An unseasonal splash of green in the city.
To some, the Parakeets in Battersea are feral, and a pest endangering native species, there is little in the way of evidence that this is true. Although historically there have been situations where invasive species have decimated local wildlife, anecdotally the parakeets appear to successfully occupy the same space as a rich repertoire of avian residents; Magpie’s, Jays, Rooks, Pigeons, Robins, Tits, Ducks, Gulls, Geese, Herons, Coots, Moorhens and a multitude of other small birds, I have no data that these species are declining (and I have made no attempts to take any) but to me they are wonderful.
When you start to blog on a subject it pays to do a bit of research, get a little background on your subject matter. I have done some reading on our feral neighbours here in Battersea. What very quickly becomes clear as I read around is that there are very few facts. The birds have a botanical name and a classification. Where they come from appears to be the subject of little more than rumours. Estimations as to their number vary from anything from five to sixty thousand birds in London, that strikes me as really, ‘nobody knows’, and I have no clue as to how you would accurately estimate the number of non-native birds in a diverse and geographically spread place. Even facts as to their simple habits, such as what they eat, when and how they breed appear to differ wildly from writer to writer.
Currently, the winter is at its zenith, the sky is grey and this tone is matched by much of the other wildlife. If you are lucky and you keep your eyes in the sky as you walk through Battersea you may catch a glimpse of green in the city this winter.
If you are not so lucky I have recorded some images of the feral Parakeets of Battersea for you.
Parakeets on the Avenue
The Parakeets ordinarily can be found in pairs, two birds normally in close proximity (in the same tree) but they rarely seem to sit together. There is, however, a large flock in the area.
I nearly had to duck as a large group swept up Cedars Road in Clapham one afternoon last week, and you can regularly see groups of ten or more sweep across the Common in Clapham. Small groups of birds can often be found on the west side of the Common around the larger trees that border the Avenue.
The Parakeets have a distinctive profile when in flight. A short face with their hooked beaks and a long often splayed tail.
Foraging for winter food
This bird was found investigating a knot-hole in one of the spectacularly large trees bordering the Avenue. At this time of year, there is strong competition for resources on the Common. Squirrels, Pigeons, Robins and other small birds can all be seen foraging for what they can find in the depths of winter.
NB. To see more of the Parakeets nesting near the Avenue look at some of my notes from Spring. Parakeets nesting.
Green aliens on Battersea Park
The Parakeets are not native to the park but are certainly thriving. The bright olive toned green of the Parakeets feathers blends well with the moss and liken that is found on the bare trunks of the tree’s in Battersea Park at this time of year. This undoubtedly offers the brightly coloured birds a degree of protection from predators at this time of year when cover in the park can be very hard to find. Regardless having made Battersea Park their home they have become very comfortable in their surroundings. Those that know the park will be familiar it’s visitors, often well-heeled urbanites. They use the park to walk their well-dressed pedigree pets or run and ride in brightly coloured well-cut lycra. Although the birds inhabit often the uppermost reaches of the tree’s in Battersea Park, the resident's pride in how one looks, and the desire to be seen to be keeping in step with current sartorial standards, has not escaped the culture of the Parakeets. The shot alongside was captured this morning and shows one of the Parakeets preening its tail feathers. The process lasted for about eight minutes with multiple passes of the long tail feathers between the blades of the Parakeets short beak. This mornings ablution was conducted while the birds partner looked on, keeping watch. Much like the rest of South-West London, ensuring that they look their best for each other even when the rest of the park is drab, grey and damp, a look far more in keeping with the park's other alien, the Grey Squirrel.
Urban myths about British Parakeets
If you delve into the internet there are some that conject that Jimmy Hendrix may have been the person responsible for releasing Parakeets into the wild in the UK, I believe there is more evidence that he could pull together a great riff on a guitar and this is probably a more reliable legacy for him. Others believe that they were released by accident from a film studio in the outer suburbs of London during the filming of African Queen. There appears to be little quantifiable evidence of either star-studded connection and although it may be romantic to think that this is how the Parakeets arrived in Battersea, I fear without a large amount of genetic investigation we will never know. One thing is for sure however, they got here and wherever they originated from they are thriving in south-west London.
Even if you don’t like keeping your eyes looking at the tops of the trees (the park authorities have installed a number of bollards in the middle of some of the walkways in Battersea Park to interrupt cyclists so keeping a degree of attention on the path in front of you is very wise). Your ears can give you a strong indication of the abundance of birds in a space like Battersea Park. The call of a Parakeet is similar in tone to the screech of a badly aligned bike brake block, however, the noise in shorter, sharper and often repeated in long perforated bursts. Once you know the sound you recognise that it has it becomes quite ubiquitous in the background noise of Battersea Park. I counted about 15 pairs of Parakeets calling during my swift walk through the park this morning, I simply took a short circuit in at the South Gate, past the Sun Gate and looping round to the bandstand before heading back.
