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A South African parrot to be proud of

Steve Boyes, PhD | Jul 14, 2009


Parrots have the largest number of threatened species of any bird family, whereby over 90 of the 332 recognized parrot species in the world are threatened by global extinction.  Around 73 species are threatened by global extinction because of habitat loss, fragmentation or degradation, while 39 are under pressure from capture and nest poaching for the legal/ illegal wild-caught bird trade.  The Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) is one of 28 parrot species affected by both pressures. 

Cape Parrots are recognized as critically endangered in South Africa with only 1000 to 1500 parrots remaining in the wild, having undergone a population collapse over the last 50 - 100 years.  Unjustified or unsubstantiated changes in taxonomy (i.e. classification of a species), more often than not lead to confusion, thus supporting illegal or unsustainable trade in wild species, counter-productive changes to conservation status and international trade regulations, and significant benefit to a restricted special interest groups (e.g. traders) as opposed to the species in question.  Birdlife International has, therefore, been reluctant to accept the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) as a species separate from the Grey-headed Parrot (P. fuscicollis suahelicus) and Brown-necked Parrot (P. f. fuscicollis).  They cite concerns around niche overlap with Grey-headed Parrots in Malawi and the possibility of stimulating illegal trade in what is currently recognized as a critically-endangered subspecies.  Based on a comprehensive review of peer-reviewed findings of the Research Centre for African Parrot Conservation (RCAPC), the Cape Parrot Working Group (CPWG) supports independent species status for the Cape Parrot, recognizing that, based on current IUCN criteria, this would elevate their threat status from "Least Concern" to "Critically Endangered", resulting in their likely inclusion in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I due to the observed massive population and range reduction.  With a recognized global population of less than 1500 Cape Parrots in the wild their market value could soar, thus stimulating the illegal wild-caught bird trade already operating throughout their distributional range. 

The risk of stimulating an already problematic illegal trade in Cape Parrots would, if unregulated, result in further population decline, but still pales in comparison to the conservation action required to save this species from extinction.  These are important times in Cape Parrot conservation, and as Winston Churchill said:  "The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences."  No longer can we dither on what amount to taxonomic technicalities, what we need now is conservation action.  Recognition as an independent species by Birdlife International and CITES would provide improved access to conservation and research investment from established grant schemes, conservation NGOs, corporate sponsors, government, import/export authorities, and charitable donors.  Urgency created around classification as critically-endangered is the stimulus required to gain the financial and societal investment necessary for the recovery of the Cape Parrot to population levels robust to the extinction threats of the 21st century (e.g. climate change).  This option is, in many ways, more risky than no change at all, but has a better chance of facilitating the conservation action necessary (e.g. research and monitoring projects, yellowwood planting schemes, nest box projects, etc.).

Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus)

Brown-necked Parrot (P. fuscicollis fuscicollis)

Grey-headed Parrot (P. fuscicollis suahelicus)
Photos © Cyril Laubscher. All rights reserved.

The global Cape Parrot population is split equally between two disjunct populations in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, with an additional isolated population of approximately 30 parrots persisting in the Woodbush-Wolkberg forests, Limpopo Province.  Cape Parrots are unique to South Africa and need to be recognized as proudly South African, a unique part of our natural heritage, our only endemic parrot species.  As we prepare for the 2010 World Cup here in South Africa, polishing all our national treasures for presentation to the world, we should count the Cape Parrot in with the Blue Crane, the springbok, and the protea.  We should be proud to still hear them screeching and whistling in our most pristine yellowwood forests, ambassadors of our forest heritage. 

An integral part of our natural heritage are the four majestic yellowwood tree species, the Breede River Yellowwood (Podocarpus elongatus), the Outeniqua Yellowwood (P. falcatus), Henkel's Yellowwood (P. henkelii), and the Real Yellowwood (P. latifolius).  When visiting Afromontane mistbelt forests in South Africa you will often find a sign for or hear of the "big tree", which will invariably be a gargantuan Outeniqua Yellowwood standing alone, proud in the forest.  I have yet to meet someone who isn't taken back by the sheer size and majesty of such a tree.  Our passion for yellowwoods here in South Africa, however, goes far beyond their aesthetic and intrinsic value.  It is much deeper, under the bark in fact, our attentions historically have been focused on the wonderful, warm yellow timber ready grown in long straight beams perfect for building ships, cathedrals, forts, furniture, wagons and much else.  Shortly after the discovery of the Orangekloof forests behind Table Mountain in June 1652, we began over three hundred years of almost systematically removing yellowwood trees from the landscape mosaic.  The first Dutch surveyors described these forests as "full of large, tall, straight, heavy, medium and small trees, suitable (for) the largest construction one could desire".  Well, these forests have long disappeared and so too have the large flocks of Cape Parrots reported as far south as Knysna and Storms River.  But was this solely the result of logging of yellowwood trees in the past or the product of several factors (e.g. wild-caught bird trade and disease)?

