Parrots in the wild

Parrots in the wild

by Jonathan Newman


Why is it so important to value parrots in the wild?

Simply because they are one of the most threatened groups of birds. By expressing an interest, you will show the local people that these birds are valued other than as rifle practice or pets. Jamaica is a heavily tourist-dependent nation, yet when I visited everyone was surprised that I was interested in seeing parrots.


People offered to shoot or catch me one, or to show me friends' captive birds but even the resort drivers had not been asked to drive to the roost sites before. If only a fraction of the UK visitors to the Caribbean took a day out from their all-inclusive hotels, this would be a powerful message. The tourists I spoke to did not even know there were parrots in Jamaica, nor did the driver I used.


For those interested, the internet is a great source of information on the best places to go to. So next time you're abroad, check out if there are wild parrots in the area you are visiting. Europe is, admittedly, very poorly served but most other areas of the world will have things to see. Even more importantly, if you do go ensure the people know how valued these incredible birds are. There have already been several examples of birds being saved by ecotourism and any interest is a positive thing.


There have already been several examples of birds being saved by ecotourism and any interest is a positive thing.


As a veterinary surgeon, I see many (mostly larger) parrots suffering from ignorant or uncaring owners as well as those kept by well-meaning people who are not equipped for a large parrot. If we saw a fraction as many dogs or cats with malnutrition there would be public horror, yet many large parrots are kept on inadequate diets with inadequate stimulation. The provision of a correct environment is not easy: that is why not all people are suited to parrot ownership.


I currently have a Meyer's Parrot and a delightful Yellow-crowned Amazon, but would seriously rethink getting another bird in the future.


It is early morning in the rainforest of extreme eastern Amazonian Colombia. I am climbing a steep-sided ridge with three botanists from the university of Bogota and our local guide. The climb is tiring, with loose rock and plenty of thorny plants. After several hours we reach the 1100m summit, wreathed in mist and giving fleeting views across to Venezuela and Brazil. The forest stretches to the horizon in all directions below us. We rest on the tiny steep-sided summit to rehydrate and check our scratches. The mist lowers again all around us so we can hardly see each other. Suddenly, I hear a macaw above us. It sounds close, so our guide imitates the call.


The mist lifts slightly but visibility is still poor. The guide calls again. Magically, 13 Scarlet Macaws come scything through the cloud, so close I feel I can touch them.

They encircle us, keeping tight formation. Even in such a tight flock, you can clearly pick out the paired birds which fly almost touching wingtips. They circle us three times, the sun flashing off their glaring yellow wing bars, before veering off into the cloud. We hear them for several minutes after, fading away across the valley below.


Caribbean

Dawn again, this time in the mountains of western Jamaica. I'm standing on one of the few 'roads' that run through these limestone mountains. The rising sun warms the ground and starts the dawn chorus. I wait. And wait. Two hours later, I hear a parrot and then others. Still no sign. Another hour and suddenly a flock of Yellow-billed Amazons come over the mountain opposite. They fly directly overhead, calling excitedly. Even at this distance, the pale bill and white forehead gleam in the low sun. Closer birds show the pink throat, expanded while they call. Another flock appears, then another. In total, the next few hours produce 100-150 birds, in steady groups of up to 20 birds. One flock also contains a Black-billed Amazon, very drab in the guide but gleaming dark emerald in real life. Jamaican Conures are also flying over, presumably to raid the same fruiting trees as the Amazons.


Australia

Dusk in Townsville, Queensland. Outside our motel, I can hear frantic chattering from the mango tree on the highway. It sounds like a starling roost. Walking outside, I find myself surrounded by feathered missiles shooting in from all directions and plummeting into the tree's cover. More and more Rainbow Lorikeets come streaming over the roof tops, pouring into the mango to preen and squabble while the noise level rises and rises. Birds continue to arrive until the branches are weighed down. I cannot hear myself speak with the volume. As each bird arrives, all the others shift position and it is a long time before sleeping positions are sorted.


Africa

Midday in Kenya. After a very dusty drive yesterday we are sitting in the shade of a large tree in camp. Despite the persistent tame warthogs, the gin and tonic is proving very relaxing. A call from the tree above sounds strangely familiar. I discount it. The call again: it sounds remarkably like Jake, my 7y Meyer's Parrot. I get out of my chair and see 2 Meyer's perched directly over my head. They give me the same superior look as Jake before flying off. I have been very fortunate to have seen almost 90 species of parrot in their own environment, many while on expeditions organised while at university. I have been left with fond memories of lorikeet's in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, hanging parrots shooting past like flying eggs in Borneo and magnificent Red-tailed Black Cockatoos in the suburbs of Queensland. Without exception, all are far more impressive in the wild than captivity, leading me to gradually rethink my own views on captive parrots. There are some excellent breeders and some fabulous owners who meet all their birds' needs but they are generally in the minority.


