29.3.2021
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Walk
An Immigrant Story

The population of Britain's glorious green ring-necked parakeets is booming. But, with threats of a cull looming, what can the untold history of London's loftiest immigrant community tell us about the immigrant experience in the UK? It’s a story that somehow combines Jimi Hendrix and Pablo Escobar, so read on to find out how parakeets came to these shores.

Bird Sightings:

What we talk about when we talk about parakeets changes from person to person. Where some are uplifted when they see a bolt of brilliant green streaking across a grey London sky, others feel a pang of climate change anxiety or have darker thoughts about flying rats and foreign invaders. Parakeets are a blank wall that we project ourselves onto, a public theatre for our prejudices and preconceptions to be played out.


One Friday morning, a small group of Flock Together members travelled to Kensington Park Gardens in West London to meet some of the locals. Like so many Londoners, these locals were born in Britain but their heritage is Indian. The forces of trade and empire brought their ancestors to England in large numbers as early as the 1890s. Since then, they’ve made a life here, raised children and grandchildren here, and built thriving communities. But because they look different and speak with a “funny” accent, they’re still treated as outsiders in the only home they’ve ever known. Many still question their right to be in this country. Their own government treats them with hostility, branding them as “alien invaders”. Sections of the media are worse, whipping up resentment with dog-whistle descriptors like “Britain’s Plague”, and headlines asking “Should we cull the squawking parakeets?”


The bitter cocktail of daily micro-aggressions and institutional insults that the ring-necked parakeets are subjected to will be a familiar taste to any British citizen with non-white heritage.


PARAKEET 101

With so much prejudice circling the parakeet debate, it’s good to go back to basics.


The chatty green birds you see in London are ring-necked parakeets. If you want to sound smug you can call them by their scientific name, psittacula krameri, and tell your friends that they nest in holes, can live up to 34 years in captivity, and have been popular pets as far back as Ancient Greece.


There are four recognised subspecies of ring-necked parakeets: African, Abyssinian, Indian and Boreal. You can already detect western bias and implicit racism within those scientific classifications. The “African” ring-necked parakeet, for example, has a native territory that crosses a range of vastly different African countries,  from Guinea and Senegal in the west to Uganda in the east and Egypt in the north.


London’s parakeets are dual heritage descendants of the two Southern Asian subspecies. The Indian rose-ringed parakeet originates from the southern end of the Indian subcontinent, while the boreal rose-ringed parakeet is the more northern cousin that’s found across Bangladesh, Pakistan, Northern India and Nepal. One look at a parakeet’s brilliant green plumage and people assume they are warm weather birds. But with a native territory that extends up to the snow-covered foothills of the Himalayas, these tough little birds can tolerate the mild London winters with no issue.


The first isolated sightings of wild parakeets in London date as far back as 1893 in Dulwich and 1894 in Brixton, but it wasn’t until around 1970 in Kent that a breeding population was established. After that, the parakeet’s expansion across the map can be divided into two periods. First came the gradual growth of the population up to about 1,500 birds by 1996, with isolated local hot spots in places like Esher and Kingston upon Thames. This steady start was followed by a huge population spike from the mid-90s onward, which saw parakeets tip over from south London curiosity to citywide ever-present, viewable in almost every park and green space in the city, with a total population of 30,000 birds and climbing by 2010.


We tend to think of these birds as Londoners, but you can now find ring-necked parakeets in almost every county in the UK, scattered throughout Wales and as far north as Glasgow and Edinburgh. Beyond the borders of our small island, parakeets are truly international. The global ring-necked parakeet diaspora extends to 35 countries around the world and every continent apart from Antarctica. They are one of nature’s most successful exports.

AVIAN INVADERS & CARTEL HIPPOS

IAS: that’s the UK government classification for ring-necked parakeets. It stands for “invasive alien species”, for anyone not fluent in administrative jargon.


Words matter; especially when they come from those in power. To brand parakeets invaders is to fundamentally misrepresent their nature and ignore the role humans have played in their story. Animals don’t invade, they have no concept of nations or borders. If a non-migratory species has crossed an ocean or traversed a continent, there are usually other forces at play.

 

In the 1980s, Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar imported four hippos, which are native to Sub-Saharan Africa, for the private zoo at his Hacienda Napoles estate. Pablo may have become bored with his existing collection of giraffes, elephants and exotics birds in his private zoo and thought hippos would pack more of a punch, so he bought them and had them shipped across the Atlantic, away from their home and into his.


