College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Professor Colleen Downs, staff and students from the School of Life Sciences prepare to depart for the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day

Cape Parrot Big Birding Day Celebrates its 21st Year

Staff and students from the School of Life Sciences (SLS) recently took part in the landmark twenty-first national Cape Parrot Big Birding Day (CPBBD).

The CPBBD is a national census initiated in 1998 to determine the population trends of the Cape Parrot species.

Professor Colleen Downs is Chair of the Cape Parrot Working Group (CPWG), and has organised the CPBBD since its inception.

‘As the numbers of birds are relatively low, this census is extremely important in highlighting their plight,’ said Downs.

‘Each year the count is particularly important to determine a population estimate and determine if it is stable.’

The Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) is a habitat specialist, and is listed as Endangered. These birds depend on mature Afromontane Yellowwood forest for most of their diet and nesting areas. Currently less than 2% of all South African landscapes comprise of natural forest and only a small proportion of those are Afromontane Yellowwood forests.

Counts took place in over 16 areas across the country, from Limpopo to the Eastern Cape, and covered many areas across KwaZulu-Natal. Counting the birds on one day is important for the reliability of the data, as they are nomadic feeders moving between food areas. Volunteers attempted to identify numbers of males, females and/or juveniles present and were instructed on how to distinguish between the birds, and were tasked with sending any Cape Parrot feathers found on to UKZN for a genetic study being undertaken. Results of the count will be published by the CPWG on its website later in the year.

The event has grown in popularity over the years, and as participation has increased, so have sightings of these rare birds. However, numbers have remained consistent over the past five years, with estimates indicating that there are only around 1 600 Cape Parrots remaining in the wild.

Habitat fragmentation and loss continue through human over-utilisation and degradation, further fragmenting the Cape Parrot’s already disjointed habitat. Researchers are working on identifying and protecting IBAs for the Parrots, especially three key Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. They also face the threat of illegal hunting and capture, and increasing disease concerns as their habitat disappears.

A team of 25 UKZN staff and students counted at the Ngeli forest and the Empesheni forest, spotting over 100 of the birds. Downs assisted in the Gxalingele area with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) staff from Coleford, where local school children joined in the count.

Funds raised by sale of Woolworths’ Cape Parrot bag, designed for BirdLife South Africa (Birdlife SA) as part of Woolworths’ Good Business Journey, also supported this annual census event and forest research.

In 2015, researchers in SLS published a paper recommending that the Cape Parrot should be conferred the status of a full species. The subsequent reclassification is an important contribution to improving the species’ conservation priority and enabling the planning of conservation management strategies.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph supplied by Colleen Downs