Counting Parrots - Report on the 2002 Cape Parrot Big Birding Day

Colleen T. Downs & Louise Warburton
Cape Parrot Working Group, School of Botany & Zoology, University of Natal, P/Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, South Africa.
Email: downs@nu.ac.za, warburtonL@nu.ac.za

'They must have been beautiful birds' she said.
I said, 'Yes they were' and almost added, 'They all are'.
From 'Hope is the thing with feathers', Christopher Cokinos 2000

On the afternoon of May 11th and morning of May 12th 339 volunteer observers were posted at 144 observation points throughout the range of the Cape Parrot. A total of 476 parrots were seen during the afternoon count and 634 the following morning. In total 1791 manhours were spent watching for parrots, and observers saw parrots at 41 and 44% of the observation points in the afternoon and morning respectively. The aim was to determine just how many parrots survive in the wild and monitor their population trends.

This is the fifth year that the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day has been held since the pilot study in 1997. Standard bird counting techniques are not suitable for Cape Parrots as they are nomadic feeders and their behaviour is unpredictable. The birds are highly mobile, moving between forest patches, visiting orchards and coastal forests. They are most active for several hours after dawn and before sunset, usually circling over the forest and calling loudly. Flock sizes vary from single birds and pairs to groups of 5 - 6 birds. However, at localised food sites, flock size may increase to 20 -70 birds as the parrots congregate from a wide area giving a false idea of localised parrot density. The parrots are difficult to locate once perched in the forest but their loud harsh call whilst in-flight makes them unmistakable. These characteristics led to the conclusion that a total count would be the most practical method of determining the number of parrots left in the wild.

This is a difficult task as it requires knowledge of the often-remote forest habitats and suitable observation posts, parrot movements and enough volunteers to cover the areas where parrots occur. As the Cape Parrot is rare, there is some feeling that a conservation effort like this may be exposing the location of the birds to those who are intent on catching them. This is a paradox. We feel that the need to know whether the population is in decline or increasing is fundamental information for the overall conservation effort. Furthermore, the increased public awareness brings about an unofficial monitoring system of the species in addition to the formal conservation effort through the Cape Parrot Working Group.

Other problems with such a census is whether:

This year there has been an increased number of observers (221% increase on previous years) at localities throughout the Cape Parrot's range, and the weather was excellent for observations. Consequently, the number of birds observed was the highest ever recorded (a maximum of 634 compared with the previous highest count of 459 in 2000). This is largely a consequence of increased observer coverage with all of the species range covered. Four groups of observers identified parrots at nest holes. Juvenile birds were also identified at some localities, a few were still soliciting food from adults. Some observers feel disappointed not to have seen parrots and that their time and effort was wasted. This is definitely not the case. A zero count is important information. The Cape Parrot is a species in decline, and one whose movements are unpredictable. All observation points are within the range of the species and a sighting is possible - that's why the site was chosen! Also, some people are dismayed at how long it takes to get the final results published but all data sheets need to be scrutinised to avoid double counting. Some people post their returns and others who saw nothing do not always send a return and have to be chased up.

The most birds (302) were recorded in the Eastern Cape in the Amatola Mountain area from Alice to Stutterheim. The former Transkei had 111 birds while KwaZulu-Natal recorded 171 birds of which most were in the Creighton area. In the Northern Province greater numbers (50) were recorded than in the past. These results highlight the patchiness of the birds and make conservation difficult.

The Parrot Day 2003 will be held on the Saturday afternoon of the 3rd May and the morning of the Sunday 4th May. Please diarise this! Many wonder why the day is held in May but weatherwise this is best. Also the birds often congregate at feeding sites at this time of year and are easier to count. This year a number of birds were observed feeding outside of forest usually on pecan-nuts.

It is of little use attempting to conserve Cape Parrots without conserving their special forest habitat. Yellowwoods are common canopy trees in certain forests in South Africa, but are also a source of valuable commercial timber and were intensively logged in the past. In the Eastern Cape, there is continued logging of Yellowwoods under permit and in certain rural areas Yellowwood trees are being felled for building materials. Although only dead trees are supposed to be removed, there is little control of this logging and live trees are being harvested. As the Cape Parrot requires holes in dying/dead trees for nest sites, this habitat reduction is likely to have serious consequences to the bird's population.

