Peregrines, parakeets and goldfinches are on the rise in London skies

Tony Coombs

Tony Coombs - Credit: Archant

Wildlife expert Bob pores over the latest London Bird Report and considers the winners and losers in our urban skies

One of three Green Parakeets seen regularly in South Park Ilford .

One of three Green Parakeets seen regularly in South Park Ilford . - Credit:

As I put out the rubbish last Monday, a blackcap sang in excitable manner from the maple by the bus stop.

I loved that unlikely conjunction of mundane morning task and exuberant birdsong.

But more was to follow. As I turned to re-enter, there came the raucous calling of a peregrine; like the mewing of a gull, but shorter and harsher, and more menacing than melancholy. I walked a short distance down the street in my bare feet to watch it circling over the neighbouring tower block.

The sounds of both these birds are more frequent in our city now, and just 20 years ago, would have been a rarity. I was able to check this out later that same day when the latest copy of the London Bird Report dropped through my letter box. The size of the task undertaken annually by the London Natural History Society, of pulling together all the sightings and breeding record of birds across Greater London, meant that the volume related to 2018; but it was the most up-to-date information I was likely to get. In that year there were 1900 reports of peregrines from 266 London locations. And it had been their most successful breeding season to date, with 25 pairs successfully raising 63 young. This year, I am pleased to say, I will add to that total. A pair of peregrines have spent several summers on top of our local tower block but this spring, following the installation of a nest box, they have bred. On several occasions I have had the pleasure of watching three young birds sitting along the edge of the tower roof while the parents circled overhead - and I have marched my family down the road to witness it.


sadas - Credit: Archant

Our peregrines feed on pigeons, which hasn’t yet stopped these ubiquitous birds from thronging round my bird feeders. A neighbour told me how he had watched from his balcony as a peregrine swooped on a pigeon but, mistiming its stoop, crashed into our garden fence, still clutching the bird in its claws.

As people passed by, oblivious of the drama, the two birds recovered on the ground, the peregrine flying off empty-handed and the pigeon unharmed by its near-death experience.

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In other parts of London it is not the pigeon but the ring-necked parakeet that forms the main prey of peregrines. It is a bird that can easily withstand such light culling. In almost every park, wood and cemetery in the capital they are now among the commonest –and the most audible- of birds. My report told me they had increased by 74 percent between 2012 and 2017, though I have no doubt the increase was even more rapid in the years before that. But this number has been easily surpassed by several other species, among them my regular morning songster. Breeding pairs of blackcaps have increased by 182 percent in London since 1995. No doubt our milder winters have much to do with it as this one-time summer visitor is now increasingly remaining throughout the year. This does not, however, explain its presence as an increasingly urban bird. I can still remember my first urban blackcap, singing in Peter Pan Gardens in Upper Holloway some 12 years ago. Today I could take you to four singing males in my locality.

The blackcap, the parakeet and the peregrine are not the only species on the increase. Cormorants are now an everyday sight in our skies and even red kites can be occasionally glimpsed passing over Camden – three times in 2018. Great tits are up by 107 percent, although blue tits are down. Chiffchaffs and jackdaws have both increased by 144 percent. All this is put in the shade, however, by the bird which appears every day on my feeders. The glamorous goldfinch has increased by a remarkable 463 percent. But even this is not the record. For that you must turn to a bird that you are less likely to see in Islington or Camden. It is that now familiar denizen of estuaries, marshes and wetlands, the little egret.

Its UK increase since 1995? A staggering 2,316 percent.