Yellowwood Forest

Pioneering research on the ecology of Cape Parrots in the mistbelt Podocarpus forests of southern KwaZulu-Natal by the late Olaf Wirminghaus produced high-quality empirical data supporting a very strong link between Cape Parrots and yellowwood trees, whereby Cape Parrots are dependent on the three yellowwood species distributed within their range (i.e. Podocarpus falcatus, P. latifolius and P. henkeli) for sustenance and nesting opportunities.  His research in the Hlabeni and Ingeli forests demonstrated specialized feeding on Podocarpus sp. fruits, whereby over 76% of their diet over three years constituted yellowwood pods.  Similarly, 75% of Cape Parrot nesting records were secondary nest cavities (i.e. excavated by a woodpecker or barbet) in tall yellowwood snags (i.e. standing dead trees).  Cape Parrots can, therefore, be considered perfect ambassadors for the Afromontane mixed Podocarpus mistbelt forests they depend upon.  We need to recognize the distress calls being put out by these forest ambassadors and look at ways to better support these forest ecosystems and the multitude of plant and animal species that inhabit them. 

Cape Parrots are long-lived (probably up to 30 years in the wild), mature late, often do not breed annually, and raise few chicks to adulthood over their lifetimes.  Ongoing monitoring of Cape Parrot population levels over 12 years throughout their distributional range by Prof. Colleen Downs of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, have demonstrated that the Cape Parrot exists in a population bottleneck of approximately 1200 parrots.  This population bottleneck ( a restriction like the neck of a wine bottle) demonstrates the inability of Cape Parrots to recover their population levels under current conditions.  Whether this is directly linked to the number of large yellowwoods in our forests, habitat loss, avian disease, capture for the illegal wild-caught bird trade or persecution as a crop pest requires further discussion...

There is no doubt that Cape Parrots are critically endangered today due to over 300 years of intensive logging for saw timber in our yellowwood forests.  In a letter written to Prof. Mike Perrin, the Chairman of the CPWG, John E. Cobby, the Regional Director of Forestry (Eastern Cape) between 1974 and 1985, admitted that "our indigenous forest management practices did not favour the (Cape) parrots".  As an avid Cape Parrot enthusiast, John lamented that "in hindsight, it is a pity that the dependence on the (yellowwood) trees was not forcefully impressed upon the forest management authorities".  The public was also in the dark, as he reported that only once was an objection raised to felling yellowwood trees in the Qacu forest.  Up until recently, the removal of dead and dying yellowwood trees by local Xhosa pit-sawyers was official policy.  This was done with the best intentions, as the authorities hoped to create space on the forest floor for the emergence of the next generation of yellowwoods.  The practice, in fact, systematically removed almost all yellowwood snags utilized by Cape Parrots for nesting.  Most patches of primary forest remaining in South Africa are legislatively or contractually protected from any further logging, and it is hoped that over the next 100 years we will see drastic improvements in the condition and extent of Afromontane mixed Podocarpus mistbelt forests in South Africa.

Cape Parrot feeding in an apple orchard in Hogsback

The rapid expansion of the forestry industry in South Africa over the last 60 years, has been primarily to the detriment of our indigenous grasslands, but has resulted in a reduced reliance on our indigenous forests for forest products (e.g. saw timber, firewood and wood pulp).  In addition, forestry companies such as Sappi and Mondi have both contributed significantly to indigenous forest conservation and the upliftment of associated rural communities.  In time, we hope to develop a dead wood removal scheme from plantations to offset reliance on indigenous forests by local communities.  Let's hope these partnerships and initiatives persist well into the future to support the conservation of our indigenous forests and their specialized inhabitants, such as Cape Parrots.  Yellowwood trees form the backbone of our Afromontane mixed Podocarpus mistbelt forests, and planting of all four Podocarpus species and as many other tree species indigenous to these forests on a landscape scale is now a conservation priority, if future generations are going to appreciate these forests as they were.  This is not to say that planting individual trees in private gardens within the distributional range of Cape Parrots doesn't make a significant difference, as more and more we are seeing Cape Parrots turn to these "garden sanctuaries" when food resources become seasonally depleted in their natural habitat

In recent years, sightings of Cape Parrots in fruit orchards, residential gardens, homesteads, commercial centres and cities have increased significantly.  In the Eastern Cape, large flocks of Cape Parrots have been reported feeding on pecan trees in Alice, King William's Town, Stutterheim and Keiskammahoek.  They have also been reported in gardens in Creighton, Boston, Bulwer and Port St. Johns, when previously daily sightings of large flocks flying between indigenous forest patches were more common place.  Why is this happening?  Is this a warning sign?  To fully understand the situation the Cape Parrot currently finds itself in, you need to appreciate the energetic requirements of their daily lives, the daily life of a free-living parrot.

