Parrots are here on the Heath, but where did they come from?
There are a number of urban myths about the origins of our London parrots
I was lucky enough to spend the half term with my family in Barcelona. We stayed in a traditional apartment in the narrow and atmospheric alleyways of the old town, the ‘Barri Gotic’, and took in all the essential Gaudi sites. I was impressed by the way he used natural forms in his architecture; the structure of trees, the curve of a fruit, the pattern described by a falling seed. Gaudi was a keen observer of the everyday environment but one thing he would not have seen was parrots. Now, however, they are everywhere. Having arrived in the city in the 1970s, their numbers have grown in the last few years so that now they inhabit every square, every park, every leafy boulevard.
Parrots are no more native to Barcelona than they are to London and the spread of these exotic birds in both capitals is a result of the globalisation of trade, with a little extra help from global warming. The development of a global economy is paralleled by that of a global ecology -and the result will be an overall decrease in world.
There are a number of urban myths about the origins of our London parrots. One is that they were kept by Henry VIII and first became established when a cage fell from one of his palace windows. Totally untrue, of course, because the first breeding here was not recorded until 1971; about the same time, interestingly as they were beginning to appear in Barcelona. Equally unlikely, is the story that they originate from birds released by Jimi Hendrix. The less colourful truth is that it began as an accumulation of birds; escaped pets, deliberate releases and even free-flying colonies that ceased to return to their aviaries. They began their spread from two early strongholds, one in the south east, where Hither Green Cemetery was a regular roost, the other westwards along the Thames from Richmond. I made an item about this population for the programme Carlton Country back in the 90s, which only goes to show that just twenty or so years ago they were still a curiosity meriting a TV airing. Not any more. They are now are common over all of London except further east –and in some areas by far the most obvious avian presence.
They may not be the last of the parrot tribe to join us. Our bird is the ring-necked parakeets; those in Barcelona a different species, the Quaker parakeet also known, in a fine display of ecumenicism, as the Monk parrot. And this bird too has already established two breeding populations –one of them on the Isle of Dogs. Perhaps while the ring-necked parakeets are still spreading eastwards, the Quaker parakeets will start moving to the west. And where will the two populations meet? Somewhere around Highgate I should think.