No doubt you’ve seen them darting across London’s skies. A flash of bright green splitting through the air, quickly followed by another and another. It used to be that the most exciting colour you’d see on a bird was the red plumage on an aggressive robin, but that was before a band of rose-ringed parakeets expanded their grip on London.
Rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula Krameri) proliferate in London. In 2012 it was estimated there were around 32,000 of them – a number that would have risen significantly in subsequent years thanks to their rather voracious breeding habits.
But how did these feral parakeets – native to Africa and the Indian Subcontinent – come to rule London’s skies?
Turns out the answer isn’t as easy to find as you might think… but the road to discovery is quite a ride, careering through rumours of bust ups between pop stars, massive storms and burgled houses.
How Did Parakeets Come to London?
Ask ten city-dwellers about how the green parakeets came to London and I’ll wager you get ten different stories (well, more likely five different stories and a few blank stares). They range from the near-believable to the downright bizarre – proof if ever you needed it that Londoners can spin a good yarn from even the simplest of events.
In 1968, Jimi Hendrix, giddy with the high of having released his final studio album, Electric Ladyland, strolled into the streets of Mayfair. He bore a birdcage in his hands, paying little attention to the traffic that blared down the streets, the suits that passed him on the pavement. Rather surprisingly, given that he was one of the biggest rock stars of the decade, he too was ignored.
Instead Hendrix’s eyes remained fixed on the birdcage, more specifically its two inhabitants – a pair of rose-ringed parakeets Quant and Halston. The moment arrived and he stopped dead, opening the door of the cage and setting the two birds free.
Over time, two became four, four became eight and the wild parrots spread across London.
The Great Storm of 1987
Wait, wait, that doesn’t sound right. Everyone knows that the first wild parakeets in London were spied much later than that. Remember the Great Storm of 1987 when a hurricane cyclone ripped through the British Isles?
The storm blew through a house near Esher, caving in its windows and emptying the contents of the front room all over the lawn and into the road. Amidst all the confusion it took a couple of days before the family realised their prized pair of breeding parakeets had escaped. Once, the youngest thought he spied one of them in the local park – it wasn’t long before the local paper started reporting sightings of a small flock of parakeets.
The African Queen
No, both of those are wrong. The real history lies in the filming of The African Queen in 1951. The film’s stars, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were filming at Isleworth Studios.
The director, John Huston wanted the film to look as realistic as possible so he ordered for a flock of parakeets to be brought on set, ready for their appearance on the silver screen. The wily birds, bored of waiting for their moment to shine took umbrage at what they saw as a failure to respect their precious time, escaped into the wilds, stealthily growing in number since.
Others say it was a burglary of George Michael’s home that did it – those that say it was a bust up between Michael and Boy George disagree, but only on the means of escape – they’re also convinced the tale of London’s parakeets lies at Michael’s door.
Yet more tell you equally lurid theories – their earnest faces and dead serious eyes almost convincing you they’re speaking the truth.
Disproving the Myths
Unfortunately, the truth appears to be a lot more boring than any of these urban legends would have you believe. Although scientists can’t pinpoint the date or location that birthed the flocks of green parrots in London, they can tell you that they did not originate from a single place or a single time.
It makes sense when you think about it. Londoners’ affinity for keeping parakeets as pets stretches back hundreds of years. It was almost inevitable that some were going to escape into the wild. Recorded sightings of wild parakeets in London date back to 1893 when a pair were reported in Dulwich. They grew in frequency, to the point that today no-one would think to even report it – doing so akin to reporting seeing a pigeon on Trafalgar Square.
Part of their success can be ascribed to London’s abundance of green spaces (it falls within the UN definition of a forest after all). Used to the much colder climes of regions like the lower parts of the Himalayas, London, with its relatively warm and wet winters is no challenge.
It’s too early to tell how their presence has affected native species. Despite much worry and speculation, there’s no concrete evidence they’re particularly detrimental – but the jury’s still out.
Where to Find Parakeets in London?
An easier question would probably be where not to find them. Parakeets have spread far and wide across London, although you’ll find large flocks in Mitcham Common, Kensington Gardens, Lewisham Crematorium, Esher Rugby Club, Battersea Park and pretty much everywhere in Kingston Upon Thames. If in doubt, follow the loud squawks.
Looking for More Quirky London Guides?
Check these out…
Unusual London Guide Book
Weird Facts about London You Never Knew
Ultimate London Quiz – How Well do you Really Know London?