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An Ending and New Beginnings….?

Ellen Walford | Sep 16, 2008


I sit here on a relatively nice day as far as the British weather standards go (ie its not drizzling) in my three layers of jumpers, sipping my cup of tea and trying hard to remember what I felt like three months ago when I was slogging up some hill or the other on Praslin, sweating buckets and bemoaning the fact to my ever patient field assistant. I really must learn to appreciate those sorts of things more. The carefree whistles of the black parrot, the sound and smell of the tropical rain on the giant palms in the Vallée de Mai and even the taste of that yummy Creole dessert that lovely old farmer made for me, are difficult to recall. And I suppose like any passionate biologist, I miss my study species.

To partly quell my parrot pining, I went to visit some captive bred greater vasa parrots, the Seychelles blacks' larger cousin, at Chester Zoo. It was wonderful to be reunited with a group of chocolate coloured parrots, but they weren't as sympathetic when I tried to whistle at them (my accent had gone by then) and some people looked at me a bit funny. It was great to see them though, and they of course had that same affable, permanently good natured expression as the rest of their family.  As the zoo is well known for its successful parrot breeding programme, they kindly let me take some nest box specifications that had been used in the past for breeding lesser vasa parrots, a.k.a. black parrots, in the hope that some of these can be made on Praslin. It's believed that introduced rats are a major threat to natural nest sites of the Seychelles birds, so modifying the 'tried and tested' nest boxes to make them rat proof may assist conservation efforts.

Although a study of their breeding ecology was not within the scope of my short project, through the black parrots' careful tutelage I have managed to learn quite a lot about them and of course, the more we know the better.

I have found out for myself during this project, why parrots are notoriously difficult to count in the wild - you'd think that something you learnt how to do in primary school wouldn't be so tough….The current abundance figures that I finally came up with for the Seychelles black parrot are concurrent with past numbers derived from various simultaneous counts organised by the Seychelles Ministry of the Environment of 200 - 300 individuals. My own estimates were higher than this, due to the nature of my survey methodology, but my general feeling whist I was on Praslin was that, although parrots are locally common, they are not falling out of the trees (unless they happen to be star fruit), and so to err on the side of caution and stick to lower population estimates.

My study highlighted the vital importance of palm forest, including the Vallée de Mai, in the parrots' ecology, as they were found at all times of the day to be most numerous in this habitat. The continued protection of these natural areas is crucial to this species' survival. A high concentration of parrots was also identified in cultivated areas, and this may be a result of increased natural emancipation, as has been seen in other areas of the world, for example with the long-tailed parakeet on peninsular Malaysia. Interestingly, it has been noted several times in the past, that the first meal observed to be provided for a newly hatched chick was from a widespread garden species - the common guava!

Whilst watching their antics, I managed to identify three new food species that the parrots enjoy, and one new plant part - new seed cones! Although native palms fruit and flower all year around, there was an overwhelming preference for introduced, exotic fruits. As with many other psittacids, black parrots were identified as pre-dispersal seed predators, destroying the seeds if they were big enough in their beaks, and showing generally a preference for unripe fruit, perhaps targeting the softer, immature seeds and perhaps ones with a higher tannin content. Competition from other fruit eating birds like the endemic bulbul and blue pigeon is another possibility, and there were definitely some occasions where I saw all three feeding together, and the parrots were surrounded or physically chased away.

As mentioned previously, although there is generally no bad feeling between Seychelles black parrots and humans, and there is no evidence of anthropogenic threats like trade or persecution for crop raiding, recognition and possible compensation to fruit farmers is recommended. An up to date programme for increased public awareness for the national bird of the Seychelles should also be put into motion.

Preliminary investigations into the suitability of other, predator free islands as future sites for populations of black parrots and their assured conservation are now hopefully one step closer to reality. There is so much more these psittacids can teach us, and I hope that my all too brief sojourn to their island home in the Seychelles has laid the foundations for other, more in depth studies of these remarkable birds.

I would very much like to thank the World Parrot Trust for their overwhelmingly positive support during this project.