Over thirty different species of parrot have been recorded in the wild in Spain over the last few years. For the most part they have been recorded in dribs-and-drabs with the majority of reports concerning no more than a single bird. Budgerigar is a good example of this with many widely scattered reports of lone birds, but no suggestion (yet) that they are establishing a viable breeding population. The same applies to two other widely reported species, Cockatiel and Rose-faced Lovebird. However, a handful of species have managed to establish populations that have been sustained over decades although although only two can be said to be well established and spreading vigorously.
At first sight it seems surprising that any parrot should become establish in Spain at all since we closely associate parrots with hot tropical climates which are in short supply in Europe, even in Iberia. Whilst it is indeed true that most parrots live in hot tropical climates, they are a surprisingly adaptable group some of which survive high on mountains like New Zealand's Kea (found up to 2,400m) or in a distinctly chilly climate like the Austral Parakeet of Tierra del Fuego where temperatures may scarcely climb above 9°C in summer and average 0°C in winter. It is, though, true that the overwhelming majority of parrot species are ill-equipped to survive in Spain so which characteristics do these birds have that allows them to succeed? One predictor of their likely success is the size of their native range as this indicates their level of adaptability. As a result the many species native to small islands or with a restricted range are unlikely to make the grade. A related factor is food preference with the generalists always winning over the specialists. Another consideration is whether they are found in areas where the climate broadly mirrors that of the Mediterranean. Finally, there has to be a vacant niche with the habitat to support them. These criteria quickly weed out most of the potential parrot émigrés reported in Spain, but despite these not inconsiderable barriers a few species seem here to stay.
One such is Rose-ringed Parakeet (or Ring-necked), a species that will be familiar not only to many British birdwatchers, but also half a dozen or more other European countries where they have large, well established colonies. Further afield they've colonised Arabia, Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, the USA and elsewhere. This, and it's enormous natural range, demonstrates that this is a highly adaptable species. It belongs to an Asian family of parrots, but, remarkably, its natural range extends into Africa (the only parrot to manage this 'double'). It is also one of only a handful of parrots to be found well north of the Tropic of Cancer. It's found from coastal semi-deserts, through open woodland and on up into mountains to heights of 1,600- 2,000 m. In its natural range it has also adapted well to man-made habitats like open agricultural land (with scattered trees), orchards, stock yards, human habitations and so on. So it's CV strongly suggests that it's in Spain for the long term.
Fortunately, this is a distinctive species even within its natural range and unlikely to be confused with other parrots. Like its close relatives it is basically bright leaf green with duskier primaries and a particularly long tail with slightly bluish central feathers. Only males sport the small black bib and neck ring which is bordered below by a indistinct rosy bloom which gives the species its name. Females and young birds lack these features and have a near uniformly green plumage (although some females may show a faint paler collar and young birds tend to be yellower toned). The bill is pinkish red usually with a contrasting blackish lower mandible. It is 37-43 cm in length and weighs 95-143 g. This alone should distinguish it from its only realistic confusion species, Alexandrine Parakeet which is distinctly larger (50-62 cm 198-258 g) with a more massive red bill and an obvious maroon shoulder patch. However, this species is rather infrequently reported as an escapee in Spain. In theory at least the Ring-necked and the very closely related Mauritius Parakeet could be confused for one another, but as it is critically endangered (c100 birds survive) this is not a realistic proposition. Rose-ringed are very vocal birds and often first noticed when you hear one screeching over. They usually nest in hollow trees, but aren't adverse to taking advantage of cavities in old walls. Although not obligatory colonial, they often form loose colonies. Wild birds generally nest in December-May so breeding in Spain at similar season offers few problems. In the UK, and elsewhere, they form large roosts not infrequently running to hundreds of birds.
As with all such closet colonists the precise history of Rose-ringed Parakeet's arrival in Spain is murky. . What is known is that they were first reported breeding in Spain in the 1980s. Like all exotics, it is somewhat patchily distributed reflecting the randomness of where a significant number of birds (usually required for a successful colonisation) managed to escape. Whilst seeing the species is possible pretty much anywhere in Spain, only relatively few areas have developed a strong self-sustaining population. Most occur in large urban parks often with suitable exotic trees. The current focus of the population is Barcelona, Seville and many of the cities along the Mediterranean coast (e.g. Malaga, Valencia, etc). In Andalusia largest populations are found in the cities of Barcelona (c450), Seville (100+), Cadiz (c50) and Malaga (>100). Valencia has about 50 birds, but there are also other smaller populations in many of the cities coastal cities plus in Cordoba and Granada. Fewer numbers (tens?) are found in Madrid, Cordoba and elsewhere inland. A population estimate in 2011 suggested that Catalonia (mainly Barcelona) could have up to 450 birds and Spain as a whole up to 800 -1,000 individuals. Although many populations are stable, in some annual increases of 17% have been noted so the current population is probably at the upper end of the estimate and possibly higher. Like all exotic species Rose-ringe Parakeet is certainly under recorded, but it seems equally certain that it's here to stay.
