Colleen T. Downs

School of Botany & Zoology, University of Natal, P/Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, South Africa. Email:

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 (See Figure 1). 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:

  • forest degradation,
  • food and nest-site shortages,
  • poor breeding success,
  • removal of birds from the wild for the caged bird trade, and
  • diseases, especially the beak and feather virus.

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 are 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 behaviour 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 localised 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 makes 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-ordinator. 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 minimise 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 ArcView-based Geographic Information System (GIS) was used to carry out the following functions:

  • to produce maps to provide observers with an overview of the project and to assist them in locating their observation points, which were often in remote areas with poorly marked access routes.
  • to record the data collected during the count
  • to analyse the data collected and to minimise the chances of double counting
  • to predict Cape Parrots movements and
  • to determine long term trends in population changes

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


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













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 parrots movements were confirmed. A minimum of 532 man-hours were expended during the census and considerable input was required for the planning phase.

The 1998-2001 censusses (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 organisation 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 censusses 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


All those who have participated in Cape Parrot Days are thanked. I am most grateful to the local organisers 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 are 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

Karkloof:                     Mark Brown 033-2605661

Nottingham Rd/ Balgowan/Dargle:     Vernon Green 082 834 0196

Boston:                     Ms. Sandy Laurens 033-9970654

Bulwer area:                     Mr. Russell Hill 039-8320053

Donnybrook- Creighton:             Mr. Malcolm Gemmel 039-8331029/1129

Weza: Callum Forsyth 0395530656;     Francois de Sournay 031-4081322 (W)

Kokstad:                     Mr. Pat Lowry (KZNWildlife) 039-7273844

Umtata:                     Mr. Don Kemp 0833100664,

Craig Symes (033-260-5127, 083 426 8000)

King Williamstown, Alice, Hogsback:     Ms. Gertie Griffith 0437-352195,

Cheryl & Peter Mather-Pike 043-7403566

Stutterheim:                     Mr. Cameron McMaster 043-6832796

Wild Coast:                     Cathy Costello 47-5641240

Northern Province:                 Jeanne-Marie v.d. Berg 015-276 4763

Further Reading

Boshoff, A. 1988. The status and conservation of the nominate race of the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus r. robustus (Gmelin)) in southern Africa. Unpublished report, Eastern Cape Nature and Environmental Conservation, Grahamstown.

Skead, C.J. 1964. The overland flights and the feeding habits of the Cape Parrot, Poicephalus robustus (Gmelin) in the eastern Cape Province. Ostrich 35: 202223.

Skead, C.J. 1971. The Cape Parrot in the Transkei and Natal. Ostrich Suppl. 9: 16578.

Wirminghaus, J.O. 1997. Cape Parrot. In: The Atlas of Southern African Birds. Harrison, J.A., Alan, D.G., Underhill, L.G, Herremans, M., Tree, A.J., Parker, V., Brown, C.J. (Eds). Johannesburg: BirdLife S. A. Vol. 1: 1-785.

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. 2000a. 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. & Dempster, E.R. 2000b. 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. 2001a. Fruiting in Two Afromontane Forests in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: the Habitat Type of the Endangered Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus S. A. J. Bot. 67: in press

Wirminghaus, J.O., Downs, C.T., Symes, C.T. & Perrin, M.R. 2001b. Feeding ecology and feeding behaviour of the Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus. Ostrich 71: in press.

Wirminghaus, the late J.O., Downs, C.T., Symes, C.T. & Perrin, M.R. 2001c. Breeding biology of the Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus. Ostrich 71: In press.

Figure 1. Areas covered in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal for the Big Parrot Day.

Figure 2. Observers at Gxalingele during May 2001.

Report on the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day 2001

21 July, 2001 (06:25) | Uncategorized | By: Craig (Thor's Dad)

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