Usually this column focuses on wildlife that can be seen in Fairfield, so you may wonder why I have chosen a bird more at home in the tropics. Well, although I’m not aware of any ring necked parakeets in Fairfield just yet, there is every chance that they will be coming our way in the not-too-distant future.
I’m not talking about climate change. This bird has already settled in chilly Britain, where it is the most northerly wild-breeding parrot species on earth. Don’t imagine that this is some rare exotic species which struggles to maintain a foothold here. Over the past 50 years the population in the south of England has exploded and now numbers around 50,000 – mostly in London and the Home Counties, but spreading quickly north and east, with colonies in Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester and sightings in numerous other places. Its population is increasing by about 25 per cent a year.
If you take a trip to London it’s rarely long before you hear a loud sharp ‘squaarrrk’ coming from above. Look up and you see half a dozen green, arrow-shaped birds flying at speed, long tails trailing behind. Ring-necked parakeets.
Close up you will see that they are large, long-tailed green birds with a red beak and a pink and black ring around the face and neck. They measure about 40cm in length with a wingspan of 45cm. No one knows when the first one arrived in Britain, but experts believe that the first breeding pairs were probably caged birds that escaped at some time in the 1960s.
There are a number of reasons why they are doing so well. Ring necked parakeets are hole nesters and often take over old woodpecker, starling or owl nest holes, or even use larger nesting boxes. They start nesting early, often in January, and can continue to lay eggs as late in the year as June – the early start means they have little competition for the holes. The female lays between two and five eggs, matt white in colour, and incubates them for three weeks, after which the young are cared for by both parents and fledge when they are 40–50 days old. Two broods a year is common and the nesting success rate is high. The birds mature to breed when they are three years old and can live for 25 years in the wild. On top of that, the parakeet has few natural predators in this country – basically only large raptors, owls and the occasional stoat or weasel which might prey on the young. Even squirrels keep well away from them.
Their favourite foods are seeds, nuts, berries, fruit and fruit buds, and when these foods become scarcer in the winter we are kind enough to put out bird feeders in our gardens. Studies have shown that parakeets spend half their feeding time on bird feeders – and their aggressive nature prevents other birds from feeding there. In spring and summer a flock of them can strip orchards of buds or fruit in days. They are not deterred by pigeon type bird scarers and are not much loved in the areas where they gather in large numbers.
So although your first sight of a ring-necked parakeet is exciting, the novelty may soon wear off if they do come to colonise Fairfield. Look out for them in London, if you haven’t seen one already, but let’s hope it’s a little while longer before we start seeing them here.