Originally from Africa and southern Asia, ring-necked, or rose-necked parakeets ‘were kept as pets in the UK. They escaped into the wild, however, and have become naturalised in the south-east especially, aided by warmer winters’ (The Wildlife Trust) are birds I can’t resist. According to the RSPB website, they’re ‘large, long-tailed and green with a red beak and a pink and black ring around its face and neck. In flight it has pointed wings, a long tail and very steady, direct flight. Often found in flocks, numbering hundreds at a roost site, it can be very noisy.’
And they are all of those things.
I first came across them in Greenwich Park a few years ago. I heard bird sounds I didn’t recognise – not that I recognised very many then (and don’t always now, either!). Still, despite my inexperience, I knew instinctively that this was something different. The calls were tantalisingly close, and yet, crane my head as I might toward the sounds, hunting for any sight of the bird that made it, but seeing absolutely nothing except the green leaves of the trees, I couldn’t make anything out. I’ve since learned that their brilliant green plumage means they’re superbly camouflaged; seeing them when trees are in leaf is pretty difficult. So I went away that day wondering what I might have heard.
I found out a few weeks later In Richmond when Keith and I walked the River Thames from Richmond to Kew. At the riverside in town, we saw male mandarin ducks, looking like painted toy ducks, which was pretty cool, and then when we walked out of the town centre, we heard that sound again, even more raucous and squawking. And this time we saw them. Loads of bright green birds flocking in the trees on the opposite bank, outside several small apartment blocks. They were clearly visible but we got our binoculars out, of course, and began to watch. And immediately I was in love.
Firstly I couldn’t believe I was watching wild parakeets in London. At the time I didn’t know the extent of their colonisation of London and the South East of England. In this one place there were so many of them – as the RSPB says, a huge flock – we gave up counting. As we continued to walk, we observed more and more, many flying over our heads to the opposite bank, squawking loudly as they flew, something I’ve come to love to watch, like bright green feathery arrows, or fighter planes zooming overhead.
Since then I’ve seen them in all sorts of places. When my daughter and I went to Rome last year, there they were, flying around the top rows of the Colosseum. At that time, despite being in a city I’d always longed to go to, seeing all the things I’d always longed to see, so happy to be there, I was really struggling with my depression. Seeing the parakeets made me ecstatic.
And then Keith and I found their feeding spot in Hyde Park, one of the original Royal Parks in London. Hyde Park isn’t my favourite park. I find it a little uninteresting compared to, say, Regent’s Park, or St James’s Park or the bigger parks like Greenwich. But I do enjoy a walk around the Serpentine, a huge artificial pleasure lake, where people can hire boats and pedaloes, or swim in the lido. I don’t go for any of that. I go for the wildfowl that have colonised the lake. True, it’s not as varied as in some other parks, but I love to watch the mute swans (although I’m quite scared of them) the Canada and Greylag geese, and the zombie-looking Egyptian geese which are, in fact beautifully marked. I enjoy the squabbles of the coots, and especially the cheeping of their young. But best of all, there’s that spot in Hyde Park where parakeets come to be fed. Or rather, where visitors to the park come to feed them. I don’t know how or why this happened but it has, and when you visit the spot, just back of the Albert Memorial, it’s captivating.
So this Saturday just gone, we were in the area. I was feeling, for whatever reason, pretty anxious and needed a fix, if you will, of parakeets. There were a lot of people there when we arrived, all standing around watching. At first it seemed as though nothing much was going on, but then they came into view. Then I saw people with parakeets on their hands, on their heads, flying around them, as they swooped in for the food that was being offered. Immediately I felt the anxiety drain away, replaced by a feeling of absolute joy and amusement. Now, I understand that animals aren’t here for our entertainment. More and more, I’m furious with so-called human beings who kill other animals for so-called pleasure: big game hunting, fox hunting, murdering raptors on grouse moors, killing the grouse themselves just for fun. I loathe it with a passion. It makes me feel that there’s no hope for humanity, or the creatures we kill. But watching animals – birds especially for me, of course – brings joy and, yes, entertainment. It’s increasingly being shown that interacting with nature (and okay, the parakeet isn’t a native bird, but then the grey squirrel, and rabbit, aren’t native animals either and most of us love watching them, and they’re still part of the natural world!), has beneficial effects on our well-being. For those of us with mental health issues, such encounters have been demonstrated to have healing effects on or overloaded brains. And this how I feel when I see the parakeets of Hyde Park, when I watch them interact with us, cleverly using us to get free food, while yes, we use them too. I feel like all the dark or anxious thoughts are cleansed, replaced by something – well, maybe more light and pure,
Whether or not that’s entirely ethical as a reason to watch wildlife, I don’t know. How do we measure that? But what I do know is that watching wildlife brings joy for so many of us, and we need to appreciate that more. Understand that we’re all interconnected, that everyone benefits, including and especially the creatures we take for granted, and in taking them for granted, seeing them as nothing more than resources or things to be cleared for so-called ‘advancing civilisation’, we are all rushing toward destruction.
It occurred to me, observing the pleasure that parents and their children shared together watching these bright and beautiful noisy birds, that maybe the seeds of something good were being sown. That maybe there is some hope after all.
So, although you can’t read this, thanks, parakeets. Thanks for being part of our urban world, however that happened. Thanks for your bold interactions and allowing us to watch you, and helping us to focus – even for a little while – on something other than the increasingly conflicted world we live in.