The Caribbean is a rich hunting ground for those who love Amazon's (hands up everyone!) Most islands have their own unique endangered species, including St Lucia, St Vincent, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and the two endemic species in Jamaica. Gambia, Goa and Kenya


So, to see parrots in their real homes. I can hear you thinking, 'it's OK if you're on a vet's salary' (if only you knew!) but most of my travel has been independent, keeping costs to a  minimum. Alternatively, last minute packages are a great way to get to parrot habitat. Goa in southern India is home to several very beautiful Psittacula parakeets, including Ring-necked, the rare Malabar and the stunning Blossom-headed. All are easy to see, along with Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots. In the Gambia, Senegal Parrots and Ring-necked Parakeets occur in the hotel grounds and Cape Parrots in areas close by. In Kenya, flocks of feral lovebirds play amongst the seed-heads on the back of the beach and Red-bellied Parrots are amongst those you could see on safari.


Canary Islands

Closer to (my)home, parrots can be enjoyed in the Canary Islands, where huge flocks of feral Monk parakeets build their communal nests in date palms in the resorts, usually close to a convenient bar for easy viewing!


England

In London, the Ring-necked Parakeet roost expands every year and now reaches huge numbers: truly spectacular I am told.


Feral Parrots in the UK

by David Lal


November is a cold, wet month in England. As I write this article, the rain is beating down and although it is only 5 o'clock in the afternoon, it is almost completely dark. This is only just the start of our winter: soon the days will be even shorter and the nights frosty, maybe even a touch of snow.


This isn't the kind of environment that comes to mind when we think of parrots - and yet there are wild parrots in Britain that are not only surviving but actually thriving!


Almost any parrot species may be encountered but most of these will be escaped companion birds. What I'm interested in for this article is feral populations. That is, groups of two or more individuals that are breeding here.


The British List documents 13 parrot species. Of these, there are 4 species that are well-established. They are (click to show image):

If you see bright green parrots in the wild in England, it is most likely that they are of this species. It was first documented as breeding in this country as long ago as 1855 in Norfolk but in recent times the story starts at Gravesend in Kent in 1969. Astonishingly, there are now considered to be as many as 6000 of these attractive birds in the United Kingdom, mainly located in the South East. Ring-Necked parakeets are hugely successful in their native India and Nepal but are also natives of north eastern and north central Africa.


Thames Valley parakeets

In October 2002 I was helping my friend Graham Durrant with his boat on the River Thames when we sighted a large flock of parrots near Shepperton Marina. At the time, I did not know what kind of parrot I was looking at - and it was during the process of finding out that I decided to feature 'wild British parrots'


From Shepperton we continued to see Ring-Necked parakeets both in small groups and large flocks (20+) as far east as Hammersmith Bridge. I have never seen any of these birds in central London but they have been spotted at Greenwich and of course Gravesend. Travelling west along the Thames, flocks of over 100 birds are often seen at Wraysbury, Bray and Maidenhead. For more Berkshire locations try the Berkshire Birds web site.

London's suburban parakeets


In the London area, if you want to see Ring-Necked parakeets, one of the easiest places to find them is Bushy Park. Another good place to see them is Esher Rugby Club where there are said to be over 2500 of them. There are over 600 of these feral parakeets in Lewisham (Hither Green) cemetery (they are alive and well!). There is a flock of about 60 birds at Kew Gardens and another flock has been spotted at Heathrow Airport.


Parakeets in Margate and Ramsgate

Ring-Necked parakeets are also thriving in the Isle of Thanet area of Kent where there are said to be several hundred birds. A flock of around 70 birds has been seen roosting in a tree near Ramsgate railway station. Over 20 have been seen in Margate cemetery (what is it about cemeteries and these birds ?) and at Northdown Park, North Foreland, a flock of 30.

Parakeets in Redhill and Reigate


A separate population of Ring-Necked parakeets seems to be present in the area of Redhill and Reigate. Flocks of 50 or more individuals have been seen.


