26/04/2011
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Monk Parakeet – a new British bird?

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Monk Parakeet is a rather exotic addition to the wildlife of the Isle of Dogs in London. Photo by David Callahan.
Monk Parakeet is a rather exotic addition to the wildlife of the Isle of Dogs in London. Photo by David Callahan.

In the shadow of Ring-necked Parakeet is another psittacine interloper – Monk Parakeet. This native of South America has also begun to establish itself in Greater London after several individuals managed to escape.

The species’ huge stick nests and gregarious shrieking foraging parties are already a feature of many major cities in North America and Europe. It was perhaps only a matter of time before this popular cagebird made a bid for freedom in Blighty. Currently there are up to three independent populations around the capital. The founding fathers were established in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, in 1993, and appear to currently number between 40 and 60 birds; a second smaller colony settled in Mudchute in east London’s Isle of Dogs during the last decade, and numbered at least 36 birds in February; and there are smaller but as yet unknown numbers reported in Southall, Middlesex.

Identification

The species is relatively easily identified, with confusion only likely with Ring-necked and other escaped parakeet species. The foot-long Monk Parakeet is a darker, more grassy green than Ring-necked, with a tail less than half its body length. It is bulkier than the more familiar species, and has dull royal blue flight feathers, a grey chest, face and forehead, and a pale orange beak. The vast majority of feral North American birds are of the nominate subspecies Myiopsitta monachus monachus, prevalent in the cagebird trade, and there is no reason as yet to suspect that British birds are different.

Monk Parakeet has a novel ecology, being the only parrot species that builds a stick nest in a tree rather than breeding in rock or tree cavities. These nests are like parakeet tenements, large ovoid structures up to 2 m across, with several entrances holding many pairs in a single community.

Its adaptations to the more temperate areas of Argentina mean that it is well-suited to colonising First World cities, and it readily uses bird feeders. Feral populations exist in the more expected Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Japan, the Bahamas, Bermuda and Israel, as well as several cities in Spain, along with the Canary Islands and Mallorca, and cities in the United States from New York to Florida and into the Mid-West.

So would this species’ addition to the British avifauna be passive, beneficial or detrimental? I visited the Mudchute colony in February, and the varied harsh and shrieking calls of Monk Parakeets were apparent immediately.

I watched several birds harvesting large budding twigs from the London Plane trees lining the two urban streets that hold the loose colony of four nests, as well as occasionally feeding on the sticky, sap-rich buds. Its diet of buds, fruit and grain could certainly be a problem should the species spread, as Monk Parakeet is a pest in its native South America, and ownership is outlawed in several American states for this very reason. However, Ring-necked has a similar diet and as yet seems inclined to restrict its activities to the bird table, though vineyards in Kent have suffered losses. DEFRA has recently made it legal to shoot both species on private land, and has trialled methods of eradication. Free-flying birds at Whipsnade Park, Bedfordshire, were re-trapped in 1958 because of damage to nearby fruit crops.

Friend or foe?

Conservationists will be keen to know if Monk Parakeet is likely to compete with our natural species; Ring-necked has already been shown to have some influence in the decline of Nuthatch in Belgium. However, Monk’s pro-active secateuring of twigs means that it competes little for nest sites or nesting material with other species, as our native crows and pigeons by and large collect fallen twigs. Still, several assessments have been published underlining the potential for economic impact. In Florida, the large stick nests are often placed on pylons and other electricity structures, causing short circuits and power outages.

However, Monk Parakeet appears harmless at present, and most countries have yet to report the species becoming a major agricultural pest. Control of the species in a ‘worst case scenario’ could, however, be an even worse public relations faux pas than DEFRA’s recent unpopular Ruddy Duck cull.

The most successful control method in America appears to be shooting, but it is hard to imagine this working in overpopulated London. Nest removal seems to have had temporary success at some sites, while the use of trapping, chemical sterilisation or avian contraceptives placed in treated bait have been suggested.

The species now appears to be very much on the rise, and the Isle of Dogs birds look like they are settling in for a productive spring, having survived two consecutive ‘big freezes’. They may well have already reached the level of a sustainable population, and the various British lists will have to take that into account.

Whatever its status, Monk Parakeet is now a wild species in Britain, and I can certainly vouch that it is intriguing and entertaining to watch, as the birds sidle sideways along suburban branches and swoop in synchronised gangs through chimneyed skies. Why not check them out next time you’re in ‘the smoke’?

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