The second highly successful immigrant, Monk Parakeet, comes from the other side of the world, South America. It is probably less familiar to many birdwatchers as there are only small, struggling colonies elsewhere in Europe. Not being so hardly as Rose-ringed, it's doubtful that they will really thrive outside of milder regions (although the warmer micro-climate of many large cities might subvert this natural limitation). However they now seem well established in some of the southern states of the USA (notably Florida where it's regarded as a pest) and, above all in Iberia. Its natural distribution largely coincides with the northern two-thirds of Argentia spilling over into nearby Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and the south-western extreme of Brazil. It is also, like Rose-ringed, an habitually sedentary species which probably helps its ability to survive on the "wrong side" of the world. Also helpful is the fact that the climate in its native range is not too dissimilar from that of coastal Spain. Its preferred habitat includes open farmland, city parks and wooded residential areas which sets it up well for its role as an urban invader. In its natural range it nests in Oct-Feb and does so colonially in large scruffy enclosed nests made of sticks and often lodged in a palm tree. These large nests also serve as dormitories in winter helping the species survive lower temperatures. Once again its CV again makes it an ideal colonist in Spain and even its inconvenient natural breeding cycle doesn't seem to count against it.
Although it's also a largely green parrot, any confusion with Rose-ringed is unlikely. Firstly at 28-29 cm in length its a distinctly shorter bird overall (and with a much shorter tail), but, surprisingly, their weight range is very similar (90-140g) indicating that this is a far stockier species. The fore-crown is mealy grey as is the upper breast which also has scaly darker grey markings. The contrast with the rest of the green head and neck forms an impression of a monk's cowl from which it gets its name. The lower chest may show a yellower tone whilst the flight feathers are bluish. The tail is long, but much shorter than that of Rose-ringed. Young birds have a smaller grey fore-crown which may also have greener tones. The one characteristic it shares with its cousin is that it's a very noisy species. In practical terms there are no confusion species in Iberia. The very localised Cliff Parakeet, sometimes treated as a subspecies of Monk Parakeet,is similar, but, with a very restricted range, it's an unlikely import. The Grey-cheeked Parakeet has broadly similar plumage, but again is an unusual cage-bird.
The widespread and high volume trade in Monk Parakeet and inevitable escapes means they can be seen all over Spain although established populations are less common. Some idea of its popularity may be gauged from the fact that Argentina exported 20,000 in a single year in the 1993 alone. As with Rose-ringed the exact distribution is something of a lottery although all thriving populations are to be found in urban areas. It is now present in Madrid most larger cities or provincial capitals although the main populations are found in the provinces of Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia, Alicante, Malaga and Cadiz. Any population estimate is speculative due to a lack of accurate counts and its widely dispersed population. However, the population in several cities (e.g. Seville and Madrid) appears to be growing. An estimated 2,000 birds live in Madrid and a similar number in Barcelona whilst the Catalonian population was reckoned to be around 4,000 birds in 2010. Adding a modest another couple of thousand for the rest of Spain and a conservative growth rate of 10% p.a. (rates of 14% to 17% have been reported) suggests a ball-park figure of roughly 10,000 birds.
These two species stand alone as really successful colonists whose continued presence in Spain seems assured, but several other species are vying for the runners-up position. The Nanday (or Black-hooded) Parakeet lacks the colonisation track record of the last two species having become established only in the USA (California and Florida), Puerto Rico and to a lesser degree in Israel. In Europe it seems only to have what is a still fairly tenuous hold in Iberia. In its native home it overlaps to a large degree with the last species being absent only further south and the coastal plains so the climate should present no difficulties. However, their breeding season is short (Nov) and has the habit of wandering quite widely. It inhabits woodland, savanna, pastures, but, perhaps critically, not urban areas. It's a somewhat longer (32-37 cm) than Monk Parakeet, but no greater in weight (120-140 g) reflecting its slimmer proportions. The essentially green plumage (with some yellowish tones) is handsomely set off by a black hood, pale blue breast band, darker blue flight feathers and tail all of which make it very distinctive; other parrots have blackish heads, but none have the same combination of features. The sexes are identical, but young birds have a less blue chest and shorter tail. As yet, though, Nanday Parakeet has scarcely struggled beyond the handful of parks where it was first found in 2003. Barcelona remains the stronghold with up to 15 individuals being regularly reported in the city's parks (e.g. Parque de la Ciutadella & Parque de Diagonal) in 2012. Elsewhere there have been reports from Torremolinos (a pair in 2012) and Madrid.
Blue-crowned Parakeets have been present in Seville around the parks of Maria Luisa and del Alamillo since at least 2008, but there have never been more than a few birds present. The Parque del Oeste and Casa de Campo area of Madrid has also been home to a few birds since at least 2010 but they have never numbered more than 5-10 birds. There's a certain inevitability that they're also found in Barcelona, a real hotspot for parrots. Birds have been present since 1990 and there are now numbers c100 birds. Odd birds have also been reported from Cartegena (Murcia), Guadalhorce (Malaga) and Sotogrande (Cadiz). The species is up to 38 cm in length and weighs up to 176g. It originates from the same area as Monk Parakeet, but also found elsewhere in Brazil and Venezualea. Basically green (although paler below) with blue head (sometimes bluish tone to chest & reddish underside of the tail feathers. Its natural habitat is scrub and woodland, but it has no history of exploiting urban habitats. Only the Dusky-headed Parrot has a similar plumage, but far smaller (28 cm) and not imported in significant numbers.
