10/06/2010 14:04

An unwelcome colony? Ring-necked parakeets are threatening biodiversity in the German Colony.

On a recent walk through the German Colony, I was treated to a stunning sight. Filling a tree with their flapping green wings was a flock of eight parakeets, calling raucously to each other and pecking at fat red berries with gusto.

Residents of the German Colony are apparently inured to this experience, as sightings of the gorgeous birds – officially named ring-necked parakeets – have become increasingly common in recent years. People like to theorize about the birds’ origins, speculating that they are all the progeny of an intrepid pair of escaped pets, years ago. Or that they were imported to Israel to be sold and were accidentally released into the wild. The outcome is, of course, the same: A species of bird that was once alien to the region is now right at home in the holy city, squawking and snacking on local plants like it owns the place.

I had an up-close-and-personal encounter with ring-necked parakeets at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo years ago. They are comical birds, quick to engage with people, insistent in their shrill calls. Self-confidence is not their problem.

Their problem, explains Dr. Salit Kark of the Hebrew University, is their despoiling of our ecosystem. Kark’s research specialties include biodiversity and biological invasions and, unfortunately, the ring-necked parakeets are endangering the former and qualifies as the latter. They compete with indigenous Jerusalem birds, as well as with the birds migrating from Europe and Africa that pass through Israel twice a year.

Responding to In Jerusalem’s questions via e-mail from Australia, where she is serving as honorary reader of the University of Queensland, Kark explains that the ring-necked parakeets are all too comfortable in our climate and ecosystem, where the work is being done by others to nurture them. They live on fruits and seeds produced by agriculture – that is, by our farmers. To clarify, feeding parakeets is not what the farmers have in mind when they grow their cash crops of sunflower seeds and fruits, and the ravages of foreign birds on these plants is disastrous for them.

The average exotic bird you buy in the pet store will die from the slightest temperature change or draft, so I was surprised to discover that although their origin is probably India, the ring-necked parakeets are quite happy in Jerusalem winters.

According to Kark, they can even thrive in cities as far north as London and Berlin.

They are also quite the little freeloaders, nesting in the cavities of trees that were created by Syrian woodpeckers. This drives the woodpeckers out of their habitats, thus endangering that species and, with it, biodiversity in the region.

All in all, from an environmental perspective, the ring-necked parakeet is a beautiful nuisance at best. The experience of learning this struck a familiar chord in me, reminding me of the time I first learned that Jewish tradition considers the rainbow a sign of ill fortune. To this day, the lesson is profoundly incongruous – that something of such exquisite loveliness should be regarded as a threat. But in matters of environmental concern, this is a theme that seems to arise again and again, and nowhere more so than in matters of biodiversity.

Yet I hold out hope that environmentalists will find a way for us to compromise with the ring-necked parakeet so we can somehow coexist together.

For more rare bird observing, you can visit the Jerusalem Bird Observatory behind the Knesset.