Photo by Abel Julien.
A rose-ringed parakeet spotted in the Parc de la Ciutadella. It has been tagged by scientists who are studying movement of the parrots in the city.
If you keep in mind the hardship they face, you are more likely to empathise with them. So, despite the fact that a discarded seed from a date palm had just been rudely dropped square on the top of my head by one of these invasive foreigners, whose only apology was a teasing cackle before flying away to a nearby hackberry tree, I forgave. Then, I took shelter under the awning of a nearby kiosk.
Mothers are separated from daughters, fathers from sons. Some are smuggled in, others arrive within the limits of the law. Ripped from their homelands, often of warmer climes, many come as captives to be sold off for the private entertainment of the more well-heeled. Perhaps the luckiest are destined to escape almost immediately upon arrival at Barcelona–El Prat Airport or from the container ships at the port. The less fortunate, though, die after years in captivity.
But for nearly all the escapees the ending is a happy one. Seven species of parrot are thriving right here in urban Barcelona—the highest number of parrot species in any European city. “We don’t think temperature is a factor,” said Abel Julien of the Institut Català d’Ornitologia, who has studied birds in Catalunya for more than 30 years and works as a nature tour guide. “They will stay in their colonised environments provided there is enough food for them throughout the year.”
First spotted in the city in 1975, their numbers were estimated at a mere 50, but with a vertiginous growth rate, there are now thought to be more than 10,000 parrots living in the Barcelona metropolitan area.
Among the species in Barcelona are monk parrots, named thus for the hood-like markings on their crown and nape of bright-green and grey feathers. At less than 30 centimetres in length, they are considered tiny for a parrot. Larger than the monks—think parrot-on-pirate-shoulder size—rose-ringed parakeets have powder-blue napes, tropical-green breasts and flesh-coloured or scarlet bills.
Photo by Ramón Moller Jensen.
Like the monk and rose-ringed parakeets, nanday parakeets are mainly bright-green, but their faces, foreheads and beaks are masked in ebony as if they have been receiving a mud treatment at a health spa. From the top of their pale-pink talons to their lower thighs the nandays’ feathers are bell-pepper red, endowing them with the illusion of wearing a pair of Eighties legwarmers.
“The rose-ringed parrots are harder to find, but you can spot them in the Parc de la Ciutadella and in the garden of the Barcelona Zoo,” explained Julien. “These birds like avenues with plane trees,” he added, and it seems the big, white-and beige-barked trees ubiquitous in Barcelona—similar to the North American sycamore—fit the bill. All seven of the species, however, can be seen everywhere. “They favour public parks and can be abundant and noisy,” said Julien. Keep an eye out for them in the gardens of Palau Reial de Pedralbes and the Parc de Cervantes on Avinguda Diagonal.
The city’s natural environment and human gleanings are a veritable smorgasbord for them: sweet, meaty hackberries are the bird’s caviar, the bark of eucalyptus trees their roughage; they don’t abstain from bread crumbs or popcorn, and many backyard bird feeders serve as sites for effortless snacks. All parrots in Barcelona use their bills like a pair of shears to cut their food. If you observe them closely, you can see them employ their black leathery tongues to position their fare, gently and quickly patting it like a reluctant bather might test the water’s temperature with a pinky toe.
But how did these parrots get here from their tropical, South American homeland?
Well, firstly, Barcelona isn’t the only foreign home these birds have adopted. Since around 50 years ago, when they started being exported to America, Western Europe and Russia, tropical parrots have been taking refuge between cornice brackets, nudging themselves beneath bay windows, poking under chimney cowls and swooping down abandoned smokestacks in Chicago, London, Brooklyn, Texas, Oregon and Paris.
The romantic, swashbuckling theory is that the parrots escaped from shipping crates at the airport or port. No ornithologist believes they flew here on their own. “The most common pathway of introduction of parrot species,” said Dr. Vall-llosera Camps, a Catalan researcher at the University of Adelaide, “is the pet trade.” Julien and his colleagues agree, calling the hitherto captive birds ‘escapees’, probably released from balconies and patios out into the Barcelona skyline by weary pet owners who had had enough of rasping screeches, cleaning cages and buying birdseed.
Fatigued pet owners, however, are not the only people unenamoured of the parrots. “The data available on the economic impacts on agriculture is scarce and mostly anecdotal, but they do seem to have a harmful effect on orchards around Barcelona,” said Dr. Vall-llosera Camps. Farmers in the Baix Llobregat complain about the parrots eating their corn and sunflower crops. And monk parakeets in particular, the only species in Barcelona that builds its own nests, have ruffled a few feathers. They like to construct their elaborate twig-nests around heating-emitting transformers atop utility poles, which can cause power outages and fires.
Photo by Ramón Moller Jensen.
The peregrine falcon, a natural predator of the parrot, was reintroduced into Barcelona in 1999. “There are seven well-established pairs of the falcons,” said Julien. “That of the Sagrada Familia captures monk parakeets regularly.”
According to a 2013 Spanish law, the ‘possession, transportation and commercial trafficking of [monk parakeets] is prohibited’. “They can be hunted during the hunting season,” Julien continued. “However, during the rest of the year, they are protected just like any other bird and can only be killed if a special permit is requested. This permit will only be issued if some sort of damage can be demonstrated.”
After the unapologetic bombardment of the cast-off date palm seed, I considered looking into the feasibility of obtaining said permit, but opted instead to collect a pebble from the ground nearby and contemplated throwing the small stone in the parrot’s direction. However, as I took a deep breath in preparation, my target flew away into the azure sky. Neither the puzzled stares of passersby nor the quizzical expression of the man in the kiosk made me feel the deserved humiliation. Rather, it was the thought that I was going to inhumanely treat a living being that hadn’t wanted to exchange its country for my adopted one in the first place.
SPOT THE SPECIES
Monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus)
- Hood-like markings on their crown and nape of grey and bright-green plumage
- Less than 30 centimetres in length, considered tiny for a parrot.
- Silver-blue flight feathers and greyish-white breast plumes
- Sociable species, usually occurs in large, noisy flocks of around 30 to 50 individuals
- Groups roost together at night
- Makes large, multi-chambered twig-made nests
Rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri)
- Powder-blue napes, tropical-green breasts and scarlet to flesh-colored bills
- Adult females’ neck rings are either nonexistent or of a shadowy, insipid grey
- Mature males' neck rings range from deep red to black
Nanday parakeet (Aratinga nenday)
- Black faces, foreheads and beaks
- From the top of their pale-pink talons to their lower thighs feathers band bell-pepper red
- Also known as the black-hooded parakeet or nanday conure