Cold Turkey is a Haven For Tropical Birds

Since the 1990s, lime-green parrots and parakeets have called the sprawling metropolis home. But for Istanbul’s winged denizens and birdwatchers, they are guests that have overstayed their welcome.

For hundreds of years, Istanbul has been a haven for migratory birds and the avid bird watchers who hope to catch glimpses of storks, Egyptian vultures, eagles, hawks, wagtails, finches, goldfinches, bee-eaters and other special species as they make their way to and from the southern hemisphere through the city’s forests and parks.

But you don’t have to be a bird watcher to experience unique birds in the city, as thousands of lime green rose-ringed parakeets and Alexandrine parrots currently call the city home.

Perhaps you’ve caught sight of the birds, and like many, thought a fellow neighbour had tragically lost their pet parrot, or that the local pet shop had an accident that led to the emancipation of their noisy flock.

But these tropical birds have actually lived in Turkey for nearly five decades. Their populations are growing steadily and threaten the native species.

“Based on my observations, they compete for the habitats of local species like woodpeckers, nuthatches, and Eurasian treecreepers,” says Ergun Bacak an ornithologist and instructor at the Istanbul University Cerrahpasa Forestry Vocational School. “They threaten them, because they take over their nests, or compete for food sources. Since they are invasive species, they can be quite successful in this competition.”

“They are very intelligent birds and very social,” Bacak tells TRT World. “This allows them to easily protect themselves from birds of prey.”

They have established successful colonies in big cities, particularly in Istanbul, he adds, noting that there are flocks as large as 200 to 300 roaming the city’s forests and districts.

An invasive species 

Native to Central Africa and South Asia, the rose-ringed parakeet is considered one of the most successful invasive species in the world, with populations in 35 countries outside its original homes. The larger and stronger Alexandrine parrot is native to south and southeast Asia, and is actually a near-threatened species in its native habitat.

Their arrival in Istanbul has taken on urban legend status. Some say the birds escaped a cargo ship on the Bosphorus or an overturned smuggling truck, or that they were purposely introduced into the country. Others say that pet owners who originally enjoyed their company got tired of their distinctive and loud squawks and released them.

There is even a theory that they were “refugee birds” fleeing the first Gulf War.

“There is no data on how they actually came to Turkey,” Bacak tells TRT World, adding that all of the theories, save for the refugee bird approach, are plausible. “We know that they were first seen in Ankara, then Istanbul, Izmir, and other cities.”

Today, they have spread to over two dozen cities in Turkey.

It is estimated that there are over 5,000 parakeets and parrots in Istanbul alone.

However, their exact effects on birds and other species in Turkey is unknown, and there have yet to be systematic and comprehensive studies on their impact on native birds.

“Perhaps there will be joint ministerial and NGO research efforts which will lead to a decision about how to manage them…since they can threaten the native species in Turkey in the medium and long term” says Bacak.

Despite these potential threats, however, he can see at least one positive outcome of these birds.

“It helps people be more aware of nature, of different kinds of birds,” he says. “It’s hard to say positive things about an invasive species, but it can perhaps raise awareness and increase people’s interest in bird watching.”

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