February 04, 2014

Changing soundscapes. The spread of parakeets in Europe

This is going to be another “noisy spring”. The melodious notes of native black birds, wrens and robins are being progressively replaced in many European towns by the frequent loud screeching calls of monk parakeets and rose ringed parakeets. The genuine “soundscape” of European towns is indeed rapidly changing, replaced by the exotic calls of parakeets, which are becoming a familiar sound in many European cities, particularly in urban areas and parklands. Roosting sites are sometimes spectacular, as they may often contain several hundred birds attracted from a wide area to just a few trees. Nevertheless the screeching calls of parakeets in Europe, rather than being considered a mere novel fascinating thing, should remind us of the actual and potential threats they represent. In the old continent parakeets are not native species, as they have created breeding colonies only recently, further to intentional releases or accidental escapes of animals traded at least since the 60's as cage birds. Like many other invasive alien species, their presence can be detrimental to the environment and human welfare.

Monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) in a cage
© Photo: Riccardo Scalera

Take for example the rose-ringed parakeets. This native to the African continent south of the Sahara and to south Asia, is now the most widely introduced parrot in the world (including at least 12 countries in Europe). In Europe, besides being a clear noise nuisance as already considered in some residential areas, can have a major impact on biodiversity, agriculture and even health. In fact rose-ringed parakeets may have detrimental effects on native birds with which they may compete, particularly in those habitats where the number of cavities as breeding sites is a limiting factor regulating population densities of cavity-nesters (e.g. for species like Eurasian nuthatch,  kestrel, stock dove, western jackdaw and common starling). 

In Europe most rose-ringed parakeet populations were initially introduced in urban environments, thus the impact on agriculture has been historically limited. However, they are now extending their range into rural environments, thus increasing the potential to become agricultural pests. Although the reports of parakeet damage to agriculture are still few, there is clear evidence of significant damage to crops as well. For example, in the United Kingdom rose-ringed parakeets damage buds and blossoms of various trees and shrubs. For this reason conflicts are known with fruit growers that experienced damage to apple, pear, cherries and plums. In addition, this parakeet has been reported to have damaged vineyards by reducing the expected wine production. Also in Australia, where the species is not native, rose-ringed parakeets are known to cause severe damage to plantations by stripping the bark from young stems and killing the affected trees, thus locally changing the arboreal composition. On the other hand, in at least part of its native range this species is considered one of the most destructive bird pests for agriculture. In India and Pakistan, for example, there are extensive reports of crop damage. 

Rose-ringed parakeet eating plums in Versailles
(Psittacula krameri)  © Photo: Riccardo Scalera

Rose-ringed parakeets are also possible vectors for diseases, like Newcastle's disease and cryptosporidium, which could be harmful to poultry and might also have an impact on that industry. Moreover, they could affect humans in the case of psittacosis. In any case, the potential for the parakeets to become serious pests in the future has been highlighted, in fact there is concern that farming practices that adapt to global climate change and a warmer Europe will facilitate the continued expansion of parakeet populations. As a consequence, given the detrimental impacts of parakeets occurring outside their natural range, it would be useful to monitor existing wild and captive populations, and to improve legislation to prevent deliberate introductions and escapes. Moreover, depending on the risks posed, population control or eradication may be considered necessary to limit the spread of the species and the potential for further damage. But this might be not very popular. The experience with the monk parakeet control in London (described here) is a good example of the challenges and opportunities of this option in Europe, with a special focus on the social dimension of the problem represented by this South American parakeet.

A dedicated EU project – ParrotNet - is just being launched with the aim to create a European network focusing on the impacts, drivers and monitoring of invasive parrots in Europe, and promoting the understanding of relevant invasion dynamics and risks to agriculture and society. ParrotNet is a COST Action, led by the University of Kent, UK, and will provide funding for a 4-year research network (for further information see here). The project, comprising currently 14 European countries, will help to (i) better understand why some species such as parakeets are highly successful invaders, (ii) harmonise methodologies to predict agricultural, economic, societal and ecological impacts across Europe, and the means to mitigate them, (iii) create a virtual European Monitoring Centre for all invasive parrot species, and (iv) transfer results to policy and society.  This is a key attempt to prevent that Carson's prophesy of a “silent spring” will be replaced in the near future by a more and more insidious “noisy spring”.