Nov 2004

Parrots in Rome?

By Magnus “The Birdwatcher” Grylle
FAO Casa Gazette, 2004.

Being a birdwatcher, friends of mine occasionally start a conversation along the lines “the other day I saw this bird in the garden”. It is always terrifying. My reputation and self-respect is immediately at stake. To make bad worse, experience says that most descriptions that will follow are bafflingly vague. They can often fit any bird from an owl to starling - and probably everything in between. Europe is not the richest of continents in terms of bird species, but it still gives some 100 reasonably even- and mid-sized birds to choose among.

Therefore, it was a great relief when my friend, living in Monteverde close to the Doria Pamphili Park, recently continued saying “they were this big” (waving hands) “and all green, making squeaking noises”. He helpfully added, “they sat in the top of a tree”. Deeply satisfied, and for once fully confident, I replied: “You have seen parrots!” My friend is not totally uninformed, so he objected “but parrots are not supposed to be in Europe, or are they?”

He is right. Parrots are a very large family of birds, and amongst others include parrots, parakeets and cockatoos, and there are over 300 species worldwide. They are a familiar sight to many of us working at FAO, but then in tropical locations. Parrots occur in Australia, throughout south Asia, over to Africa and South America up to south Mexico, but not in Europe. So, how could I be so certain about what my friend had seen?

Parrots are robust, tough and long-lived birds. They are also strong and quick flyers, living of seeds, fruit and various vegetables. The Roman climate is not tropical, but sufficiently forgiving so new arrivals can learn where to find food and shelter. Parrots live naturally in northern India and there the winters are also harsh and they managed to survive. Although their population density is low, they live relatively long lives and there is a slim, but fair chance, they may meet a partner if they only hang in there long enough.

Popular cage birds as they are, they are caught, bred, and traded throughout the world. Occasionally, they escape. Others are deliberately released, when their owners get bored with maintaining them. A common cage species is the Rose-ringed Parakeet, a species occurring naturally in India and the Sahel region in Africa. It’s an all green parrot of about 40 cm long. The bird is smaller than the measurement suggests as much of it is a long green tail. The parrots my friend saw were this species. The male has a characteristic rose-coloured ring around the neck, which is completely absent in the female. They have typical parrot beaks, are part of the extended parrot “family”, and are essentially seed eating, although they are known to eat a variety of food including some fruit. They fly fast and characteristically have a fast wing beat. They are social and can be found in flocks of up to 20 birds. Nesting takes place in tree hollows or nests other birds have hollowed out in trees – normally at least 8 metres above the ground. Cavities are in the region of 300 – 500 mm deep, a 70 mm diameter entrance hole, and an internal width of approximately 150 mm. The local pine trees are ideal as they have many such potential nest sites. They produce clutches of 2-3 eggs (unmarked white colouration and around 31 x 24 mm in size) in a clutch and are usually able to raise at least 2 babies a year. Only the female partner incubates the eggs and both parents feed the babies. The nestling/fledgling period lasts for approximately 49 days. They are known to be well adapted to cultivated and urban areas, and do particularly well in areas with older trees that form natural cavities readily.

Rose-ringed Parakeet have successfully bred in Rome for the past few years. Although it is not exactly known how it occurred, it is most likely two lonely unwanted immigrants met in a tree top somewhere a few years back. The rest is history and they are now quite common in the Monteverde area. They also occur in other parks of Rome as Cafacarella and Celli Montana. It is even possible to see them at and around FAO. Once, three of them came swooping down into the large garden below while we enjoyed our coffee at the terrace outside the “Blue Bar” in building C.

Introducing a species, intentionally or by mistake, in a new area isn’t always such a brilliant idea. There are numerous examples of mistakes e.g. the European starling in non-European locations is one example of a bird now completely out of control. Rose-ringed Parakeets are definitely foreign here. So far they are only a slightly exotic addition to the Sunday stroll in the park, but the population is growing in numbers and distribution. To my knowledge they occur only in cities (Rome is not the only one), in Europe. However, these birds are very adaptable, have a relatively high breeding success, and are known to out compete a number of indigenous species on other continents. In these regions, this means they are invasive and have basically become an unwanted pest. It will not be long before they can be found throughout Rome, or at least were they have an appropriate habit to breed and survive. As it is almost impossible to eliminate them (even if this is what one would want to do), the best we can do is try not to encourage them too much, learn more about them and their local habits so that we can develop a management strategy, and at least try to learn to appreciate them. After all, they are beautiful birds in their natural habit.

Although they appear to be relatively well adapted, the urban environment is relatively new for them. Although this species is known to impact on indigenous bird species in other countries, not enough is known whether “our” parakeets can fully exploit the local environment without negatively impacting any other winged or non-winged species. Time will tell, and then it may be too late to do anything about it if they become problematic. If they ever make it out to the natural forests – we’ll see, if we hang in here long enough.

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