Poicephalus actually means "of the head", speaking of the strikingly large beak and head of all Poicephalus parrots.  These powerful beaks facilitate unrestricted access to most seeds inside hard fruit stones/pits and pods, while their short wings evolved for agile maneuvering in the forest canopy while feeding and evading predators.  Although integral to their daily lives, these characteristics are not suited to long distance flight, elevating their energetic costs to as much as 25x that of an aerial insectivore.  Cape Parrots have, however, been reported to undertake feeding forays between mistbelt and coastal forests in the Eastern Cape of over 100km each way.  Daily local movements are likely more commonplace – understanding how Cape Parrots utilize the available landscape mosaic is a primary focus of the new Amathole Cape Parrot Project.  These long distance feeding forays are unlikely the product of seasonal wandering due to low food availability during winter in the higher-lying areas, but rather a learned behaviour from the established routine of older parrots.  Parrots are characteristically adaptable and constantly inspect new food resources, so as to track their fruiting phenology and accommodate changes in the environment and landscape.  If these changes in the landscape mosaic are too rapid (e.g. poor land management or rapid climate change), resource tracking pre-dispersal seed predators with high energy requirements, such as Cape Parrots, that are dependent on forest resources spread over a large area will likely begin to lose body condition, stop breeding, and experience rapid and then gradual population decline.

The decimation of our Afromontane mixed Podocarpus mistbelt forests over the last 300 years has, most probably, tipped the balance towards an energy deficit for most remaining Cape Parrot populations, whereby individuals are unable to locate sufficient natural food to improve their body condition, much less to muster the energy or bodily resources for a breeding attempt.  So, yes, this is probably a sign that indigenous forests are falling short of sustaining our remaining Cape Parrots.  Right now, we are most likely witnessing a species struggling to avoid extinction by changes in its feeding behaviour and local movements in an attempt to discover a new way of life that can sustain breeding and thus population growth.  The population bottleneck monitored over the last 10 to 15 years by Prof. Colleen Downs of the University of KwaZulu-Natal demonstrates that they have been unable to achieve this.  These are risky times for a species with less than 1500 individuals remaining in the wild, and therefore, Cape Parrots need our full support in mitigating any extinction threats (e.g. disease and wild-caught bird trade) that may compound their current situation.

Logging of the forests

One threat linked to habitat quality is climate change, whereby projected changes in rainfall patterns in the southern African may further undermine our last-remaining Afromontane mixed Podocarpus mistbelt forests with catastrophic repercussions for Cape Parrot populations, if these changes occur too quickly.  The potential impact of climate change on these forests will, I am sure, become more apparent in the coming years, thus allowing us to design a suitable conservation strategy.

Cape Parrots aggregate into large flocks of up to 80 parrots when feeding on localized food resources (e.g. fruit orchards or a really good patch of yellowwoods), thus giving the impression that they are abundant in that specific area, when in fact you are looking at almost 10% of the global population.  Cape Parrots have thus, historically, been persecuted as crop pests, primarily for damage to apple and pecan orchards in the Eastern Cape.  In the early 1980s, two brothers on a small farm close to Pirie forest in the Eastern Cape were actually paid annual compensation for damages by Cape Parrots to their pecan nut orchards on condition that they stop shooting them en masse.  Even though we have seen a marked increase in reports of Cape Parrots feeding in suburban gardens, orchards and botanical gardens, damage has been insignificant and persecution as a crop pest should no longer be considered an important threat. 

So, right now, the last 1000-odd Cape Parrots remaining in the wild are faced by two primary threats that we need to monitor and mitigate, including live capture for the illegal wild-caught bird trade and avian diseases (e.g. Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD). 

Live capture for the pet trade and the subsequent illegal wild-caught bird trade has played a significant role in the descent of the species towards possible extinction.  Cape Parrots were first reported as "cage birds" in South Africa in 1897 by which time most of the yellowwood forest had been depleted, and for the next 75 years were a popular pet in households within their distributional range.  One writer at the turn of the 20th century remarked that "(Cape Parrots) do not take kindly to confinement; out of the several which, to my knowledge, have been caged in this neighborhood, not one seems to have survived more than a few weeks".  Over subsequent decades hundreds, if not thousands, of Cape Parrots were captured for the pet trade in South Africa.  Culminating in a flourishing trade in wild Cape Parrots around 50 years ago, whereby, according to one witness, school children near Umtata in the Transkei used caged Cape Parrots to call down wild Capes flying overhead into fishing nets - these parrots were subsequently sold for £1 each.  In 1962, another record documented that 23 wild, Cape Parrots were sold for R19.00 per bird by one trapper.  At that time, in the north-eastern Transkei ladders were permanently in trees known to have Cape Parrot nest, so that chicks could be poached annually.  Since 1974, anyone in possession of a Cape Parrot must obtain an aviary license and permit from the local District Conservation Officer, and movement between provinces requires the relevant import and export permits.  Despite protection under these licenses and permits, other provincial ordinances, and national legislation (e.g. the Biodiversity Act (Act 10: 2004)) there continue to be reports of illegal trade in the species. 