I have also heard the call recently on the Chase in Clapham, were a group of pairs were chattering in some of the trees behind one of the tall mansion blocks on that street (to the left-hand side as you walk down from the common). I have also heard them in the tall trees around the old school on MacDuff Street, very close to Battersea Park.
Here’s looking at you kid
I am no botanist, far from it, in fact, I have built my career in the media in London. I am told that the Battersea Parakeets are in fact Psittacula Krameri. Commonly called the Ring-Necked or Rose Ringed Parakeet. I am not going to vouch for this identification, In fact, I cannot even say Psittacula Krameri without pausing once or twice at the odd pattern of consonants. My interest in the birds is the sheer wonder of seeing a beautiful creature, carry on their business, majestically and purposefully soaring from one tall tree another. Making their life and rearing their families in the London suburbs. They add the tiniest amount of richness to my day. They socialise and move from place to place. They take nothing from me as they make their home near mine, but they do add a moment's colour to what can be a drab day (we do get a few drab days in London at this time of year). As the western world examines what migration means to us, site visitors can read what they want into the status of the Parakeet.
As I walk across Clapham Common, the Parakeets world rarely comes close to mine. Occasionally they will swoop low or their beautiful plumage can catch my eye. To the most part, their life is separate from mine separated by twenty or fifty feet of thick London air.
When I pause and raise a camera, point a flat fronted lens at the bird and gently fire off a few shots, the bird will palpably stop and check me out. I have seen this on a number of occasions. The Parakeets move in pairs, and there tends to be a couple of them moving together. One will always start taking a good look as the camera appears. There are not many people around Clapham Common with an SLR recording the birds, but I am not the only one. I have seen three other people point a large camera at Parakeets and on each occasion, I have seen the same reaction, one of the birds will twist its head and point one eye straight at you and will watch what is going on, potentially until its comfortable that you are not a threat. They do not fly away, I got the impression on one occasion that the Birds enjoyed the attention. Just maybe the Parakeets love South West London for the anonymity, the quiet and the space that the region offers. That is after all the attraction for many of the human residents. It is hard to not want to strike a pose when you find a camera pointing at you. Even if you are a vibrant shade of green and considerably more exotic than your neighbours.
Location, Location, Location
It’s a mystery why the Parakeets have settled in this particular corner of South-West London. Although their spread is well documented on the internet with claims of sightings as far away as Belgium and Manchester. The European population of Parakeets appears to be centred on South-West London, in the greener districts that lie between the Boroughs of Kingston and Lambeth.
It has been suggested that they like the urban environment and would not be able to survive through the winter without the help of scraps left out by human residents. Others have suggested that the relative lack of natural predators gives them a sense of safety. There are a few Sparrow-Hawks and owls in London and it appears that these have picked up a taste for the occasional exotic Parakeet. A web cam in Fulham directed at a Sparrow-Hawk nest apparently regularly picks up Parakeets brought in as prey. Sparrow-Hawks are not common birds on Clapham Common or Battersea Park, I cannot vouch for the situation further west.
I am going to offer my own theory. The quality of the real estate in the suburban areas of South-West London is unprecedented. I am obviously not referring to the volume of Victorian and Edwardian brick built properties with period features intact, or the modern developments along the river. I am referring to the quantity of old gnarly trees. The Common Areas in Wandsworth and Clapham and the parks in Richmond, Bushey and Battersea are old, very old, they date back centuries. This means you can find a high density of old, large punctuated tree trunks. Parakeets need holes in trees in order to rear their young. They nest in bird boxes or holes in trees. The high concentration of period trees is bound to be an attractive feature to any young aspiring Parakeet pair looking for a safe neighbourhood in the city in which to bring up a family.
NB. To see more of the Parakeets nesting near the Avenue look at some of my notes from spring. Parakeets nesting.
In Battersea Park, the Parakeets appear to be ubiquitous and spread right across the park. They are easiest to spot at this time of year at the west side of the park, I believe this is largely as the tall deciduous trees are well spaced, and in winter largely clear of foliage. Not surprisingly the birds call can be heard right across the subtropical gardens, but I find visually locating them hard, probably due to the density of low-level plant growth. I have visually spotted birds right over on the east border and round by the running track as well as near the war memorial. When you know their call, you really sense how many there are in the park. You are rarely a long distance from their screech.
The great migration
Between about three and five pm, this is the time that the sun starts to descend rapidly in the sky at this time of year, the volume of Parakeets on Clapham Common rises rapidly. From a few small groups of birds early in the afternoon, the population develops to a far larger group around dusk, you can see the birds starting to arrive onto the common, flying purposefully above to the open spaces in small groups in loose formation. The flocks normally number 6-10. I have seen large groups like this flying swiftly following a line, up both Cedars Road and the Chase at this time of day. I am not sure if the migration is purely from the south or if the phenomenon is groups of birds returning to the common after foraging around the neighbouring gardens and green spaces during the day. Of course, while this is happening very large flocks of pigeons, crows and gulls are starting to settle on the large grassed areas of the park in huge groups. While this migration is nothing to the scale of the Starling murmurations you get in some parts of the country, the birds are definitely hiding somewhere during the day.