It used to be startling to see a fox in London – impossible not to feel the city had slipped into a fable. Now you spot them on any late-night jog. They make their eerie noise and stink up London with musk. In 2011, one of these agents of animal chaos infiltrated the Shard – 32 London Bridge, the city’s unfinished tallest building – and climbed a thousand feet above the streets to live on builder’s scraps.

At dusk and dawn, green bolts shoot low as flocks of parakeets – ‘feral’ here no insult – set about bird business. Walking at dawn in the mud of Wormwood Scrubs common, by the prison of the same name, we approach a screaming copse. Incredible flocks of these nonnatives preen and screechingly bicker, overlooking the glow of waking London, the shafts of Hammersmith Hospital.


David Lindo is the Urban Birder, a writer and broadcaster, well-known in the British bird world. To him, these parakeets are bullies, worse than a distraction. He eyes them with dislike.

‘See these are black-headed gulls,’ he says, looking in another direction. ‘Actually that one’s a common gull. The common gull,’ he says, ‘is not common at all.’

A young lesser-black-backed gull. A female blackbird. A magpie. Lindo reminisces about the waxwings brought in by last year’s snow. But he is indulgent of the non-specialist’s fascination with the unlikely parakeets. We wait. They fly in waves, low, hook-billed, hungry into the dawn, and he leads the way into the unbirded trees.

Guano devastation. Limey spatters ruin the winter vegetation like the aftermath of some epochal paintball war.

‘They nest in holes,’ Lindo says. ‘There’s anecdotal evidence that they oust our native hole-nesters, like starlings, stock doves and nuthatches. And’ — he pauses grimly — ‘there’s a shortage of holes in Britain as it is.’

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china mieville

A shorter version of this essay was published in the New York Times Magazine, on 4 March 2012.