Unlike the species mentioned thus far, the next two species could easily be mistaken for one another. These are the Red-masked and Mitred Parakeets (or Conures), both are bright green with variable amounts of scarlet on the head and often yellowish feathers elsewhere. Mitred is a little larger (38cm vs 33cm) although there's some individual variation and this might not be obvious in the field. It has a variable amount of red on the crown, cheeks and ear coverts which is usually less than most adult Red-masked. It also usually lacks the red on the bend of the wings (and under-wing) which is characteristic of Red-masked and has no (or less) red on the thighs. Its darker forehead is diagnostic. The feet tend to be paler and more brownish rather than grey. Immatures of both are greener on the head. Mitred is found above 1,000 m in subtropical woodland and grassy hills and cultivated areas, but not urban areas. It's restricted to a comparatively limited area in Peru and Bolivia. Red-masked is found in an even smaller area of western Ecuador and the extreme north-west of Peru where it is found from the lowlands up to 2,500m. It has a preference for arid areas with scattered trees, but may occur in moister areas of woodland. Neither inhabit urban areas in their native range. Both species have established in the USA with Mitred being found in California and possibly Florida a description that also applies to Red-masked. Species with similar plumages as adults or juveniles include Red-fronted, White-eyed, Finsch's and Hispaniolan Parakeet (although Finsch's is distinctly smaller and Hispaniolan quite rare). None are very likely to be found in Spain.
Neither species seem very good candidates for making a widespread invasion of Spain; both have relatively limited ranges so are perhaps less adaptable, neither are found in urban habitats in their native South America and the favoured habitats are generally not found in Spain. The climate seems a less good match too. Mitred has been present in Barcelona since 1991 where it's now reckoned there's a maximum of 200 birds. They largely seem restricted to the parks in the centre of the city particularly the Parc de la Ciudadela (near the zoo!) and it wasn't until 2012 that they managed to spread the 6 km to Parc de les Planes, L'Hospitalet de Llobregat . Since 1993 Barcelona has also had much smaller population of Red-masked Parakeet which was reckoned to number around a dozen birds in around 2010. There's a larger population of 20-30 birds in Valencia based on, perhaps significantly, the Jardín Botánico which has also been present since the 1990s.
Although dozens of parrot species have been reported in Spain only more two have been suspected of breeding in recent years. Senegal Parrot, a small (28 cm), but stocky, short-tailed African parrot with a dusky hood, green upperparts and chest with yellow or yellow and orange. It has bred or been suspected of breeding in Barcelona, Valencia and possibly Murcia. It was first observed in Barcelona as early as 1982 and was still present in 2016, but only a handful of birds seem to be involved so it is now unlikely to spread any further. In its native range it inhabits lowland savannah, orchards and villages and breeds Jan-Oct so it is perhaps surprising that it's done so poorly. Patagonian Conure (or Burrowing Parrot) is a large (40-52 cm) long tailed parrot with dull olive upperparts and bluish primaries with a variable red or redish belly surrounded either by olive or bright yellow. Like Monk Parakeet thousands were imported from Argentina and escapees, sometimes in small groups, have been noted from the provinces of Seville, Malaga, Murcia, Tarragona and Madrid. However, it seems breeding has only been suspected in the Llobregat valley, Barcelona. It lives in arid savannah and thornscrub sometimes exploiting pastures or even the edge of small towns. Its potential as a successful colonist is probably limited by its habit of nesting colonially in burrows and nesting during 'our' winter. Neither have a proven track record as invasive species elsewhere.
So if you're out birding or, more likely, taking a break in one of Spain's many attractive towns and cities keep a sharp eye out for parrots. If you see any then the chances are that they'll either be Monk or Rose-ringed Parakeets unless you're in Barcelona or Valencia and maybe Seville and Madrid. You may think 'so what?', they're only escapees. Unfortunately that understandable reaction means that we know less about the population and spread of these birds than might otherwise be the case. In writing this article I found two websites particularly helpful; that of the Grupo de Aves Exoticas (http://grupodeavesexoticas.blogspot.co.uk/) and Parrotnet (http://www.kent.ac.uk/parrotnet/). The first brings together reports of all exotic species, not just parrots, in Spain. The second (oddly enough based a mile or so from my Canterbury home) collects reports across Europe (via BTO birdtrack http://app.bto.org/birdtrack/main/data-home.jsp and Ebird - http://ebird.org/content/ebird/ ). Yet looking at both sources, it rapidly becomes clear that there is a dearth of reports, particularly accurate counts, from areas which are known to have good populations. So when you next see a flock of parrots instead of shrugging them off as 'so-what-birds' make a note of where and how many they were and send a report into the two sites.