Monday, 30 April 2012

Pieces of Eight

I first stuck my head outside this morning at around 08:00, not quite believing the forecasters promise that, just for one day, we might be having a respite from the torrential downpours that have plagued us in the past week or so. I didn't have much confidence that I should leave the brolly at home and ventured out with some trepidation. Happily the London skies were clear and blue, the trees were verdant and springlike, there were some bluebells gently swaying in the London breeze, and an emerald green parrot screeched overhead.

Yes, a parrot. Mad, I know. I suppose I first started noticing them in London around seven or eight years ago. When I initially spotted one I recall feeling surprised at first, and then, assuming it was an escapee, I internally congratulated it on attaining its freedom. That was all; I then thought little more about it.

But in the years since that first sighting, I now realise that, across London, they are everywhere. I've seen them in one of my favourite of London's green spaces, the soon-to-be-damaged-by-the-Olympics Greenwich Park (note to my American friends who we look forward to welcoming to London in summer -- when asking for directions, say "Grinitch", not "Green Witch"). My children's school has a fine parakeet selection living in the trees surrounding their playground (my daughter is determined to get them to speak, and constantly shouts "hello, hello" at them). I have even seen one wrestling with the bird feeder in my garden.

Rose Ringed Parakeets, by J M Garg Some Rights Reserved

I'm never really sure what to think about this. In case you haven't gathered, parrots are about as native to London or the UK as penguins or polar bears would be. When I was a small child growing up in non-rural inner city London, I pretty much refused to believe that any birds other than sparrows or pigeons existed. These days, a sparrow sighting is tragically rare, although blackbirds, blue tits, great tits, magpies, long tailed tits, robins and a host of others now visit my garden on most days. As do what seem to be Alexandrine and Rose-Ringed Parakeets, both Asian species (I'm no expert; a friend of mine who knows his birds suggests to me that Amazonian breeds are out there, too). Where have these tropical birds all come from?

I've read speculation that Jimi Hendrix may have inadvertently introduced them to London, but given that there are several species, I don't really buy that (though, given Hendrix's short but productive existence, nothing could really be ruled out). More likely that they're the hardy feral descendants of a variety of escaped or released pets. It seems certain they're made of tough stuff, eeking out a living in a non native environment, reproducing vigorously, and decorating my car with fruity guano (another assumption; I haven't actually tasted it).

Whether or not these colourful aliens are competing with the native species for resources I have no idea. As non-native birds, they can be culled, apparently, and some parks and local authorities have ordered such an exercise. It seems sad but is perhaps necessary if the local ecosystem is being disrupted, and maybe native birds are threatened. That said, millions of migratory birds pass through Britain every year; are these native? It's a dilemma. Anyway, I kind of like them myself. It's possible they remind me of exotic travels from my past, I suppose; I was once lucky enough to have just alighted from a broken down bus in Guatemala, miles from anywhere and wondering what would happen next, when a vast flock of them flew over. Parakeets, that is. Not buses.

Enough of this reminiscing -- I have an excuse to share my parrot joke with you:

Q: What's orange and sounds like a parrot?
A: A carrot.

("No daddy," says my daughter (Kiddie Nam?), "parrots say 'Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight...'" Bless her.)

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