With a stable population and age structure, and age of first breeding at about 5 years of age in the wild, there will be large numbers of non-breeders. Adding to that adult pairs that fail early, lose a nest site, lose a mate, do not breed in a given season, or produce chicks with disease, do not contribute to the effective breeding population. The sex ratio may be imbalanced, and some birds are naturally pre- or post- reproductive individuals. Therefore a population of 600 Cape Parrots may only have a 100 breeding pairs as has been shown in Amazon parrots in South America, which are similarly sized and occupy a similar niche in the forest. Thus, the viability of this Endangered species is likely less than the numbers above might suggest.

Most bird guides for southern Africa still classify the Cape Parrot as one species with the Grey-headed Parrot. The latest Robert's bird book (in press) will show them as separate species. Cape Parrots are restricted to the afro-montane forest regions and show a more golden head colour compared with the Grey-headed Parrot which inhabits dry woodland areas and whose range extends from Northern Province through south Central and East Africa.

CAPE PARROT (Poicephalus robustus) facts.

What has or is causing the decline of Cape Parrots?

There are several factors causing this and these include:

How to Conserve Cape Parrots

Recording the decline of an animal population is pointless unless that information is used to assess how that decline can be stopped. In search of food, the parrots fly substantial distances between forest patches. So to conserve the parrots we need to recognise this and maintain a network of suitable forests. Within these forests we need to enhance the food and breeding possibilities for parrots.

How you can Help So what can you do as a private individual?

1. Preserve existing forest patches and provide food sources

Education of land-owners and the general public as to the importance of indigenous forests is essential. To do so requires that these forests become more user-friendly to the public. This could be done with a network of forest trails, which could include aerial walkways. The planting of of food trees at the forest edge and erection of nest boxes will also help.

2. Help prevent illegal trade

Finally the prevention of removal of live birds from the wild is essential. Capture from the wild is illegal. Effective law enforcement relies on rapid information transfer and those people who live within the range of the parrot, or keep captive birds, must remain on alert to any signs of capture and trade of Cape Parrots. In the Eastern Cape report to: Jaap Pienaar, Head of Special Investigations at the Eastern Cape Nature Conservation: 046 6228262/082 6923760. In Kwa-Zulu Natal, report to Sharron Hughes, Permit Officer, Kwa-Zulu Natal Wildlife: 033 8451324. Or to the Cape Parrot Working Group: Colleen Downs (Director) 033 2605127/082 9202026 or Louise Warburton (Co-ordinator) 033 2606032/072 4698360.

The process needs to go beyond counting and it is now time to do something before it is too late.

3. Take part in the count

Without observers this count would not be possible. The information obtained during the count makes a valuable contribution to knowledge of Cape Parrots. It is hoped that, as in previous years, participants will volunteer for the 2003 Cape Parrot Big Birding Day to be held on the afternoon of Saturday 3 May and the morning of Sunday 4 May 2003.

Acknowledgements

The increased effort and number of volunteers was partly due to the workshops, presentations and television coverage. This would not have been possible without the 2002 financial support of the Wildlands Trust and the Natal Ornithological Society for which we and the rest of the Cape Parrot Working Group are most grateful. Once again the regional co-ordinators did a sterling job in organizing observers in their areas and our sincere thanks goes to all (Malcom Gemmel, Mark Brown, Vernon Green, Malcom Anderson, Sandy Laurens, Russell Hill, Callum Forsyth, Pat Lowry, Dan Dekker, Louis Nel, Kathryn Costello, Gertie Griffith, Peter Mather-Pike, Jaap Pienaar, Glyn Kessel, Paul McKay, John Duff, & Jeanne-Marie van den Berg). Many thanks also to all the volunteer observers - without you no count could take place. In addition the contribution of the DWAF, Sappi and Mondi foresters and E.Cape Nature Conservation and KZN Wildlife officials is greatly appreciated.

REPORT ON THE CAPE PARROT BIG BIRDING DAY 2001.
By Dr Colleen T. Downs©

(Part of the Forest Biodiversity Programme and the African Parrot Research Group, School of Botany & Zoology, University of Natal, P/Bag X01, Scottsville, Pietermaritzburg, 3209)

The Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) is South Africa's only endemic parrot and it is regarded as rare and endangered as there are probably less than 500 birds left in the wild. The Cape Parrot's preferred habitat is yellowwood (Podocarpus) afromontane forests. These are also known as mist-belt forests. In South Africa these forest patches are found in the Eastern Cape and southern KwaZulu-Natal. There are also a few scattered afromontane forest patches in Mpumalanga.

