I’m sitting in my favorite spot on the deck of my English garden. The air is fresh after the first rain in weeks. Normally at this quiet time of the morning, the robins, wrens and great tits lend a sweet sound to the new day. But this morning they are drowned out by an incessant chattering of a dozen ring-necked parakeets in the neighborhood canopy.
Parakeets in London? Their racket takes takes me back to Max Wadiya, our home on the Colombo-Galle road 100 meters from a road crossing called Parrot Junction — thus named for good reason. Green parakeets roost in the great palm trees at dusk with the same ear-piercing squawks I’m hearing now. They settle down in a few minutes as the last light fades, then leave at dawn, heading inland for their daily chores, whatever they may be.
It’s a comforting routine, part of the planet’s circadian clock. Listening to their avian gossip, watching as the sun sinks into the darkening waters of the Indian Ocean, the world seems right, serene, everything in place.
But in Europe these birds are invasive. They just don’t seem to belong here. When we lived close to Vondelpark in Amsterdam, our neighbors considered them at best a nuisance, at worst a plague. These dislocated birds chased away owls and other natives with their noisy, aggressive behavior. Some people called for them to be netted and, euphemistically, “culled.”
Where did they come from? Why are they here?
In England, there are an estimated 32,000 parakeets in the capital alone, up from 1,500 just 25 years ago. Across the English Channel, the Dutch are said to have about 20,000, while France has somewhat fewer.
In the Netherlands, there’s a story that one session of the Dutch parliament in The Hague was drowned out by the rowdy birds.
There are many theories of how they got here. My favorite is the they were brought from Asia for the filming of Humphrey Bogart’s 1951 The African Queen at Isleworth Studios west of London, and then let go or escaped when shooting was done.
The source is probably more prosaic. Europeans acquired them for their exotic aviaries. The birds are mentioned in the UK as early as 1855. By the early 20th century their popularity grew for British stately homes with private zoos. Over time some escaped or freed. In 1969 the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reported them breeding in the wild greenery of Kent. More may have broken loose during a huge storm in 1987.
With no natural predators, plentiful water and food, they adapted easily to European city life. I’ve seen them raiding my bird feeder, intended for more defenseless songbirds. Though endemic to the tropics, the immigrants are not fussed by cold or snow. Flocks proliferated. While most people consider them aliens now, it’s likely the next generation of Europeans will consider them a natural part of the landscape.
These are my thoughts on this otherwise tranquil morning in a London garden, disrupted by a bunch of misdirected riotous parakeets. I shouldn’t complain. My mind wanders to another deck, overlooking our Sri Lankan beach. It’s as if I brought some home with me.
With the coronavirus disaster, we haven’t been in Sri Lanka for 16 months. But now, along with the din of the birds, I can almost hear the lapping of the ocean.