As the long winter months begin, the sky over wandsworth common turns a steely grey, during the fleeting daylight hours, the sun permanently hidden behind a thick sephulcral cloak. And yet, if you look up, it isn't uncommon to see the dark wash of the sky flecked with bright green, and if you listen, you can often hear a loud, brash squawk, cut through the icy stillness. Parakeets have been seen in South London for many years, with their exuberant plumage and attention-seeking calls having drawn the curiousity of residents for decades. 


Parakeets have their origins in India, where they are seen as common pests, who decimate crops every year. Those same voracious habits can be observed in London, where they can be seen stripping trees of their blossoms and buds, or rapdily emptying garden bird feeders intended for much smaller birds. How they reached London is still a mystery, and experts speculate that the first specimen could have arrived by boat as early as 1852. However, they truly took root in the 1950's and 60's, with a popular urban legend being that Jimi Hendrix released a pair in Carnaby Street in 1960, with others alledging that they were released from the set of the film "The African Queen" at Ealing Studios. However they arrived here, it is clear that they have a strong foothold, with the RSPB estimating there to be 50'000 birds in the UK. The reasons for their success are also a subject of speculation, with an abdundance of garden bird feeders being one suspected cause, as well as climate change leading to a climate which they find more comfortable, especially in cities. However, this last point is of dubious accuracy, with writer and naturalist Dave Lindo pointing out that Parakeets survive at altitudes of up to 4000 feet in the himalayas, part of their natural habitat.


However, not everyone is as enthusiastic about these newcomers, with some perceiving them as foreign invaders displacing native bird species. Large, loud, and flamboyant, they certainly look out of place amongst traditional British birds. However, they have not been observed to be destructive to native birds, or provide harmful competition, with classic garden birds such as blue tits continuing to thrive. Although they do put up some competition, especially when it comes to nesting, they have no detrimental effects on other bird populations. 


Parakeets are also, unwittingly, an excelllent ambassador for birds as a whole and conservation organisations such as the RSPB - a brightly coloured, exotic parrot is much likely to draw a budding birdwatchers attention than a more drab looking native species. This is particularly essential at a time when many UK species are undergoing decline, either due to habitat destruction or urbanisation or even excessive use of pesticides on farmland. Birds that were once commonly seen are becoming a rarity, and rarer birds are sliding towards extinction. Even birds of prey such as raptors are under significant threat from farmers who cull them to protect poultry stocks. In other words, there is no better time to raise awareness and to inspire a new generation of bird watchers and activists, and the ring necked parakeet, whatever you may think of it, is just the right bird for the job.


So, next time you hear a squawk whilst out and about, look up and take a look at this unlikely resident, and maybe spare a thought for its less colourful, struggling cousins, and how you can help them stay flying.


Leo Kavanagh