Member Login



Auto-login for future visits

Join or Renew Today!

Membership Benefits:

Close Button


Cape Parrot in trouble

Steve Boyes, PhD | May 22, 2008


I recently visited the home of the Cape Parrot and it got me thinking…

My work on the Meyer's Parrot in the Okavango Delta has made the Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus and Grey-headed Parrot Poicephalus fuscicollis suahelicus a specific point of interest in my work, resulting in a keen understanding of their ecology and current threats. 

Cape Parrot and Grey-headed Parrot (copyright and courtesy of Cyril Laubscher)

I recently visited the areas around Creighton, across the Umzimkulu River and into East Griqualand, and onwards to Kokstad.  These areas are today recognized as the source of the surviving Cape Parrot metapopulation.  I must confess that I wasn't visiting the area specifically to see Cape Parrots, but rather to join friends trying to set up a tourism circuit between all the cathedrals, monasteries and chapels the early missionaries established in the region.  Even after thinking deeply about any connection between these monasteries, cathedrals and schools and the Cape Parrot nothing becomes apparent.  These monks did not keep Cape Parrots as pets, quite the opposite, as they preached love and respect for all living things.  However, very quickly it became apparent that all of these massive structures, all the altars, prayer benches, clock towers, supporting beams, bunk beds, tables, etc, etc. were made from Yellowwood, and Podocarpus Yellowwoods are the primary food resource and nesting tree of the Cape Parrot.  One of the people with us was an antique restoration specialist, so we were actually seeking out Yellowwood beams and furniture, and we found huge amounts of it!  Basically, these early settlers and missionaries had decimated the resource of old growth Yellowwood trees in the surrounding areas.  In between visiting these old buildings, I surveyed the area for remaining patches of indigenous forest detailed in our research at the Research Centre for African Parrot Conservation.  The closest I could find to this was the Ingeli Forest Reserve, and upon closer inspection thereof I found no Yellowwood trees of a suitable age, and was dismayed to discover that the woodland had been largely taken over by Australian (e.g. Black Wattle) and South American (e.g. Solanum Bugweed) exotics.  So, the rapid decline towards extinction of the Cape Parrot is understandable and seemingly unstoppable at this late stage of degradation.  We have seen this happen before with the Echo Parakeet, the Carolina Parakeet and the Puerto Rican Parrot, to name just three out of many.  Once again, for all out abilities and technology, we seem powerless to help another species in trouble as a result of our careless and misguided development. 

One of many cathedrals constructed by missionaries in the region

The Cape Parrot Working Group recently conducted the "Cape Parrot Day" in an effort to count flocks leaving and returning communal roosting areas.  The results, I am sure will become available very soon.  Let's hold thumbs that there is evidence of a population recovery.  From recent reports of Cape Parrots in trade here in South Africa and the same stories of habitat loss and degradation, I am unfortunately not hopeful.  Though breathtakingly beautiful this species has had a terrible run of luck over the last two hundred years.  Firstly, foresters chopped down all of the Yellowwoods, then, almost unfortunately, society fell in love with this truly South African parrot and began to trap it for the pet trade.  Our adventures around Creighton, Richmond and East Griqualand yielded no Cape Parrot, however, locals reported flocks of up to 50 parrots feeding on their pecan nut plantation.  There were also reports of trappers in the area and a growing trade in wild-caught Cape Parrots.  This is an illegal, but very attractive practice, as price for a wild-caught Cape Parrot breeding pair is now between US$20,000 - US$30,000, and rising all the time.

I began my studies with the intention of becoming a forester, spending five years doing an honours degree in Forestry specializing in nature conservation.  Upon actually working for a Forestry company I realized that doing conservation within the context of forestry was impossible.  All we seemed to do was stay away from rivers, check that the rivers were still recovering very, very slowly, count ungulates in the grassland corridors for the hunting quota, and census biodiversity in adjacent plots we had not yet planted with cloned eucalyptus or pine seedlings.  I must admit I produced some wonderful reports and was enjoying the trout fishing, but I had to leave, as nothing that forestry company could do within its power could ever make up for the millions of hectares of grassland already converted and the loss of indigenous, biodiversity-rich forest habitat that was never going to be reversed.  By the early 1800's the first foresters had set up extensive logging operations along the east coast of South Africa, aggressively removing Yellowwood trees to satisfy the growing market in Cape Town, requiring this timber for furniture, housing, wagons, ship building and much else.  Unfortunately, unbeknown to them, the Cape Parrot was completely reliant on old-growth Yellowwoods for their food and nesting requirements. 

Cape Parrots had likely been in gradual decline due to the gradual drying of the coastal and mist-belt forests upon which they were dependent, but this sudden loss of keystone habitat was unprecedented.  Now suddenly their food resource was becoming more and more patchy and nest cavities were altogether disappearing from some areas.  Due to the increased effort required to find food the parrots were not able to muster the energy to successfully lay eggs or provision incubating and brooding hens.  Basically, the population got older and older and eventually went into rapid decline.  As population densities plummeted in the first half of the 20th century and the forest habitat and Yellowwoods became more and more sparsely distributed, the probability of encountering another Cape Parrot became less and less.  Therefore, the opportunity to benefit from or share information on favorable food resources all but disappeared.  As a lingual feeder, Cape Parrots are reliant on this mechanism to be effective in their natural environment.  At just about this time, people became interested in owning Cape Parrots, resulting in the unsustainable capture of thousands of birds by professional trappers, using decoys or live birds in cages to lure Capes into mist nets.  With nothing to eat and trappers in pursuit, the Cape Parrots turned on the last source of food they could find and that was agricultural crops, including nuts, citrus and apples in the region.  This caused farmers to turn on this innocent victim and deliver the final "death blow".  Now there are less than 600 Cape Parrots left in the wild and I will never work in Forestry and will continue to fight the wild-caught bird trade.

It is my feeling that African parrots populations throughout Africa are declining in a similar fashion, it is just that development in range states is happening on a different timeline to South Africa.  For example, 10 years after Mozambique declared the end of the civil war and began to develop Brown-headed Parrots have disappeared from the south of the country.  Meyer's Parrots have all but disappeared from South Africa, Chad, southern Zimbabwe and the whole of Zambia due to deforestation and live capture.  The shrill calls of Poicephalus parrots are distinctive in the African bush, and I am afraid we are approaching a time when, in the words of Peter Mathiessen, all we will have is an "African silence".  For this reason I plan on undertaking an African parrot expedition, visiting all range states to check on their status and conservation biology, and create awareness around these ambassadors of the African bush.

For more information on this and other initiatives within the Meyer's Parrot Project please visit our website: