“My Secret City” is a collaboration between Narratively and CityLab from The Atlantic, a publication that informs and inspires the people who are creating the cities of the future—and those who want to live there. Each day this week, Narratively and CityLab will publish a new Secret City story.
They started on the margins and colonized the center. First they were seen in Kingston upon Thames, a leafy suburb on London’s southwestern fringe. Then they moved to neighboring Richmond and squatted the gardens of Hampton Court Palace – the former residence of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I – before migrating northward into London proper. Soon they were in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, clamoring around Big Ben, massing in Parliament Square. Then they were in Highgate, the grand Victorian cemetery. Then Primrose Hill. Then crowding East London’s canals. Then they were everywhere.
In the ten years I have lived in London, they city’s feral population of green parakeets (technically ring-necked parakeets, or psittacula krameri manillensis) has gone from being an exotic curiosity in a couple of neighborhoods to a ubiquitous sight over vast swaths of the city. Amazingly, no one knows where these brightest of London’s settlers actually came from, although there are many theories. The most commonly held belief is that they escaped from aviaries and bred spectacularly well, or that an entire flock was released from a film studio during the filming of Katherine Hepburn’s The African Queen in 1951. One story holds that a breeding pair was released in 1968 on Carnaby Street by Jimi Hendrix in a stoned gesture of love. Another theory involves George Michael – maybe the singer’s bird collection escaped from cages in his Hampstead home during a botched burglary.
Fascinated by these urban myths, a friend and I went to Central London to track them down. Neither of us had seen one yet, though we had heard rumors of sightings – from a friend here, a colleague there, a local newspaper report there – and we ended up in Kensington Gardens on a grey and rainy day, clambering through dense undergrowth to discover their secret lair. There was a chorus of harsh calls, a fleeting flash of green, and we had the feeling that we’d sighted some rare and fabled beast. But once our eyes and ears had attuned, the birds appeared wherever we looked: not only in parks and cemeteries, but swooping down terraced streets, enlivening London’s pigeon-gray with tropical bursts of color. We started to see them near our homes. We saw them in our gardens. Intrigued, we plotted a series of excursions around the city, armed with camera and Dictaphone – we call it ‘gonzo ornithology’ – to learn as much as we could about these avian arrivals.
Neither of us knew much about birds, and we made an early decision to avoid experts wherever possible – our interest was in people’s stories rather than cold, hard facts. We talked to people from all walks of life: park rangers, dog walkers and joggers, gardeners, eccentrics, alcoholics, people who lived in million-pound mansions and in public housing, Polish gravediggers and Albanian ice cream sellers. Very quickly our recordings became less about parakeets, and more about ‘what people talk about when they talk about parakeets.’ These small green birds provided a starting point for extraordinary conversations. Londoners have a reputation for being hurried and unfriendly, but the parakeets disproved all that: it was remarkable how much people had to say, and how quickly they revealed their deepest thoughts and feelings.
Our “Flyways” project features interviews with a wide range of Londoners, all talking about the parakeets.
Some people see the birds as harbingers of climate change, thriving in England’s increasingly mild winters (no doubt this is partly true, but, as we learned from a genuine ornithologist we met by accident, they come from the Himalayan foothills, tolerating ice and snow as well as native British birds do). Some younger people assume they are native British birds, accepting their presence as easily as that of ducks and pigeons. And inevitably – in the age of Brexit and Europe’s refugee crisis – some condemn them as invasive migrants, driving out indigenous birds and wreaking havoc on local ecosystems. ‘There’s just something alien about them,’ said one man only half-jokingly. “I hope this becomes a propaganda broadcast to drive them out!”
But others admired them as underdogs thriving against all odds, canny adapters who had exploited an ecological niche. It didn’t take long for one woman to tell us the story of her father’s family, who fled Spain during the civil war and made London their home, “just as these birds are doing.” And appearances can be deceptive. The man in the Union Jack t-shirt keeping vigil outside Kensington Palace, surrounded by tributes to Princess Diana, loves the birds almost as much as he loves the queen. ‘They’re living things, they’ve got the right to live in England,” he mused. “I don’t know where they’re originally from but I hope they don’t pack their bags and go; I’d miss them if they ever left here.”
Following these bright, plucky, resourceful and mysterious birds from north to south, east to west, revealed new facets of a city my friend and I both thought we knew. In Kensal Green Cemetery we met a Cockney undertaker who had rescued a parakeet chick that had fallen from its nest. He took it home and cared for it, then buried it when it died. In Walton-on-Thames we found a pub that had replaced its original sign with the image of a green parakeet – one of the birds, apparently, had landed on the new landlord’s shoulder on the day he started. But apart from these individual stories, we came to understand London not in terms of its grand buildings and monuments, or its boroughs or Underground zones, but by the parks, cemeteries, woodlands, rivers and canals that make the city, surprisingly, one of the greenest in Europe. Learning that the parakeets navigate by their own ‘flyways’ – commuting from one green space to another down the same streets every day, in squadrons consisting of dozens of birds squawking above the traffic – brought an entirely new dimension to London’s layered map. Most importantly, the parakeets unlocked the tongues of our fellow Londoners, granting us access to stories we’d never have heard otherwise. These small, exotic settlers from a land far away brought us closer to our city, and its people.