I’m just back from a winter escape to Malaga in the south of Spain. Soon after I arrived I heard an unfamiliar bird sound, says Dick Warner.
It was like the chattering of starlings, only faster, louder and more frenzied. It took me a while to spot the birds, and then it was only a glimpse from below as they flew over. They were about the size of starlings but with longer wings and a much longer tail. Their undersides were pale grey or off-white.
A couple of days later, sitting at a cafe beside the beach, I got a much better view. Half a dozen of the birds were foraging in the crown of a date palm and then a couple of them obligingly settled on the grass beneath.
Their upper parts were quite spectacular — bright green flecked with black and with some brilliant blue feathers in the wings. They looked like budgerigars only they were about three times the size.
A quick internet search identified them as a bird that ornithologists call the monk parakeet and the cage bird trade the Quaker parrot. Neither of these is a very good name because I’ve never met a monk or a Quaker that was anything like as noisy as they are.
The difference between a parrot and a parakeet isn’t really a scientific one. A bit like the difference between a pigeon and a dove, it’s a convention with the larger species being called parrots and the smaller ones parakeets.
There is no species of parrot or parakeet that is native to Europe but several species have established feral populations, mostly in urban areas. The monk parakeet is native to the southern parts of South America where the climate is temperate and it can survive in the micro-climate of cities as far north as London and New York.
They are, or they were, popular as cage birds because they’re much cheaper than most parrots and can easily be taught to talk. Some may have escaped from captivity but I suspect more were deliberately released by owners who had failed to realise how noisy they are.
In Malaga they seem to be tolerated or even welcomed as a colourful addition to the urban wildlife of the place. In New York they’re actively encouraged because research shows that they displace feral pigeons and the droppings of the pigeons damage the city’s historic brownstone buildings while parakeet droppings have no effect on them.
The authorities in London have taken a completely different view and embarked on costly programme to eradicate them. Some of the reasons for this are a bit dubious but the main one is that parakeets, unlike most of their relations, build huge communal nests out of twigs.
They have a taste for building on top of electricity transformers, probably because they are warm, and when the nests get wet they can cause short circuits and power outages.
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