Several factors have caused the rapid decline of the Cape Parrot population, which has taken place over the last 50 years. These include:

A mature Cape Parrot stands 30cm high and can weigh up to 330 grams. It has a robust beak, which is used to crack open nuts and seeds. The favoured seed is that of the yellowwood tree but parrots will eat other indigenous nuts or those in commercial orchards. Fruits of yellowwoods are particularly important for Cape Parrots and their availability greatly influences seasonal movements. The kernel of yellowwood fruits is also eaten when they are green and hard. This fruit is large, abundant and has a high energy and fat content. Yellowwood trees bear fruit throughout most of the year but seed production peaks during the winter months. The fruit remains on the trees for extended periods.
Determination of the numbers of the Cape Parrot is particularly important because of the birds' rare and endangered status. However this is not an easy task as standard bird census techniques are inappropriate. This is because the birds are nomadic feeders and their behavior is not predictable.

Threats to Cape Parrots

The main threat to Cape Parrots is loss of habitat. Yellowwoods are common canopy trees in all afromontane forests in South Africa, but are also valuable commercial timbers and were intensively logged in the past. In the Eastern Cape, there is continued logging of Yellowwoods under permit. Although only dead trees are supposed to be removed, there is little control of this logging and live trees are being harvested. The deterioration of afromontane forests is thus contributing directly to the demise of the Cape Parrot.

As Cape Parrots are now rare, the commercial value of these birds has increased and as a result so has the illegal capture and trade in them. Furthermore, the breeding success of these parrots is limited as they require holes in dead trees (which are called snags) for nest sites and these are limited in number because of the harvesting of dead trees and previous logging of trees. As natural food sources are reduced, Cape Parrots sometimes concentrate at non-forest food sources, especially commercially grown pecan nut stands. Here they are easily captured or sometimes destroyed.

These parrots do not breed before they are at least three years old and the removal of actively breeding adults from the wild has a deleterious long-term effect on the population dynamics.

In addition, the prevalence of the introduced beak and feather virus among wild birds is uncertain. This virus, which affects the bird's immune system, was probably introduced with Australian birds and it is not clear whether this disease has been the main factor in the dramatic decline of Cape Parrots. Young birds are particularly susceptible to the virus, which further reduces recruitment to the wild population.

How to Estimate Parrot Numbers

The birds are highly mobile, moving between forest patches, visiting orchards and occasionally visiting forests near the coast. The birds are active for several hours after dawn and before sunset, usually circling over the forest and calling loudly. Flock sizes vary from single birds to pairs or to groups of 5-6 birds. However, at localized food sites, flock size may increase to 20-70 birds giving a false impression of abundance. The birds are difficult to locate once perched in the forest but their loud harsh call and active flight patterns make them conspicuous. These characteristics led to the conclusion that a total count would be the most practical method of estimating the number of parrots left in the wild.

The First Step

Over the last 10 years studies on Cape Parrots have been carried out in the Creighton, Weza and Karkloof areas. These included the erection of artificial nesting boxes and studies on feeding habits. So a reasonable amount of information was available on numbers of parrots in these areas, but little was known about parrot populations nationally.

Prior to the initiation of the total count, called the Big Parrot Day, a coverage showing the spatial distribution of afromontane forest was obtained, Thereafter visits to landowners, conservancies, and conservation managers were carried out to obtain information on parrot numbers, flock size and local movement patterns. The results from these visits were used to plan the Big Parrot Day and to locate the observers at appropriate sites.

Total population estimate: The Big Parrot Day

In 1997 a one-day national census was implemented to cover all known parrot feeding and roosting localities simultaneously. Since this pilot attempt in 1997, a Big Parrot Day has been held annually. Groups of forest patches (afromontane and coastal) in the Eastern Cape, KZN and Northern Province were divided into regions headed by a co-coordinator. This required the involvement of volunteer observers including birders, landowners, farmers, students and other interested people. Two or more observers positioned themselves at vantage points to record presence or absence, times of arrival or departure, and roosting activities of Cape Parrots. To minimize the risk of repeated counting, the recordings included number of Cape Parrots and direction and times of flight. Observations were made when Cape Parrots were most active which was the 3-hour period after sunrise and 3 hour period before sunset. Other bird and mammal species observed are also recorded and interesting sightings have included Tree Hyrax, Samango Monkeys and Ground Hornbills.

