THE ECOLOGY AND STATUS OF THE CAPE PARROT IN SOUTH AFRICA©

PROJECT EXECUTANT: 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)

Introduction

The nominate race of the Cape Parrot, Poicephalus robustus has recently been described as a separate species based on size, colour, distribution and habitat preference. It is classed as rare and vulnerable. Cape Parrot population numbers have declined significantly over the past century. They inhabit the yellowwood dominated Afromontane Podocarpus forests of KwaZulu‑Natal and of the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Their lifestyle is closely associated with yellowwood trees. Mature yellowwood trees, which emerge above the forest canopy, are important for roosting and social interactions, while dead yellowwoods provide cavities that are used as nesting sites by the parrots. Yellowwood fruits are a major component of the parrots' diet.

PROGRESS

The field work of the initial project initiated by the late J.O. Wirminghaus has been completed. Eight scientific manuscripts have been produced and are in press. The results include:

a. Species Status. Morphological differences of the three races of the Cape Parrot using national and international museum collections of Cape Parrot. It is proposed that P.r. robustus be given full species status as P. robustus and the other two races become P. f. fuscicollis and P. f. suahelicus. Recognition of P.r. robustus as a full species P. robustus highlights its conservation status considering the low population numbers.

b.Distributional data of Cape Parrots using South African Bird Atlas Project were mapped, and analysed further for gross movement patterns and densities. Historical evidence shows a contraction of the core range of Cape Parrots.

c. Importance of yellowwoods, particularly Podocarpus falcatus (a forest canopy tree), for breeding, feeding and social interactions of Cape Parrots is evident. Most frequent use of any tree species shows dominance of Podocarpus spp. for feeding and as perches. Kernels of Podocarpus spp. fruits are preferred and eaten while the exocarp is discarded. Monthly fruit availability of the different forest trees shows that for most species fruiting is unpredictable and that certain species have extended fruiting periods. However, during November-December there is usually a fruit shortage. Movements of parrots between forest patches shows them to be a food nomadic species based on monthly observations of temporal and spatial activity patterns and feeding observations. Cape Parrots are strictly diurnal though most active during the first and last few hours of daylight. Most feeding also takes place during this time. Between periods of activity the birds mostly remain perched, call, preen, allopreen, rest or occasionally feed.

d. Drinking sites are important for the parrots, particularly during the dry winter months when very little free water is available.

e. Breeding success at the two study sites during the past three summers, based on counts of fledged juveniles present was low. Only three nests during the 1993/94 season and two during the 1995/96 season were used at the study sites, while one that had been used previously fell over during strong winds. All nests (n=11), except for one in a live blackwood, have been in holes in dead emergent, dead canopy Podocarpus spp. Such dead trees are a scarce resource in the study areas, and thus have important conservation implications.

f. Population size estimates show that numbers throughout the Cape Parrot range have declined dramatically with large flocks rarely seen. Presently it is tentatively estimated that less than 1000 Cape Parrots in total remain, which is exceedingly low (Downs & Symes 1998).

PROPOSALS

Conservation of Cape Parrots requires conservation of their forest habitats, in particular mature Podocarpus sp. The Cape parrot population decline is caused by habitat loss as forest area has diminished. It is also exacerbated by selective felling of large yellowwoods for timber that occurred during the last century and the first half of this one. To counter these impacts, corrective measures for the conservation of Cape Parrots are required. These measures include:

(a) termination of yellowwood timber extraction from Afromontane forests;

(b) provision of additional nesting sites ; and

(c) planting of additional preferred food plants.

Long-term monitoring of this highly mobile food nomadic species is required together with its food resources, breeding success, population numbers, and the success of the implemented conservation action.

PROPOSED RESEARCH 1999- 2005

1. Continued monthly monitoring of Cape Parrot populations at Weza and Hlabeni.

2. Continuance of the nest box provision project to determine whether nest sites are limiting. In particular, examination of the efficacy of placement and usage of nest boxes at forests near Umtata, Weza, Creighton and in the Karkloof.

3. Availability of snags in Afromontane forest. In particular, determination of abundance of snags, their alteration with time and their potential as nest sites for hole-nesting birds.

4. Monitoring of captive breeding programmes and implementation of a studbook for Cape Parrots.

5. Liaising and advertising the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day each April, which involves birders, landowners and other interested people. The data obtained are analysed to monitor population trends.

6. Liaison with International Parrot and Bird Conservation Bodies.

7. Monitoring of psittascene beak and feather virus as a possible cause for decline in Cape Parrot numbers

Current Financial Support

The Vehicle used is currently supported by Mazda Wildlife who have provided vehicle support. However, the project requires monies to cover monthly field trip costs (R15000 per annum). This includes fuel, accommodation and student support. In addition a sponsor of the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day is sort. The involvement of birders, landowners, conservationists and interested people has increased annually. This Day was awarded a runner-up award in the 1999 Green Trust Awards and is covered widely in the press. This day is valuable as a census day of Cape Parrots. Dr. Colleen Downs is a senior lecturer at the University of Natal and is supported by the University Research Fund.

REFERENCES

Downs, C.T. & Symes, C.T. 1998. Cape Parrots: Report on the second Cape Parrot Big Birding Day, (25 April 1998).Psittascene 10 (3): 5-7.

Wirminghaus, J.O., Downs, C.T., Symes, C.T. & Perrin, M.R. 1999. Conservation of the Cape Parrot in southern Africa.South African Journal of Wildlife Research 29:118-129.

Wirminghaus, J.O., Downs, C.T., Symes, C.T., Perrin, M.R. & Dempster, E.R. 2000. Vocalisations, and some behaviours of the Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus. Durban Museum Novitates 25: 12-17.

Wirminghaus, J.O., Downs, C.T., Symes, C.T. & Perrin, M.R. 2000. Abundance of the Cape Parrot in South Africa. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 30: 43-52.

Wirminghaus, J.O., Downs, C.T., Symes, C.T. & Perrin, M.R. 2000. Fruiting in Two Afromontane Forests in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: the Habitat Type of the Endangered Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus S. A. J. Bot. In press.

Wirminghaus, J.O., Downs, C.T., Symes, C.T. & Perrin, M.R. Feeding ecology and feeding behaviour of the Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus. Ostrich in press.

Wirminghaus, the late J.O., Downs, C.T., Symes, C.T. & Perrin, M.R. Breeding biology of the Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus. Ostrich In press.

Wirminghaus, J.O., Downs, C.T.Perrin, M.R.& Symes, C.T. 2000.Taxonomic relationships of the subspecies of the Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus (Gmelin). Journal of Natural History in press.

Wirminghaus, J.O., Downs, C.T., Symes, C.T. & Perrin, M.R. Abundance and activity patterns of the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) in two afromontane forests in South Africa. African Zoology in press.

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