BirdLife South Africa announced that the Bird of the Year for 2023 will be the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). This was done on Birding Big Day on 3 December 2022. The usual educational resources will once again be released throughout the year and regular media releases will be shared on this website. In the translated article below Anton reflects on the plight of the species. This was first published in Afrikaans in his column in Landbouweekblad on 11 August 2017.
The Cape Parrots’ future in question
Due to the extermination of yellowwood trees the Cape Parrots’ most important food, the fruits of these trees, are becoming increasingly rare. This creates a poor diet for the parrot making them vulnerable to disease, which threatens the survival of this rare bird.
The Cape Parrot is one of the most endangered parrot species in the world. There are probably less than a thousand of these birds left in the wild. Their fate hangs in the balance due to the shrinking forest biome in South Africa.
The forest biome is the smallest of all South Africa’s natural biomes and occupies only 1062km2 of the country’s surface. More than 40% of South African forests have been destroyed in the last 300 years to make way for plantations and farming activities. Hardwood was used extensively for furniture, railway sleepers and mining. This led to the eradication of tree species, such as yellowwood, stinkwood, ironwood and numerous others. Several other endemic species, which depend on the stability of forests, are now threatened.
The endemic Cape Parrot is a large, green bird with orange-red markings on the shoulders and side of the wings, and with red legs. Their heads are olive-brown. The female usually has orange-red on the forehead, while the male does not have the orange-red on the shoulders. However, both adult and young birds are characterised by their very large beaks.
Previously these birds were widespread in KwaZulu-Natal, the former Transkei and the Eastern Cape, but today the Cape Parrot is only found in areas of native forest between Hogsback in the Eastern Cape, and Balgowan and Karkloof in KwaZulu-Natal. There is also a small isolated population in Magoebaskloof. Cape Parrots are very social and are usually found in large groups at roosts, water points and fruit trees. Family groups of up to 10 birds can be seen during the day, but they sleep in large groups of 20 to 70 birds in eucalyptus and yellowwood trees. These birds are highly dependent on the fruit of yellowwood trees, although they will seasonally eat the fruit of other trees if available. Due to the historical overexploitation of yellowwood trees, there are few female trees left today that bear fruit. This is in stark contrast to earlier years when vast forests of these trees bore fruit sustainably throughout the year.
Cape Parrots have taken to eating the fruit of various alien trees, such as pecan and wattle trees. However, these fruits have a high sugar and fat content, with drastic consequences for the parrots, especially between January and March when food is scarce. The malnourished parrots then become vulnerable to Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD). The PBFD virus is native to Australia but has spread rapidly around the world as the legal and illegal trade in parrots has increased.
The disease can be transmitted through direct contact with sick birds, the inhalation of feather dust or through food that adult birds feed to chicks. Infected chicks can die within weeks. Infected adult birds show abnormal and bent feathers, a loss of feather fluff, and flaking and cracking beaks. The birds are deteriorating due to poor and insufficient food and the long distances (up to 90 km per day) they have to fly between food sources.
Plans to save the Cape Parrot
Two possible solutions are to plant suitable native trees in the parrots’ range and to install nest boxes. It is obviously timeous to rehabilitate native forests, but it is of the utmost importance that it continues.
The Cape Parrot Working Group coordinates various efforts to save the parrots from extinction. The group organizes an annual census to try to determine the number of parrots. Farmers in areas where the parrots still occur are encouraged to participate in these counts. The illegal trade in parrots is a worldwide problem and this also applies to the Cape Parrot. Several breeders are trying to breed these parrots in an attempt to counter the illegal removal of birds in the wild. The Cape Parrot working group aims to establish a breeding program to deliver birds to the market and thereby protect birds in the wild. More information about the working group can be obtained from Prof Colleen Downs at email@example.com or 033 260 5127. The re-establishment of natural habitat, the fight against illegal trade in Cape Parrots, and the fight against the PBFD virus are essential for the survival of this critically endangered bird species.