Urban legend has a range of outlandish theories for the origin of Britain’s parakeets, including Jimi Hendrix, Humphrey Bogart and George Michael. 

But their true origin in the UK has nothing to do with such glamorous celebrity myths, according to new research, which reveals sightings of the birds actually date back to the 1800s. 

It has been claimed that Jimi Hendrix released the first pair of parakeets, called Adam and Eve, as a symbol of peace when he was stoned in London’s Carnaby Street in 1968. A rival theory maintains that the birds escaped from the set of The African Queen, the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, in 1951.

But a study, published today in the Journal of Zoology, reveals the birds were reported in Britain as far back as 1855, when one was seen in Norfolk.

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The data was drawn from the plotting of parakeet sightings between 1968 and 2014, resulted in 5,072 points across the country. Researchers also looked at newspaper archives from 1800 onwards but did not find any news reports on parakeets being released by Hendrix or The African Queen

The data was drawn from the plotting of parakeet sightings between 1968 and 2014, resulted in 5,072 points across the country. Researchers also looked at newspaper archives from 1800 onwards but did not find any news reports on parakeets being released by Hendrix or The African Queen 

The researchers now believe parakeet numbers may have been boosted by escapes from British bird houses damaged in the Great Storm of 1987.

Experts also suspect many parakeets kept as pets were released en masse after an outbreak of ‘parrot fever’ in 1929, 1930 and 1952, as newspaper articles urged the public to stay away from the ‘dangerous birds’. 

Sarah Cox of Goldsmiths, University of London, says pet owners would have found it less distressing to simply set their bird free from a window than have it destroyed. 

Ring-necked parakeets are an exotic bird native to Asia which now terrorise many UK neighbourhoods. 

Despite originating in warmer climes, they have adapted well to British weather and actually thrive in cities such as London. 

Experts say they favour the parks and green spaces to be found in between homes in built-up cities, with plentiful food and nesting spots to be found, over the wild, open countryside. 

They also say the warming climate could play a part in the continued expansion throughout London and the rest of Britain. 

The data, drawn from the plotting of parakeet sightings between 1968 and 2014, resulted in 5,072 points across the country. Researchers also looked at newspaper archives from 1800 onward to track the spread of Britain's 170,000 parakets (pictured, sightings in Britain)

The data, drawn from the plotting of parakeet sightings between 1968 and 2014, resulted in 5,072 points across the country. Researchers also looked at newspaper archives from 1800 onward to track the spread of Britain’s 170,000 parakets (pictured, sightings in Britain)

The study officially discredits the thought that a flamboyant release in the name of peace by Jimi Hendrix (pictured) on Barnaby Street and a last-gasp escape from the set of Bogart's 'The African Queen'

Many people know the theory that the birds escaped from the set of The African Queen, the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn (pictured)

The study officially discredits the thought that a flamboyant release in the name of peace by Jimi Hendrix (pictured) on Barnaby Street and a last-gasp escape from the set of Bogart’s ‘The African Queen’ 

Dr Steven Le Comber, who led the study from Queen Mary University of London, said: ‘The fun legends relating to the origins of the UK’s parakeets are probably not going to go away any time soon.

‘Our research only found evidence to support the belief of most ornithologists – the spread of parakeets in the UK is likely a consequence of repeated releases and introductions, and nothing to do with publicity stunts by musicians or movie stars.’ 

Today, there are more than 170,000 parakeets in the UK, after their population flourished between 1986 and 1999. 

They compete against native birds – including blue tits and great tits – at garden bird feeders and can cause damage to orchards if their numbers increase further.

Large populations have been known to shred trees of their leaves in the height of summer if left unattended. 

Two main theories exist which people claim explains the origins of the exotic bird on British shores. 

The true origin in the UK has nothing to do with such glamorous celebrity myths, according to new research, which reveals sightings of the birds actually date back to the 1800s. Populations meandered for decades before a spike following the first breeding pair in 1969

The true origin in the UK has nothing to do with such glamorous celebrity myths, according to new research, which reveals sightings of the birds actually date back to the 1800s. Populations meandered for decades before a spike following the first breeding pair in 1969 

The 1980s saw parakeet rockers increase as they continued to breed and be released by disgruntled pet owners. The population grew steadily but it is thought the Great Storm of 1987 caused a dramatic increase in population numbers

The 1980s saw parakeet rockers increase as they continued to breed and be released by disgruntled pet owners. The population grew steadily but it is thought the Great Storm of 1987 caused a dramatic increase in population numbers 

In 2019, there are more than 170,000 parakeets in the UK, with their population flourishing between 1986 and 1999. It is thought the Great Storm of 1987 may have damaged British bird houses and triggered a mass release

In 2019, there are more than 170,000 parakeets in the UK, with their population flourishing between 1986 and 1999. It is thought the Great Storm of 1987 may have damaged British bird houses and triggered a mass release 

WHY ARE PARAKEETS THRIVING IN LONDON?

Ring-necked parakeets have existed in Britain since the 19th century.

The earliest recorded sightings of the birds in the wild were in Norfolk in 1855, Dulwich in 1893 and Brixton in 1894.  

The vibrantly coloured birds – with a violent squawk – have long been a favoured pet, traditionally of society’s most affluent.

With London being the historic hub of England and its biggest port, almost all the birds were shipped through London’s docks. 

As the birds, by their nature, are non-migratory and tend not to stray far from home, their spread throughout the rest of the UK has been slow.  

The hardy birds are also able to adapt by eating a range of food, making them well suited as an invasive species. 

