With less than 1,000 adult Cape parrots left in the wild, Dr Steve Boyes has to make conservation count. From rehabilitating parrots with a devastating disease to building nest sites in their increasingly degraded natural habitat, he puts his heart and soul into an otherwise scientific enterprise.
We have been fascinated by parrots, their colors, characters and voices for thousands of years. As with most wild parrots, the story of the Cape Parrot of South Africa, is a tale of people.
A long time ago in prehistory, the ancestors of today’s Cape parrot Poicephalus robustus specialized their behavior and physiology to depend almost entirely on Outeniqua yellowwood trees for sustenance and nest cavities. They did this because for millions of years there were vast yellowwood forests covering the southern and eastern coastlines of South Africa all the way into Mozambican and Malawian highlands.
Back then the parrots thrived in a forest paradise free of undue threat. Their only long-term concern was the slow grind of climate change, which saw these mighty forests slowly retreat to form important forest refugia in the high mountains and sheltered escarpments of South Africa.
Forest specialists like the Cape parrot and Samango monkey had done this many, many times before in their evolutionary passage to the present day. They had weathered ice ages and cataclysms in these refugia, but had never witnessed the destructive capabilities of the first European foresters and woodcutters. They had seen disasters like fires and tornados wipe out whole forests, but these events were not the norm and did not continue unabated for centuries.
Starting about 350 years ago, our Cape parrot witnessed the complete devastation of South Africa’s indigenous forests to build the Cape Colony, the Union of South Africa, and finally the Republic.
Cape parrots would have had yellowwood fruits available to them all year round and these forests were once scattered with massive dead yellowwood snags that stood for centuries as Cape parrot nesting sites. The forests that these parrots flocked over are long gone and can now only be imagined from readings of old travel journals and research notes.
Today the indigenous forest these parrots once relied on cannot support them and the parrots have learnt to feed on plums from Japan, cherries from Mexico, pecan nuts from the USA, acorns from England, Jacaranda pods from South America, and seringa fruits from India. None of these food items are good for parrots – too much fat and sugar… The “catch-22″ is that without these food resources we would have no Cape parrots.
After the major population collapse in the 1970s and 80s due to removal of nesting sites and persecution by pecan farmers, the small founding population have reinvented themselves and behaved more like a population of feral parrots released into unknown habitat.
Parrots are clever and resourceful, and Cape parrots have collectively managed to find a way to exist in what remains of their indigenous habitat. They have food for up to 10 months of the year, falling short between January and March when Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) takes over strips many of the parrots of all their feathers just before winter.
There is no doubt that the Cape parrot needs intervention and assistance. The Wild Bird Trust’s Cape Parrot Project works hard everyday to solve problems and mitigate threats to Cape parrots. They plant thousands of yellowwood trees, erect hundreds of nest boxes, help the parrots find suitable feeding sites, maintain safe drinking sites, lead the development of a vaccine for PBFD, and get local communities involved as the custodians of South Africa’s yellowwood forests. Please help them by donating via the World Parrot Trust.
By Steve Boyes. Source: National Geographic
Let’s stand together and get the Yellowwood tree planting in Future Forests off the ground to save the highly endangered indigenous Cape Parrots as soon as possible.