Limits of distribution

If you are interested in the distribution of Ring-necked parakeets in Britain then you really must read about Chris Butler's study on feral Ring-necked parakeets in the National Geographic, 2004. Butler has since concluded his research project aimed at assessing the potential threat posed by these birds to agriculture and had a wonderful database of sightings on his now non-existent website. He documented, however, that to the North, Ring-necked parakeets had been sighted as far away as Glasgow and to the West, in Merseyside and in the South West they had been seen in Dorset.


Alexandrine Parakeets

These are much less frequently encountered in England, although some sightings may have been lost because it is easy to confuse identification with the more common Ring-Necked. Flocks of Ring-Necked parakeets sometimes comprise an Alexandrine too. Alexandrines are essentially natives of India but stretch in a band from Afghanistan through to Indochina.

Male/Female and adult/juvenile variations as well as mutations and perhaps the effect of differing diets all serve to confuse identification but the Alexandrine is, at 60cm a significantly bigger bird than the 42cm Ring-Necked. In addition, the Alexandrine has a bigger bill with both upper and lower halves coloured red. Alexandrines have a red shoulder patch which the Ring-Necked parakeets do not - but in the field you may not be able to see this.


Alexandrine Parakeets in Cambridgeshire

A juvenile Alexandrine was spotted at Elton in Cambridgeshire during August 2001. Unfortunately, this information is no longer available on the Internet.


Alexandrine Parakeets in Kent

Chris Butler estimates that there are only 10 or so of these parakeets in South East England. I have personally sighted 3 Alexandrines, flying together, on two different occasions at Sidcup (on the Green, near Queen Mary's Hospital).

Alexandrines have been sighted at Foots Cray Meadow but this is so close to The Green at Sidcup that the birds might have been the same ones.


Monk Parakeets (Quakers)

These are small parrots about twice the size of a budgerigar (and hence 4 times the weight: approximately 130 grams). The back is green and the chest grey or buff with dark blue primary wing coverts. Unlike most parrots, Monk parakeets build a social nest of twigs housing several birds: I have seen one nearly a metre in height and 50 cm wide.


They are natives of central Bolivia and the south of Brazil. I know of only one feral colony in the UK and that is at Boreham Wood in Hertfordshire which comprises about 20 individuals.

Blue-Crowned Conures (also known as parakeets)


These are relative newcomers to Britain's feral parrot population. The first two were spotted in Bromley in South East London in 1997. By 1999 the number had risen to 15. In April 2001 a nest with eggs in it was seen in a park in Lewisham, London. The birds have also been seen in Lewisham cemetery.


These birds are distinctive in colour, with, as the name suggests, a blue head on a generally green body plan. The tail is relatively long, olive green from above but flushed with red on the underside. The birds are about 37cm long and are native to Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Uruguay.


Other Feral Parrot Species

Almost any kind of companion or aviary parrot may escape and therefore be mistakenly perceived as a 'wild' British parrot but the key question is whether or not the species is surviving and breeding successfully over here.


In the Longfield area of Kent I have seen Cockatiels and several times Budgerigars. The latter over a number of months spanning the winter so they would seem to be surviving but breeding is another matter. However, there are supposed to be feral budgies in the Scilly Isles. Budgerigars and Cockatiels are both natives of the Australian interior but absent from Tasmania.


There was an intriguing report by Jonathan Downes on the internet of a group of feral Macaws in Woodbury, Devon! The author admits he did not actually see them himself so one wonders whether this is a hoax but I should like to believe it is true.


Strategies for Survival

How is it that these birds are doing so well ? How are they managing to find enough to eat during our winter?


To be frank, I don't know the answer to these questions but it is striking that the distribution, especially of the Ring-Necked parakeets, is largely suburban rather than wholly rural and they are not found in central London. This suggests that humans and their gardens and garden bird tables may be very important.


I read once that, peanuts expressly destined for birds are imported into this country not by the ton but by the hundreds of tons so this is certainly one food source. In the autumn and early part of winter we have plenty of wild berries. Parakeets have been seen eating mistletoe berries. These, I would have thought would have been toxic but of course, in the jungle parrots are known to be able to eat relatively noxious foods - is this how they manage over here ? In the early spring, new tree buds form part of the diet (not endearing the birds to farmers.


Feral Ring-Necked parakeets start brooding earlier than native birds so providing the chicks can survive the cold this would give them a head start. Social behaviour may be an advantage too: there must be some competitive advantage in the Monk parakeets' communal approach to nest-building. All parrots are undeniably highly intelligent, presumably an important contributory factor to their success.


If you can't afford a ticket to the Rain Forests to go parrot-spotting then get one to Ramsgate, Bushy Park or Kew Gardens!