies it cannot possibly be emanating from such a small bundle of feathers, but is rather issuing from a traffic cone being used as a “musical instrument” by a sozzled busker. It is also rather corvid, the ring-neck’s cry – suggestive of an intelligence more knowing than we expect from most birds.

But then the psittacidae and corvidae have this in common: both species are ridiculously clever. Crows know how to bluff their competitors while concealing food caches. As for parrots, recent research has established that when they talk they are genuinely speaking, rather than simply, um, parroting us. Naturally, ornithologists took a long while to detect this because they couldn’t believe any other sentient being was possessed of an ironic sensibility to match that of the British intelligentsia. (Think about it – think about being a captive in a tiny cage with some monstrous, Brobdingnagian face looming over you while a foghorn voice repeats, over and over again, “Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly.” Wouldn’t you “Pretty Polly” it right back?)

As the populations of ring-necks have expanded and expanded, so they’ve lent an unheimlich character to the urban environment; it was one thing to chance upon three or four of them while wandering on the outskirts of London, but to see a whole flock in tight formation doing a fly-past of the Houses of Parliament on a hot, wet January evening is to realise something is definitely afoot. And while I did say that I’d cheerfully wring an individual ring-neck’s neck, I don’t have anything at all against them en masse. Quite the contrary, in fact: I think ring-necks add great gaiety to British skies. Moreover, they’re far more in keeping with our rapidly transmogrifying climate than many of our native species, as they’re omnivorous and emphatically non-migratory.

But busybody birders fanatically wish to preserve those native species against the ring-necks’ deprivations – given that the newbies have a voracious appetite for all available forage, are invariably first to the feeder, and can beat off all other comers with one wing tied behind their enviable tail feathers. Anyway, when you consider that the origins of most escapee species lie either in the imperial project (rhododendrons, buddleia) or misguided attempts to establish a new source of food (rabbits, muntjac deer and so on), then the ring-necks’ filmic backstory makes them seem altogether more benign. Still, when you chance upon a big crowd of them, all chuckling and kraarking and cawing, it can be an intimidating sight.

The worry is that they’ll go mad. I’m never bothered about the average bird going mad, because it has never struck me that they have much of a grip on reality to begin with. But ring-neck parakeets are, as I think I’ve already made crystal-clear, immigrants; and epidemiological studies consistently confirm that immigrants – regardless of their ethnicity, or religion – always have substantially higher levels of mental illness than indigenes. Immigrants, almost by definition, are smart and enterprising – and their experience of diverse cultures makes it hard for them to suspend disbelief in arbitrary customs and social mores. If sanity is a kind of unquestioning conformity, then to be mad is to fly free as a bird. Unless, that is, you’re a bird already.

One ring-necked parakeet was roosting on my window ledge when I began writing this column. Since then another 30 or 40 have joined him. They’re tapping on the pane with their sharp beaks – soon enough they’ll be in the room. Still, I’m confident I’ll be able to talk my way out of getting pecked to death, so long as no one’s been stupid enough to teach them to … read.