Use of GIS

To assist with this project an Arc View-based Geographic Information System (GIS) was used to carry out the following functions:

This GIS has proved invaluable for efficient storage of the data as well as for the data analysis.

Results; Population size estimates: parrot day 2001

Suitable weather conditions for the count are always a concern, but the weekend of the 23 June 2001 provided perfect conditions for observing parrots. The national census showed that Cape Parrot numbers were low. Observations, particularly in the Creighton area where records dating back for 10 years are available, indicated that the method of censussing was reliable for a highly mobile, but core habitat-specific species. No all the forests were covered by the census but in future years increased coverage of forest patches is planned especially in parts of the former Transkei. A summary of the results of all the total counts is given in Table 1.

Table 1: Numbers of Cape Parrots counted on the Cape Parrot Big Birding Days 1998-2001

Year

Morning Total

Afternoon Total

1998 348 179
1999 282 237
2000 395 396
2001 358 319

Discussion

Annually repeated censuses are important to monitor population trends in the Cape Parrot. The Cape Parrot Birding Day is an example of a combined conservation effort incorporating birders, landowners, farmers, students and the general public. Once again, the Creighton-Donnybrook community under the leadership of Malcolm Gemmel was exemplary in its efforts. It had observers at all forest patches in the area in radio contact with one another so that not only numbers of Cape Parrots but also directions of the parrot's movements were confirmed. A minimum of 532 man-hours was expended during the census and considerable input was required for the planning phase.

The 1998-2001 censuses (Table 1) revealed that Cape Parrot population numbers are low compared with the previous estimates made by Skead in 1964 who estimated 600 birds in the Eastern Cape and Boshoff who estimated as many as 1000 birds in 1988.

Forests where parrot numbers are highest should be identified as focal conservation areas. In particular the Gxalingele Forest in the Creighton-Riverside area, which has many large yellowwood's needs special attention as for the second year running more than 50 birds were observed roosting there. They left early in the morning and split into smaller flocks to visit nearby forest patches. At present this forest patch is un- protected and there is evidence of many trees been removed.

How you can help

It is an expensive and time-consuming operation to carry out a total count. During the 2001 count there were 155 volunteers involved in the project. Thus assistance toward covering the costs of this census would be of great assistance. Opportunities for promotion of Sponsors are good. With professional promotional facilities this event could be made into a high profile event with resultant exposure for Sponsors. The other benefit is that the organization of the event is in place and is proven to be effective.

Without observers this count would not be possible. The information obtained during the censuses makes a valuable contribution to knowledge of Cape Parrots and it is hoped, that as in previous years, participants will volunteer for the 2002 Cape Parrot Big Birding Day to be held on the afternoon of Saturday 11 May and the morning of Sunday 12 May. Finally any information and sightings of parrots would be of assistance to the Cape Parrot Project.

If you have information on these birds please e-mail it to: Dr Colleen Downs at downs@nu.ac.za

Acknowledgments

All those who have participated in Cape Parrot Days are thanked. I am most grateful to the local organizers who give of their time and make a great effort to get volunteers to each of the areas in their zone. In particular Malcolm Gemmel and Cameron McMaster had excellent coverage of their areas. I am grateful to James Wood and Hylton Adie for their assistance with mapping. Mazda Wildlife is thanked for their vehicle support. The group from BirdLife SA Southern KwaZulu Natal received sponsorship from LSC Motors (VW) and Tiger Wheel and Tyre, Port Shepstone.

Contact Persons for Cape Parrot Big Birding Day 2002

Donations

Any persons wishing to make a financial contribution towards the Conservation Fund may do so, in the form of a crossed cheque or International Bank Draft in Pounds Sterling made payable to The Parrot Society UK, and post to :-
CONSERVATION FUND,
THE PARROT SOCIETY UK.
92A High Street, Berkhamsted,
Herts, England, UK, HP4 2BL.
Telephone/Facsimile No.: (44) (0) 1442 872245

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