Steve Nichols, CEO of Lincolnshire Wildlife Park, told MailOnline: ‘They are incredibly hardy birds. 

‘They’re not nest builders so don’t pose too much of a problem and can eat pretty much anything – from animal protein and seeds to toast. 

‘They’re probably thriving specifically in London because the temperature is very mild and obviously there are a lot of large buildings and its own mini ecosystem which is perfect for them. 

‘The main reason for their concentration in the capital is that they don’t migrate a lot.

‘Even parrots in the wild don’t migrate and only go back and forth between feeding places every day.’

A small population of the birds was known to be living in south-west London for a long period of time, but around ten years ago a mass expansion began. 

They spread further afield, to Richmond, Kew, Kensington Gardens,  Hyde Park and Regent’s Park and breeding as they went. 

Their populations benefited as they went, using London’s ample green space – London consists of 47 per cent green space – as their own. 

After conquering London, with its smoggy atmosphere creating an ideal balmy climate for the birds, they started a northward migration away from the capital. 

With Britain’s luscious green countryside at their disposal and ample bird tables and food available, they animals have continued to thrive.  

Annual increases to the nation’s temperature also means the animals will likely only continue to thrive, experts believe. 

Their native range is in the tropics of Asia, but also extends to the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range, where temperatures are far colder than in Britain.

Mr Nichols said: ‘The weather here is no problem for them really, we can’t throw any extreme conditions at them that they’re not used to. 

‘Where they come from is so diverse with the Indian heat as well as the mountains where it gets very cold.

‘It seems England is as good a place for them as any.’  

The best known is that Jimi Hendrix released the first pair of breeding birds, called Adam and Eve, as a symbol of peace while stoned in London’s Carnaby Street in 1968.

Many people also know the theory that the birds escaped from the set of The African Queen, the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

Initially brought in to make the film look like the African country it was set in, a claimed mass escape kick-started the parakeet takeover.    

Lesser theories such as a break-in at George Michael’s house and burglars damaging his secret aviary were alao discounted.

Researchers used a combination of a mathematical model, an online database of parakeet sightings and newspaper archives to track and predict the historical spread of the birds. 

A total of 5,072 data points were identified and used to create geoprofiles – similar to what is used to map crime sites, such as the location of murder victims’ bodies.  

When applied to biological data, the method can identify the origin sites of diseases or introduction sites of invasive species, for example.

URBAN MYTHS OF PARAKEET ORIGIN

 George Michael 

One wild theory claims that George Michael had a secret aviary in his house.

One day, burglars entered the property and broke it, allowing all his birds to escape.  

Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn  

Many people also know the theory that the birds escaped from the set of The African Queen, the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

Initially brought in to make the film look like the African country it was set in, a claimed mass escape kick-started the parakeet takeover.    

The link to The African Queen emerged when large flocks started appearing near Isleworth in the 1990s. 

Some film historians also insisted that parakeets were never used in the production. 

Jimi Hendrix 

A popular myth states that Jimi Hendrix released a breeding pair in Carnaby Street in the 1960s.

His breeding pair, called Adam and Eve, as a symbol of peace. 

Great storm of 1987  

Some suggest that the birds came from private collections during the Great Storm of 1987. 

Such immense damage could have freed the birds, kept as pets or in an  aviary, and allowed them to escape into the wild.  

Parrot fever 

Experts suspect many parakeets kept as pets may have been released by an outbreak of ‘parrot fever’ in both 1929, 1930 and 1952.

Headlines of 1952, such as ‘Stop imports of danger parrots’, could lead to a swift release of pets over safety fears.

Instead of killing the animal, people may have let them fly out the window.  

Syon park 

One outlandish theory states that modern parakeets emerged from a group of birds which escaped from an aviary in London’s Syon Park when a plane crashed through its roof.

Dr Le Comber has used the technique in a variety of ways inside and outside the natural world, including mapping malaria outbreaks, Banksy paintings and WWII bombs.

A British Newspaper Archive search found thousands of news stories about parakeets written between 1804 and 2008 which were also included in the research – none of which mentioned the four main myths.  

The complete data set was compared to the myths, to see if a spike in parakeet numbers was found after the myths were said to have happened. 

No spikes were found near Carnaby Street in ’68, the set of The African Queen in ’51 or around any of the myths – discounting them as the source of the parakeet plague. 

The first time the Jimmy Hendrix legend made its way into the media was in 2005. 

But there is evidence parakeet numbers may have been boosted by escapes from British bird houses damaged in the Great Storm of 1987, with a significant boost in sightings before and after 1988.

The researchers say in their study: ‘Spatial analysis shows no support for any of the popular theories about the introduction of P. krameri to the UK. 

‘None of the supposed sites of introduction show up prominently in the geoprofiles, with the possible exception of Shepperton Studios when we consider data from 1988. 

‘However, contrary to numerous reports, “The African Queen” was filmed at Worton Hall, and not Shepperton.’ 

It is now believed the birds took hold after a number of pet parakeets escaped, or were intentionally released by their owners in a panic over ‘parrot fever’.

Newspaper headlines warning of the dangers of the birds as pets saw several large releases of parakeets in 1929, 1930 and 1952.

This panic came around the time The African Queen wrapped so may have sparked the myth.

Parakeets, originally from the Indian sub-continent, were reported in Britain as far back as 1855, when one was seen in Norfolk.  

Co-author Sarah Cox, from Goldsmiths, University of London, said: ‘It is easy to imagine the headlines of 1952, such as ‘Stop imports of danger parrots’ leading to a swift release of pets.

‘If you were told you were at risk being near one, it would be much easier to let it out the window than to destroy it.’ 



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