Over time, Pablo’s hippos did what hippos do and four soon became forty. When Pablo was shot and killed in 1993 he left behind a problem: what to do with all of these hippos? The Columbian government tried to step in, but hippos are understandably expensive to keep, and they have a mind of their own. Skip ahead to today and because of one man’s impulsive shopping spree eighty wild hippos roam wild across Columbia.

Pablo’s hippos and London’s parakeets are two sides of the same coin, living metaphors for humanity’s careless treatment of wild creatures. We move plants and animals around the world with the casualness of rearranging furniture. The story of every so-called “invasive” species has a human author.


Caged birds have served as status symbols throughout history. What began as luxury items to furnish royal courts and private palaces eventually became mass-market commodities due to the supercharged trade of the British Empire.


From the mid-1800s, wild birds and beasts of all shapes and sizes arrived at London’s ports by the shipload. By 1895 there were 118 wild animal shops in the capital alone, with more across the country. A Victorian gent’ with money in his pocket could walk in off the street and walk out with an African grey parrot or, if he had £300 (around £30,000 in today’s money), a Bengal tiger.


In 1930, the spread of parrot fever, an illness that jumps from pet birds to their human owners bringing on typhoid-like symptoms, had reached pandemic level. This paused the import of parakeets until the early-1970s, when they became popular pets again. An EU-wide ban on the trade of wild birds came into force in 2005 but still, between 1975 and 2005, around half a million parrots were imported into the UK (excluding smaller birds like budgies and cockatiels).


But despite this decades-long mass importation of parakeets, myths and theories about how they came to London still persist. If you’ve heard one thing about London’s parakeets before reading this, it’s probably one of the many competing origin stories.


There’s the one about a flock of birds escaping the set of The African Queen in London in 1951 and taking up home in local parks. Then there’s the one about Jimi Hendrix and his girlfriend releasing a breeding pair on Carnaby Street in 1968 as a symbol of peace. Another one involves a break-in at George Michael's secret Hampstead aviary that let the parakeets lose into the wild. Like all good myths, this one is less about the truth and more about its ability to change and respawn as the years go by, attaching itself to a new celebrity host to maintain its relevance.


People are drawn to the fantastical one-off origin story - the parakeet version of Peter Parker’s spider bite - but the truth about how ring-necked parakeets came to the UK is much more mundane and everyday. The Parrot Society UK estimates that a minimum of 400 captive parrots escape each year in Britain. Add up all the accidental escapes, the broken aviary fences, and the cages doors left open and, over time, you end up with a wild parakeet population.


These birds were not invaders. They didn’t fly here from India as part of some sinister scheme to replace British birds. They were wild birds brought to the UK in cages who, via thousands of isolated escapes and small liberations, gradually regained their freedom.


LONDON: PARAKEET CITY

Once ring-necked parakeets were let loose in London there was no stopping them. With 47% green space, our concrete jungle technically falls within the UN’s definition of a forest and has been branded the world’s first National Park City. The capital is a network of interconnected parks, gardens, and green spaces that the parakeets have plugged into, slowly expanding their territory, year by year, street by street.

As a species, parakeets prefer city life. London’s microclimate is warmer than the surrounding countryside and generously stocked bird feeders provide a steady source of food throughout the year. The city has also offered parakeets a level of protection. Since 2010, it has been legal for landholders to shoot ring-necked parakeets without a license, along with a list of other bird species that pose a threat to crops or public health. Fruit farmers on the south coast already have parakeets in their sights. As with many immigrant communities before them, the parakeets have found shelter and tolerance in city spaces.

In fact, the birds have adapted to London life so authentically that they commute. A ring-necked parakeet’s territory can extend over 7km. Walk around any London park at dusk and you’ll see gangs of green flying in close formation, following the same invisible flight paths that connect their daytime feeding grounds to their evening roosts. This daily display has become part of the city’s natural rhythm, somewhere between the morning clatter of the rubbish collectors and the evening hum of rush hour.

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THE VIEW FROM THE TOP

The RSPB’s latest estimate suggests there are 50,000 ring-necked parakeets in the UK, while others put the figure far higher. Whatever the true number, the direction of travel is clear, with many experts projecting that the ring-necked parakeet will become Britain’s most common bird over the next few years. If chicken tikka masala is England’s national dish, is the Indian ring-necked parakeet destined to become our national bird?


