The Parakeeting Of London: An Adventure In Gonzo Ornithology by Nick Hunt — Review

An interesting and joyous investigation into London’s free-roaming ring-necked parakeets and the people who love them, hate them, or who plug their ears when they hear them

by GrrlScientist for Forbes | @GrrlScientist

NOTE: This piece was a Forbes Editor’s pick.

Two ring-necked parakeets eat an apple in Kensington Gardens in London. (Note: This image has been cropped.) (Credit: Matt Brown, Editor-at-large of The Londonist, CC BY 2.0)

If you live in or have visited London, you’ve probably seen or heard its parakeets. Originally from the Himalayan foothills of south Asia or the steaming equatorial jungles of central Africa, rose-ringed parakeets, Psittacula krameri, also known as ring-necked parakeets, are now resident in the greater London area, roosting in huge flocks that have spilled over into much of southeastern England, where they are now widely established.

How these lime-green parrots managed to get to London has, of course, been the subject of plenty of debate, and has inspired a variety of origin myths. Did Jimi Hendrix release a pair on Carnaby Street? Did they escape from the set of The African Queen in 1951? Or should we instead blame their presence on George Michael and Boy George? Or maybe the parakeets owe their freedom in London’s urban jungle to the Great Storm of 1987? There are so many origin myths in circulation that even a team of scientists investigated the mystery (more here).

But if you ask Londoners about the parakeets — how they got to London, or their opinions of the shrieking green squadrons commuting through the city’s skyways — you will quickly find that parakeets have made a deep impression in the city’s collective imagination.

And this is the subject of Nick Hunt’s delightful book, The Parakeeting of London: An adventure in gonzo ornithology (Paradise Road, 2019; Amazon US / Amazon UK). As Mr Hunt and fellow ‘gonzo ornithologist’ and photographer, Tim Mitchell, follow the parakeets from parks to cemeteries to riverbanks, and along the way, they interview random people from all walks of life about their connections to these personable parrots.

“Parakeets, we soon discovered, are never just parakeets”, writes Mr Hunt (p. 39). “They are black canvases onto which people project their own values. They are flying metaphors: highly visible, highly audible symbols of just about anything that people want them to be.”

I was particularly fascinated to see that when people started talking about the parakeets, they nearly always ended up talking about something else. For example, although not the focus of the book, the parallel quickly became uncomfortably apparent between a few people’s attitudes towards the parakeets, which are an invasive species, and their attitudes towards human immigrants, that they conflated the avian with the human, transforming the ornithological into the political.

“Invading, colonizing, taking over. The implication was often there, especially in the run-up to the Brexit referendum”, Mr Hunt observed (p. 67). “Plundering hoards driving out the natives, seizing their territory, outbreeding, outcompeting; it was hard not to read between the lines.”

But most people welcome — and appreciate — immigrants, both human and psittacine. They were charmed by the parakeets’ bright colors against London’s often oppressive skies, were intrigued by their exotic otherness, and they often found the jubilant, self-confident parakeets amusing.

This slim, breezy book is surprisingly engaging — even addictive. It features a joyous potpourri of oral history, mythology, and natural history sleuthing threaded together by interviews with random Londoners from all walks of life who share their thoughts, opinions and ideas about their avian neighbors. It’s a quick read, a tiny glimpse into life in London, and any Anglophile, birdwatcher or parrot lover will enjoy this highly entertaining and quirky book.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest, unbiased review. Additionally, as an Amazon Associate, I earn micropayments from qualifying Amazon purchases.

Originally published at Forbes on 31 March 2020.

PhD evolutionary ecology/ornithology. Psittacophile. scicomm Forbes, previously Guardian. always Ravenclaw. discarded scientist & writer, now an angry house elf

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