“DUCKS HAVE PARROT DISEASE!” A diversion…

Hello Grappling With History readers. Apologies for my lack of updates in recent weeks. The plan as it stands is to write one more article documenting the boxing match between Jem Smith and Jack Wannop and to then put the blog on hold for six months or so while I work on my MA essays and begin my dissertation, which is provisionally titled Why was ‘The Most Popular Man in New Cross’ forgotten? Rediscovering Jack Wannop, wrestling champion of late-Victorian England.

After that, I’ll be fully committed to getting this book written.

Earlier this year a friend of mine, Dr Steve Le Comber, asked me if I would like to help out with a research project he and some colleagues were working on about the introduction and spread of ring-necked parakeets in the UK. He knew, through my boxing and wrestling research, that I was an absolute nerd for the British Newspaper Archive and asked if I would seek out and analyse historic newspaper coverage about escaped parakeets in and see how it matched up with the colourful myths surrounding the non-native birds’ origins.

Based on a significant quantity of articles about parrot disease published in the early 1930s and 1950s, I also generated a few theories of my own about why more birds may have been released during these periods and enhanced the booming population, some of which made it into the final report.

Our research paper was accepted into the prestigious Journal of Zoology and published on Thursday 12 December – you can access it here.

Steve died earlier this year at the age of 53, and I’m still bloody gutted. There’s a really lovely tribute to him on the Queen Mary University of London website.

Since my day job is writing press releases about academic research, I obviously cracked one out for this (see below) and coverage appeared across pretty much every national newspaper and broadcaster, including the Guardian, Metro, ITV, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Star.

Enjoy! We’ll be winging our way back to the squared circle soon…

Parakeet ‘crime map’ busts Bogart and Hendrix myths

Using geographic profiling to map half a century of ring-necked parakeet sightings, researchers have found no evidence to support any of the colourful legends surrounding the birds’ origins in the UK.

Stories have circulated in recent years that seek to explain how the non-native bright green birds (Psittacula krameri) started breeding and spread to become one of Britain’s most successful alien species.

Despite sightings dating back to the 1860s, many insist that Jimi Hendrix first released a pair on Carnaby Street. Others claim a flock was let go from the set of the Bogart and Hepburn classic The African Queen when filming wrapped in 1951.

One theory suggests that parakeets kept at Syon Park escaped in the 1970s when a plane crashed through the aviary roof, while another blames damage to aviaries during the Great Storm of 1987.

© Tim Blackburn

A new spatial analysis, backed by an extensive search of archived newspaper articles, concludes that Britain’s booming parakeet population has instead grown from numerous small-scale accidental and intentional pet releases.

Publishing on Thursday 12 December in the Journal of Zoology, a research team from Queen Mary University of London, UCL, and Goldsmiths, University of London conclude that intentional releases may have been encouraged from 1929-1931 and in 1952 by dramatic media coverage of fatal ‘parrot fever’ outbreaks.

Dr Steven Le Comber and Queen Mary colleagues used geographic profiling – a statistical technique originally developed in criminology to prioritise large lists of suspects in cases of serial crime – to analyse spatial patterns of parakeet sightings.

None of the ‘suspect sites’ connected to origin myths (Worton Hall Studios, Syon Park, and Carnaby Street) showed up prominently in the geoprofile of more than 5,000 unique records dating from 1968 – 2018.

Geographic profiling typically maps crime sites, such as the location of murder victims’ bodies. This is overlaid on a map of the area of interest to produce a geoprofile and narrow down the area where the perpetrator is likely to live or work.  

When applied to biological data, the model can identify the origin sites of diseases or introduction sites of invasive species, for example. Dr Le Comber has used the technique in a variety of ways inside and outside the natural world, mapping malaria outbreaks, Banksy paintings, WWII bombs, and more.

© Tim Blackburn

A British Newspaper Archive search conducted at Goldsmiths found thousands of pages of news stories about parakeets written between 1804 and 2008. But search word combinations failed to locate a single item of news coverage documenting the escape or release of parakeets in the context of the four main origin myths.

[Coventry Evening Telegraph, 10 January 1953]

Numerous sensational accounts of human deaths due to psittacosis infections were printed from 1929. In 1932 the Middlesex County Times reported that parakeets had been spotted in Epping Forest and the newspaper credited the ‘parrot disease scare’ of 1931 for an increase in pet birds released into the wild.

Study co-author Sarah Elizabeth Cox, postgraduate history student at Goldsmiths, said: “Scary health stories often prompt a strong public reaction – look at the late-1990s autism/MMR panic. 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.”

Yet by 1961 birds were a more popular pet than cats and dogs in Britain. With 11 million (various species) in captivity, it seems likely there would be an increase in escapes. A 1976 article, also in the Middlesex County Times, argued that ‘a succession of about a dozen mild winters’ also helped parakeets to breed in the wild.

[Daily Herald,  19 December 1952]

Lead author Steven Le Comber said: “The ring-necked parakeet has become a successful invasive species in 34 countries on five continents. The fun legends relating to the origins of the UK’s parakeets are probably not going to go away any time soon. However, 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.”

Understanding the origins of the ring-necked parakeet in the UK by Olivia Heald, Chiara Fraticelli, Sally Faulkner, Michael Stevens, Steven Le Comber (all Queen Mary), Sarah Elizabeth Cox (Goldsmiths) and Tim Blackburn (UCL and the Institute of Zoology) was published in the Journal of Zoology on Thursday 12 December.

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