When you’re at the top it’s easy for people to take aim at you. The most common complaint you’ll hear about parakeets is that they’re noisy, which they can be. They also have a delicate and varied vocal range and can mimic human voices. Blaming a parakeet for squawking is like blaming a dog for barking. Moreover, a sound that’s nuisance to some ears might be simultaneously evocative to others; a few bars of a classical Indian raga that soothes the soul and speaks to some bone deep heritage.


Observations about parakeets hogging bird feeders and using nesting sites also favoured by woodpeckers and nuthatches needs further scientific study before harm is proven. “Evidence so far of their impact in the UK is anecdotal, localised and negligible”, says Dr Rachel White of Brighton University, a senior lecturer with research expertise in avian ecology and conservation science.


This hasn’t stopped the media from citing this speculation as fact. Reporting on parakeets tends to amplify fears about growing parakeet numbers, while misleading suggesting they are the main cause of native bird decline. We’re living through an age of mass decline in biodiversity, insect life in the UK is at the point of near collapse and loss of habitat is increasing at an alarming rate. But if British birds are under threat, it must be the fault of the immigrants.

 

The same scientific studies that are cited to throw shade on parakeets also contain positive points that don’t make it into the papers. You won’t have read, for example, about the early evidence that smaller nesting birds benefit when parakeets are around as they draw the attention of predators. Or what about the knock on benefits to British birds of prey? Sparrowhawks, tawny owls and peregrine falcons have all tried this new dish and come back for seconds.


Listen carefully to many of the criticisms of ring-necked parakeets and you’ll be able to detect uncomfortable echoes of right wing ideology: talk of population bombs and white nationalist conspiracies like The Great Replacement theory. “These foreign birds, coming over here, taking our nesting sites.”


Cloaking racist ideas in the language of environmentalism is nothing new. Eco-fascism - which blames migration and overpopulation for environmental collapse - has a long history, especially in America where it’s seeing a worrying resurgence among certain prominent Republicans, like Texas senator Ted Cruz.


Nature is not an unchanging monolith. Too often acts of conservation are actually forms of oppression, ways to preserve the dominant point of view. By virtue of their success, ring-necked parakeets have placed themselves on the front lines of this, often ugly, fight.  

TO CULL OR NOT TO CULL?

In early-January 2021, the Telegraph published an article citing unnamed government sources that suggested a UK parakeet cull was imminent.


Fortunately, the time for witty protest signs and ‘Save the Parakeets’ gov.org petitions hasn’t come quite yet. The idea of a cull has been in and out of the press for over a decade. Experts, including the RSPB, have made it clear that the parakeets are already too widespread and numerous for a cull to be practical. Any parakeet haters out there who still think that a cull is the smart move should Google “The Emu War” before finally committing to their position.


We shouldn’t pretend that ring-necked parakeets are benign. The great Indian ornithologist, Sálim Ali, described them as “one of the most destructive birds” due to their impact on agriculture, and it’s this potential threat to farming, not to nature, that’s ruffled human feathers in the UK. You won’t read tabloid headlines whipping up fears about the environmental impact of North American rainbow trout or the Indian common pheasant, because these are non-native species that have been introduced for their commercial value. They are the archetype of the good immigrant, staying in their lane, delivering what is expected, and living under the control of the dominant authority.


The parakeets’ experience brings to mind the Goodness Gracious Me skit where the two Indian families try to outdo each other in ostentatious assimilation, competing to be more British than the Brits. The Kapoors self-styled as The Coopers, engaged in increasingly elaborate and over the top displays of Englishness, grasping for acceptance that will always be withheld. Whatever they do, these loud and beautiful birds will never fit within some people’s definition of “British”.


“To be an immigrant, good or bad, is about straddling two homes, whilst knowing you don’t really belong to either”, the writer Reni Eddo-Lodge has observed. Indian ring-necked parakeets have earned their right to call the UK home. Like Canada geese, grey squirrels, little owls, and rhododendron bushes before them, they have joined the long list of non-native UK species that have found a foothold in this country. They are the everyday reminders of a lost empire that once covered half the world, which is perhaps why these innocent birds spark such deep-seated resentment from certain white observers. To borrow the title of Ian Sanjay Patel’s new book, We’re Here Because You Were There.


No animal deserves to carry the weight of human prejudices. Birds have no vision of borders. They’re not aliens or invaders. We brought ring-necked parakeets to this country, now we have a responsibility to protect them.

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WORDS: Mark Fountain

DESIGN: Lauren Harewood

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