The Cape Parrot Project
The Cape Parrot, Poicephalus robustus, is a species that is endemic to South Africa. It occurs nowhere else in the world. There are only 1800 individuals remaining in the wild and current threats to the species include habitat loss and with it a lack of nesting sites and food. Other threats include disease and illegal capture for the captive trade.
Biology of the Cape Parrot
The Cape Parrot weighs 300-400 g with its head, neck and body plumage an olive green colour. All adult birds have orange on the shoulder (bend of wing) and ankles (tibia), while females generally have orange on the forehead. Males usually lack orange on the forehead, but there are exceptions where a small amount of orange is present. Juveniles have orange only on the forehead, and absence of orange on the ankles and wing. Their cryptic colouration combined with dense forest habitats often make them difficult to locate once perched but their loud harsh calls whilst in-flight make them conspicuous. They are most active during the first few hours after dawn and before sunset when they leave and return to their roosts in forest patches, although during misty conditions these periods can be extended.
The Cape Parrot primarily occupies the high altitude (700-1400 m.a.s.l) mosaic of Mistbelt forest patches that are dominated by Yellowwoods (Podocarpus or Afrocarpus species) which occur from the Amatole mountains in the Eastern Cape, through KwaZulu-Natal along the escarpment and up into Limpopo Provinces in South Africa. The parrots also historically visited coastal forests in KwaZulu-Natal, especially during the summer. They are still resident or visit the forests along the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape. The current Cape Parrot population consists of three subpopulations, the southern group in the Amatole's in the Eastern Cape, the central group from Encogbo and Mthatha in the Eastern Cape through to the Midlands in KwaZulu-Natal and a disjunct northern group mainly in the Magoeboeskloof. These subgroups can also be identified genetically. Due to subsistence and commercial use of forest habitat, there has been a 58% reduction in range between the South African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP) 1 conducted in 1987-1991 and SABAP 2 started in 2007 and ongoing.
The Cape Parrot has a large and strong bill that enables them to feed on the kernels of various fruits. These indigenous fruits include Yellowwoods, White Stinkwood (Celtis africana) and Wild Plum (Harpephyllum caffrum). At certain times of the year parrots will also feed on Protea spp. flowerheads outside of forest, and exotic feeding resources such as Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii), Seringa (Melia azedarach), Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) and Mexican Bird Cherry (Prunus salicifolia). Cape Parrots are known as food nomadics as they regularly move between forest patches for food. The absence of parrots in some forest patches during certain periods are likely due to the absence of food, as the fruiting of their preferred trees may be sporadic and absent in some years.
Cape Parrots typically breed during spring and summer. They nest in existing tree cavities, and have been known to make modifications such as widening of the cavity entrance or creating entirely new entrances into the side walls of existing cavities. Cavities are typically in mature or dead emergent or canopy trees in the forest, with nest entrances 6-12 m above the ground. Nests are used in consecutive years and are lined with wood chips that the pair have gnawed from inside the cavity or entrance. They lay 1-5 eggs with incubation by the female which takes approximately 30 days. Hatching is asynchronous. The nestling period lasts for approximately 63 days with chicks fledging at different times. Chicks remain dependent on the adults for food for some weeks, after which they join large juvenile flocks which roost, gather and travel together to various feeding sites. Juvenile Cape Parrots seem to be fed almost entirely on Afrocarpus falcatus endocarps, and thus it is suspected that breeding seasons are timed to synchronise with peaks in A. falcatus fruit availability which can be erratic.
What does the Cape Parrot Project do?
To address the threat of extinction, the Cape Parrot Project (CPP) was established in 2009 in the village of Hogsback in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. The Cape Parrot Project falls under the Wild Bird Trust, a registered South African NPO with the primary objective of keeping birds safe in the wild. There is little known about this parrot, with most of the work done by researchers in the 1990s on northern populations in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. Our focus is on the largest and most significant population at its most southern distribution in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. To better conserve this species, we need sound knowledge of the nesting and feeding requirements of this parrot, as well as the various threats facing it.
We have been working on the ground to investigate and address threats to the population. We have a comprehensive research database with observational data updated daily which continuously improves our knowledge on the seasonality of diet, flocking behaviour, distribution and movements of Cape Parrots with respect to changes in food availability and climatic conditions. Nest boxes were erected and are monitored and maintained twice a year, with other bird species using the nests and some interest shown by parrots. We have captured and sampled parrots to test for Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease for analyses by University of Cape Town. This disease is fatal, highly contagious and has rapidly spread throughout the population. Five scientific papers have been published on our data, and we continued to collaborate with Otterbein University, USA, on Cape Parrot vocalisations.
Given the importance of the indigenous forest for these birds and other forest-dependent species, the project has focused on restoring and protecting local afro-montane indigenous forests. We do this through producing thousands of indigenous tree saplings through the nurseries and climate controlled germination room that we have built, as well as from community nurseries we have built. We collect the seeds from indigenous trees in the nearby forest and germinate these in our handmade compost. These locally grown saplings are then planted in degraded forest patches, and the invasive, exotic vegetation is strategically cleared to facilitate natural forest regeneration. To increase on-the-ground forest protection, we encourage local people to become forest custodians through the development of local livelihoods that derive benefit from healthy Afro-montane forest. This includes the development of communal nurseries to germinate seedlings, hiring local people for replanting and invasive plant clearing and providing the necessary training, skills development and environmental education. We work closely with the local government to provide legal protective status to areas of Afromontane Forest.
Cape Parrot Viewing Tours are available.
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