June 02 2006 By Sara Oelofse
Preliminary results from the annual national census of the endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus), the only parrot endemic to South Africa, are positive, suggesting more birds have been seen than in previous years.
A member of the Cape Parrot Working Group and the co-ordinator of the research, Professor Colleen Downs of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said that during this year's count over the first weekend in May, some flocks of juvenile parrots were seen, which was very encouraging.
Historically, the birds were more common and had a greater range, but their numbers have declined greatly and it is estimated that about 1 000 remain in the wild and only in three of the country's provinces.
Cape Parrots have become extinct in many areas
During last year's census, most of the endangered birds were recorded in the Eastern Cape, particularly in the Amatola region and inland from Umtata.
KZN had the next highest population, with most seen in the Creighton-Bulwer area.
Downs said the survival of the birds was being threatened because, as a result of being prized for their rarity, they were being illegally captured and caged.
The working group, and other interested parties, are keeping a studbook for all Cape Parrots in captivity to discourage poaching.
Downs said that meant that if people were not part of the studbook it would be difficult for them to swap or trade the birds.
They have a loud squawk and are very vocal
"Occasionally people buy a bird off someone at the side of the road rather than leave it.
"This is a problem, but they can contact their local conservation body, or they can contact the Cape Parrot studbook keeper, Shaun Wilkinson at Umgeni River Bird Park in Durban, for assistance," she said.
Downs said that historically the Cape Parrot was found from the Alice-Hogsback area right through to Magoebaskloof in Limpopo Province right up into Zimbabwe.
"Genetically and also ecologically, the two subspecies have now been separated into two separate species, namely the Cape Parrot and the Grey-headed Parrot," she said.
The Cape Parrot's distribution is only in South Africa, whereas the Grey-headed Parrot extends into Zimbabwe and other African countries.
Cape Parrots have become extinct in many areas of their former range with the main populations found from the southern area of the Eastern Cape through to the Karkloof in KZN. There is a relic population of less than 50 birds in Magoebaskloof.
Downs said that aside from poaching, habitat destruction and degradation, and disease were the main reasons for the decline in numbers.
The Cape Parrots' preferred habitat is mountainous forest regions, and they move between forest patches feeding on fruit. Consequently, a lack of forest fruit might cause problems as well.
The birds are very fussy about the food they feed on, and particularly like the fruit of yellowwood trees and would occasionally forage in other habitats with fruit trees.
They have a strong bill that enables them to break open fruit and remove the kernel.
This year, many observers involved in the Cape Parrot count saw the birds feeding outside of the forest, some on green pecan nuts and acorns.
"Normally they are quite nervous to go on to the ground, and this behaviour is a bit scary as they are easy to catch.
"I think there is a food shortage for the parrots this year.
The parrots nest in old dead trees.
Forest destruction and degradation as well as disturbance by local communities, has led to nest-site shortages and poor breeding success.
"The birds breed when they are five to six years old, and so the removal of adults will cause the greatest decline in their numbers," said Downs.
The Cape Parrot has a distinctive olive green crown and neck and an adult bird is the same size as the African Grey, a cousin.
They are a very social species and congregate on leafless trees on sunny days in winter before breaking off and flying out in groups.
They have a loud squawk and are very vocal in the morning or evening.
Downs said that the national Cape Parrot big birding day was initiated nine years ago to determine their numbers. Much more research was needed on the birds, especially on their movement between forests, and their food sources in the forests.
Downs said she was encouraged by the growing interest shown in the conservation of the Cape Parrot.
"This year we had more than 350 people involved in the census. In the Creighton area alone, we had 30 localities where the parrots were observed.
"Many farmers in the KZN Midlands have also become involved and it is tremendous that they are taking care of something in their own backyard," she said.
Source: <a href="http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=14&click_id=14&art_id=vn20060602041449270C774311">The Mercury</a>