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The parrots of Athens

The polykatoikia is the quintessential housing solution in Athens. The term is derived from poly (multiple) and oikia (dwelling). These five-to-seven story buildings seem ubiquitous and serve the housing needs of millions of people who moved into the city between 1950 and 1970. The basic format is a reinforced concrete frame with masonry infill that contains a microcosm of Greek society since its apartments were open and accessible to residents with differing social status. Despite an abundance of negative comments regarding its aesthetics and disastrous impact on the city’s old neoclassical housing stock, the polykatoikia defines the contemporary urban landscape of Athens to such an extent that it has been adopted as a housing ideal by the city’s most exotic newcomers, the feral parakeets of the National Garden.

The parrot of Ctesias

The 5th-century BCE physician and historian Ctesias of Cnidus was the first Greek to describe a parrot: “it has a human voice and language, and is about the size of a hawk; it has a purple head and a black beard. Its body is dark blue, but it is the color of red cinnabar round the neck. It speaks Indian like a human being, but if it learns Greek then it also speaks Greek.” The average ancient Athenian, of course, would not have been familiar with parakeets; the last European species disappeared during the Miocene. But contemporary Athenians are becoming increasingly familiar with their raucous squawking.  

The two species

The first parakeets in downtown Athens appeared in the late 1980s. Two medium-sized species have established breeding colonies: the ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri) and the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus). The former is native in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, while the latter originates from the temperate to subtropical areas of South America. The ring-necked parakeet is green with a red and black neck ring, as well as long tail feathers. It is very noisy and can be taught to speak. The monk parakeet is also bright green with a greyish forehead and breast, almost as noisy as the ring-necked parakeet and equally adept at developing a large vocabulary.

Plumed fugitives

The origin of the parakeets’ breeding colonies in Athens is obscure. These are not typical migratory birds, so the first individuals probably escaped from the sanitary quarantine in Ellinikon, the old international airport west of Glyfada, in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Their territory gradually expanded as they occupied green spaces in densely populated areas across Athens. Their exemplary Mediterranean diet is based on trees that grow all over the city: cypress cones, palm tree dates, almonds, the fruit of the ash tree, and the seeds of the bitter oranges. The climatic conditions are perfectly suited to their needs and the noticeable lack of natural predators only makes their lives that much easier.

Polykatoikia for parakeets

According to the census of the Hellenic Ornithological Society, the Athenian parakeet population consists of more than 1500 individuals. All these birds must find shelter. The ring-necked parakeet is an avid searcher of suitable nesting sites, occupying temporary stations until it finds a permanent home. The monk parakeet is more ambitious. This bird actually builds stick nests in a mature tree (or a man-made structure). The nest (which can reach the size of a small automobile) is occupied by multiple pairs, each of which has its own “apartment”, much like the typical Athenian polykatoikia. 

True Athenians

In late 2018, the Greek authorities removed the nests from the National Garden. They had grown so large that their weight posed a danger to pedestrians and the stability of the trees. But the monk parakeets, ever industrious and ever-persistent, are gradually rebuilding their polykatoikia on the pine trees in the middle of the National Garden (near the small zoo). In their diet and nesting habits, these exotic newcomers prove themselves 100% Athenian.