In an era when many of our hole-nesting woodland birds have declined it seems incredible that one quite large and noisy non-native species is thriving.
The ring-necked parakeet, Psittacula krameria, also known as the rose-ringed parakeet, has long been a popular cage-bird in the UK and despite it now being illegal to release non-native species into the wild records suggest spasmodic sightings and possible breeding of this bird in the wild as long ago as 1855. It wasn’t until 1969 that continuous breeding began and eventually the bird was added to ‘Category C’ of the British Bird List in 1984, meaning its population is ‘feral and self-sustaining’.
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Numbers in the UK
The first survey of its population, in 1986, estimated its population at about 1000 birds and its distribution was almost entirely in London and the home counties, with a few in the north west of England. By 1993 its numbers had increased particularly in London and Kent, its total population then estimated as several thousand, though a well-organised roost count in 1996 suggested there were only about 1500 birds (J.A. Pithon & C. Dytham (1999)).
The variation in estimates is more likely to be due to the techniques used for counting rather than fluctuations in the number of birds. In 2012 there were an estimated 17,200 birds (British Trust for Ornithology) and now it is thought likely that the total British population exceeds 30,000.
The stronghold of this species is still within the M25 but there is a clear spread in Kent and to the south and west of London with smaller populations established across much of England, parts of Wales and even southern/central Scotland. Well-established breeding groups now occur in Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh.
We are not alone in this phenomenon. Despite the ring-necked parakeet being a tropical species native to Africa and much of southern Asia it is now enjoying success in many other European cities including Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam.
Threat to native species
There has been much concern and consternation about the spread of this species. This concern is not without foundation because the ring-necked parakeet is regarded as a pest species in some parts of the world. In Israel, for example, parakeets have caused extensive damage to crops of almonds, sunflowers and pecans. In the UK there are concerns that they might also cause damage to crops but there is little evidence of this to date.
One way in which ring-necked parakeets might have a detrimental impact on our native species is in the occupation of nest holes. Where they are very common around the world parakeets will occupy holes in buildings but in Britain they almost exclusively nest in tree holes putting them in direct competition with some of our native species. Unlike our native birds the parakeets begin pair-bonding and nest-hole occupation in autumn with breeding starting in January. This means that the parakeets have the pick of the best tree holes, leaving later-breeding birds to fight over what’s left.
This might have an impact on similar-sized tree-hole nesting species such as the starling and maybe jackdaws. Smaller birds such as blue and great tit will not be affected, and woodpeckers can make their own nest holes.
Ring-necked parakeet diet
Parakeets eat a wide range of food. In the wild this consists mostly of seed and berries. In autumn they love to eat sweet chestnuts which are abundant in the parks such as at Richmond. They will also feed from bird tables where they take a variety of scraps and in some places, such as Hyde Park, they will even take food from the hand.
Identifying the ring-necked parakeet
Ring-necked parakeets are very distinctive birds. They have emerald-green plumage with a crimson, hooked bill. Their long tails are blue-green and males have a neck collar of black and pink, hence the alternative name ‘rose-ringed parakeet’.
Despite their bright colours and relatively large size it is surprising that they can stay quite well hidden amongst the tree tops but even when out of sight they give away their presence with their loud screeching calls.
Flocks of birds will gather together at dusk when they head to communal roosts where sometimes many hundreds will congregate. This can be a wonderfully impressive sight, but I am never quite sure whether I should rejoice the success of this species or worry about the possible consequences of its spread.
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