The IUCN/PAAZAB Cape Parrot Studbook provides our best up-to-date overview of all Cape Parrots kept in captivity, monitoring all legal trade, movement, lending schemes, births, and deaths.  Maintaining the studbook often involves investigating the histories of Cape Parrots of unknown origin, linking these birds to others who have disappeared from one location and reappeared in another.  If you have any questions related to the studbook (e.g. anonymity) or wish to add your details to the studbook, please contact Shaun Wilkinson at the Umgeni River Bird Park (email: [email protected]).  The CPWG supports the captive breeding of registered Cape Parrots, as an insurance policy for the species and too offset demand for wild-caught Cape Parrot primarily due to poor availability of captive-bred Cape Parrots.  We need to facilitate the advancement of avicultural techniques to ensure the long-term security and self-sufficiency of the captive Cape Parrot population.  An established, genetically sound captive Cape Parrot population could be very useful in education programs and displays, bringing this elusive species of the high canopy to the South African public.  To this end, the CPWG continues to support established Cape Parrot breeders, such William Horsfield (Amazona Endangered Bird Breeding Facility), who, in addition, has been a long time supporter of Cape Parrot conservation in the wild and captivity.

Following the "boom" years of Cape Parrots in the caged bird industry in South Africa prior to the 1970s, interest in Cape Parrots in captivity has once again begun to grow since the turn of the 21st century.  There have been numerous reports over the last five years detailing capture of wild Cape Parrots in Port St. Johns, Umtata, Alice, Hogsback, King William's Town, Stutterheim, and Keiskammashoek, basically wherever Cape Parrots are distributed in the Eastern Cape.  Shipments of wild-caught Cape Parrots have been reported, both officially and confidentially, in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.  This re-emergence of trade in wild Cape Parrots has been largely driven by the dangerously high market value for "confirmed" breeding pairs, bolstered by the rarity of the species today and recent publicity around its threat status.  Trade in this iconic bird species has existed for a hundred years and isn't going to go away.  Cape Parrots are a flagship species that, due to its natural heritage value, uniqueness (e.g. golden head) and beauty, will always be of interest to private collectors with the best and worst of intentions be they philanthropic or profiteering.  We need to ensure that this growing interest does not affect wild Cape Parrot populations, but rather benefits them by generating public interest and investment.  Let's hope we achieve our goal of a captive population managed responsibly that maintains genetic variability commensurate with wild populations and 100% offsets any demand for wild-caught Cape Parrots, so that one day we have opportunity to reintroduce Cape Parrots to "those hills that used to have Cape Parrots" and keep "those mountains" that do.

Finally, avian diseases are also a significant extinction threat to Cape Parrots at current population levels, as the remaining populations are small enough to be threatened by localized disease outbreaks.  Recently, a photograph was taken by Graham Russell, the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day count coordinator in Hogsback, of a Cape Parrot potentially-infected with PBFD.  This strain of the disease may be endemic to the wild population and only represent itself when the parrots are under physiological pressure (e.g. malnutrition).  Although unlikely, exotic avian diseases could jump from captive bird collections to wild populations with catastrophic repercussions.  We need to continue monitoring wild Cape Parrot populations for any signs of disease, and as a matter of urgency acquire blood samples from Cape Parrots in the Hogsback area to determine the incidence of PBFD in that population.

This year, we have launched the Cape Parrot Trust to support the Cape Parrot Working Group.  As part of our conservation initiatives, we launched the Hogsback Cape Parrot Project in May this year.  The project will study the ecology of the Eastern Cape parrot population, focusing on the Hogsback-Keiskammahoek-Stutterheim-King William's Town-Alice complex along the Amathole mountain range.  We endeavour to monitor the fruiting phenology of all tree species observed in their diet, track their movements using radio telemetry from a microlight, and record their feeding activity through a network of collaborators throughout the region, including foresters, local residents, conservationists, bird guides, and local community members.  This is our best chance at understanding this iconic South African parrot and saving it from extinction.  In saving this forest ambassador, we will save hundreds of other species whose fate is tied up in the future of our Afromontane mixed Podocarpus mistbelt forests.  I hope that I will be able to take what I have learnt over the last six years studying Meyer's Parrots in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, and convert it into conservation action for the critically-endangered Cape Parrot.

For more information on how you can help Cape Parrot conservation please contact Dr. Steve Boyes, the coordinator of the CPWG, at the following email:  [email protected].