The Cape parrot, in true parrot-fashion

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The Cape parrot is found only in South Africa and is currently listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. Until recently, the Cape parrot was considered a sister species with the grey-headed parrot (Poicephalus fuscicollis). However, Cape parrots are now considered a unique species, Poicephalus robustus.

Cape parrot populations in South Africa

There are only approximately 1 700 wild Cape parrots left in the world, and these are spread across various locations in eastern and northern South Africa.

Population fragmentation is largely a result of deforestation. As large numbers of old-growth forest trees were felled historically, and to some limited extended still in the present day, important ‘stepping stones’ like feeding and resting stopovers are lost, preventing populations from intermingling.

Ideal Cape parrot habitat

The Cape parrot typically occurs in southern mistbelt forests between 1 000 – 1 400m above sea level. During the winter months, the Cape parrots can fly up to 100 km away from forests to find food, and returning to the forests the same day.  Populations can be found in fragmented Afromontane forest patches along the Amathole region of the Eastern Cape and into the interior of KwaZulu-Natal. There is also a population in the Limpopo Province. “Some of the most reliable areas to view Cape parrots are Magoebaskloof in Limpopo, the Creighton area in KwaZulu-Natal and Hogsback in the Eastern Cape,” explains Kate Carstens, the project manager of the Cape Parrot Project (CPP).

Cape parrot in flight

Photo: Cassie Carstens

Cape parrots and the Outeniqua yellowwood tree

Crucial to the Cape parrots survival is the Outeniqua yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus). The parrots are often seen feeding, breeding and roosting in the evergreen yellowwoods. Typically, large yellowwoods would be a cornucopia of fruit during the summer months. Cape parrots mainly feed on the inner seed kernel of the yellowwood fruit.

The Cape parrots also nest in the natural hollows and crevices found in old yellowwoods. Cape parrots breed once a year and lay three eggs on average. Currently, the Cape parrot’s breeding success remains unknown, and it is believed they mate for life.

“Historical logging of yellowwoods and other Afromontane trees means the Cape parrot does not have access to mature trees with suitable natural nesting cavities,” says Carstens. The yellowwood is a slow-growing tree that is highly sought-after in the furniture industry. In order to remedy the shortage of mature yellowwoods for the Cape Parrot, the CPP, based in Hogsback, conducts tree planting initiatives and undertakes habitat restoration activities in key areas in the Amathola region. In addition to the planting of yellowwood trees, CPP has also set up nest boxes to compensate for the current shortage of nesting sites.

Cape parrot

Photo: Cassie Carstens

The CPP has permission from the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry to plant yellowwoods in designated protected forest areas in the Amathola region across the Cape parrot’s range. “There are only a handful of 800-year-old trees left,” says Carstens. “Our job is to plant more yellowwoods now, to ensure there is an adequate supply of food and nesting sites for future generations of parrots. We are also partnering with the government to work towards sustainable levels of yellowwood harvesting.”

Threats to Cape parrots

Historically, there used to be some conflict between farmers and Cape parrots, when the parrots raided crops during certain times of the year. “But this has largely changed. Now, we are partnering with farmers to find solutions, and they have become some of our biggest supporters, helping to report Cape Parrot sightings and allowing us to use their farms for research purposes,” says Carstens.

Beak and feather disease is a major threat to parrot species worldwide. It is a highly contagious virus that causes parrots to lose their feathers and their beaks start to deteriorate. The disease is fatal for individuals with compromised immune systems. Currently, there is no vaccine on the market for beak and feather disease, although many laboratories are working hard at finding a workable vaccine.

Cape parrot eating acorns

Photo: Cassie Carstens

In the absence of yellowwood fruit, the Cape parrot is turning increasingly to exotic trees as a food source. “The nutritional content of exotic fruits like pecans have been tested and shown to be high in fat, low in protein, which means they’re not as healthy for them as their natural forest fruit diet,” says Carstens.

A Cape parrot workshop is going to be conducted this year to determine how best to protect South Africa’s only endemic parrot from going extinct.

Written by Georgina Lockwood 

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