Brussels, Nov 5 (DPA) As debate rages in Europe over genetically modified maize and “Frankenstein’s potatoes”, the continent is quietly moving towards a different new species: the Euro-parrot.
“Ring-necked parakeets in Europe are isolated from the native population, so they will develop along their own evolutionary path. Given enough time, that should lead to the development of separate species,” said Graham Madge of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
In the chill drizzle of the Belgian winter, the brightly coloured birds – green with a red bill, a black throat and a pale pink band around their necks – swoop low over the fallen leaves in a park only a stone’s throw from the headquarters of the European Union.
Across Northern Europe, the birds have entered urban legend. From the most precarious of beginnings, small populations of escaped parakeets have managed to gain a foothold in major cities such as London, Brussels and Frankfurt.
RSPB experts believe that the birds are “here to stay”, with the population growing “at a reasonable rate,” Madge said.
Stories abound as to the origins of their populations. In London, for example, where they are most common in the neighbourhood of Heathrow airport, the parakeets are said to have escaped from airport Customs, from the set of the film “The African Queen” or even from a Jimi Hendrix concert.
Urban rumours in Brussels, meanwhile, link the city’s parakeet populations to airport break-outs and ships arriving in the nearby port of Antwerp.
The most important factor, however, is likely to be that the parakeets are one of the most popular pets in Europe. They are also naturally hardy, with birds in India living in the foothills of the Himalayas, Madge said.
Despite the birds’ toughness, however, they are not thought to have spread widely beyond the cities – perhaps because of the hostile nature of the North European countryside for a tropical bird.
“They’re mainly fruit eaters, so they do well in suburbia, where there is a wide range of feeding opportunities in a relatively confined space. They do well living alongside man, but I personally doubt that they would do so well in the countryside,” Madge said.
Some scientists argue that the various European groups are managing to inter-breed, with sources at British ornithological group Birdlife International saying that “populations in Europe are all steadily connecting up” and have “great dispersive powers.”
But other scientists dispute this view, pointing out the difficulties fruit-eating birds would have in surviving in the European countryside through winter.
And the urban-centred isolation of the main groups means that each is ultimately likely to evolve in unexpected and unique ways.
“When you get species developing in isolated areas, such as in Hawaii, evolution can develop at quite a rapid rate,” Madge said.
The most famous example of this trend is to be found on the Galapagos Islands, where 13 species of finch, each with a different shape of beak, are known to have evolved on the cluster of volcanic islands 965 km off Ecuador’s Pacific coast.
“Darwin’s finches”, as they are known, are seen as having played a key role in the legendary scientist Charles Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution.
And the evolution of separate parakeet species in London, Brussels and Frankfurt would be a clear vindication of Darwin’s theories.
But European bird-watchers keen to carve their place in the history of science by being the first to spot – and thus name – the newly-evolved Euro-parrot should heed two words of warning.
Firstly, the evolutionary changes in the species are likely to be so slight as to be barely noticeable, with subtle differences in beak size or wing shape among the most probable variations to occur.
Secondly, given the immensely slow timescale over which evolution operates, the changes are unlikely to become noticeable until at least the year 102,000 AD – by which time even the most stubborn 21st-century bird watcher would be likely to have lost interest.