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Work begins on the Black Parrot project

Ellen Walford | May 11, 2008


I touched down in the Seychelles with a feeling reminiscent of Dorothy finding herself in Oz. The black, white and grey shades of early morning London drizzle transformed into a thousand different shades of turquoise ocean, vibrant green vegetation, lined with sparkling ivory beaches against a cornflower sky. Wow.

The first week was spent on the largest of the 115 Seychelles islands, Mahé, visiting the Seychelles Island Foundation (the organisation that I am working with) offices in the capital Victoria, which is incidentally one of the smallest capitals in the world. The main street is a single lane and if you blink whilst driving through you miss the whole experience!

I also gave a presentation to members of interested government departments and Non Governmental Organisations about the project I will be doing during my three month stay. Everyone was most supportive and pleased to know that some work was being done on their beloved national bird. The Seychellois people are extremely proud of their parrot, and faces light up when the 'Kato Noir' (Creole for black parrot) is mentioned, which is wonderful to see.

With most of the preparations out of the way, I was chomping at the bit to get going. The one hour ferry ride across to Praslin, the main island where the parrot is found, on the 'Cat Coco' ferry was an uplifting experience ; skimming across the glass calm ocean accompanied by flying fish ( which I stupidly thought were seabirds at first) was a fantastic way to arrive to the island I will call home for the next three months.

The next day I rose early and whist I was eating my breakfast on the veranda, when who should be somersaulting about in the fruit tree in the garden, but two lovely chocolate coloured parrots! What a great welcome.  I caught the bus - I still haven't figured out the timetable, if there even is one - up the jewel of the island, one of the smallest UNESCO Natural World Heritage Centres, the stunning Valleé de Mai palm forest.

The Seychelles Island Foundation are the caretakers of the area, and it was their ranger station I went to, both to meet the local staff and pick up my field assistant, who will be helping me throughout my stay. After meeting a lot of smiling faces, we made our way into the Valleé to begin work….....

On entering the forest, silence descends like a blanket, occasionally broken with the low "putter putter" of the Seychelles Blue Pigeon or the hysterical shriek of the Seychelles Bulbul. Occasionally there will be a softer, double tone whistle of a black parrot, always high up in the palms and as elusive as a shadow. In this primeval palm forest, one expects to come across slightly larger residents - a pterodactyl or two, or perhaps one of those velocer raptors who terrorised the screens in Jurassic Park.

Instead the only pterodactyls are the massive Seychelles Fruit Bats (wingspan is 1.1 meters!) gliding about above the canopy and the only raptors are cute little hedgehog type creatures called Tenerecs, snuffling about in the thick leaf litter for unfortunate insects and lizards that cross their path.

But the essence of the forest is the palms, including several endemics which are thought to be intricately linked with the black parrots' survival. Massive 30m high Coco de Mer trees, having amongst the largest leaves on the plant kingdom tower above you, bearing double coconuts thought to appear as a lady's posterior, and coveted by many until its enforced protection in the 1980s. The nut is the largest seed in the world and weighs 28kgs - the ultimate example of seed dispersal by gravity! And in this fascinating place lives the Seychelles Black Parrot.

Perhaps before I go any further, I need to elaborate a little on the aims of my project. In the distant past, it is believed that black parrots flew about on many other islands in the Seychelles, but due to us, they are now restricted to just two. Because this is such an endangered parrot - although I have found it to be locally quite common - there could be plans in the future to perhaps reintroduce it to some of the islands it previously inhabited. To do this, you obviously need to know a whole lot about black parrots - which is where I come in, because no one really does. I tell a lie - lots of people living on Praslin know a lot more than I do about them, but no one has really written anything down.

During my time here I will be looking primarily at the habitat requirements for the parrot and get a current population estimate. The two major factors governing this (and many other) populations is food and nest sites. Unfortunately I will not be here during what I am told is the breeding season, but I will be looking in detail into the parrots' feeding ecology. As the parrots seem to be more frugivorous than their cousins on other Indian Ocean islands, they visit not only the wild, native fruit trees, but enjoy introduced domestic fruits like mangos, guavas and starfriut. This causes a bit of an issue with the local human population, who, whilst they love their parrot, they love their guavas and starfruit too. People are understandably a little frustrated when all the ripe fruits they have worked so hard to grow are scattered all over the ground because the parrots enjoy the seeds; not the flesh in a lot of cases. Education of course is the key to conservation, and I will also be chatting to local kids about how much they know about their national bird. By talking to different members of society, I aim to get a clearer picture of the human-parrot relationship.

I have set up 33 study sites all over Praslin and Curieuse (roughly 20% of the islands), and I will be recording the habitat composition and structure of these sites, and doing multiple counts of the parrots in each. During these periods I'll also be looking out for feeding behaviour. By linking the habitat and count data together, I'll hopefully get a defined habitat preference of the black parrots, and a good idea of the population.

My sites to begin with all centred around the Valleé de Mai, so getting to know the palms was a must. One morning as I was admiring a particularly fine one known as Millionaires Salad - so called because the "heart" at the top of the tree was a delicacy in the past, but to get at it you have to chop the whole thing down, which was very expensive - I got a stream of pollen and bits of palm husk in my eye. After using the contents of my water bottle to restore my vision, I found my misfortune turned out to be quite the opposite - enjoying his breakfast of flowers and seeds (palms flower and fruit simultaneously) was a very handsome black parrot, highlighted in a shaft of early morning sunlight. He was not in the least put off by our presence, and kept on stripping the long inflorescences, his table manners having a bit to be desired, getting pollen all over his handsome face. In the days to come, I have seen them feasting on trees by the roadside, inches from vehicles roaring by with a single mindedness to get at that tasty berry just over there…

These birds are indeed a joy to behold, graciously putting up with my giggles at their antics and replying encouragingly to my feeble attempts to whistle at them. We'll be having conversations about philosophy before the month is out.