Counting Parrots- Report on the 2005 Cape Parrot Big Birding Day

Colleen T. Downs

School of Biological & Conservation Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, P/Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, South Africa. Email:

Member of the Cape Parrot Working Group

Another Cape Parrot Count has come and gone. It is amazing that this was the 8th consecutive year that the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day (CPBBD) was held. I am especially grateful for the enthusiasm and continued support of the co-ordinators (Appendix 1) and volunteers who participate in this national effort to estimate the number of Cape Parrots (Poicephalus robustus) in the wild. Some observers have not missed a year since the pilot count in 1997. The areas of South Africa that are covered include the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo Provinces. In the latter, there is only a remnant population of Cape Parrots.

We first initiated the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day to determine numbers of these birds in the wild as they are Endangered and their numbers have declined considerably in the past 30 years. In addition it was a way of involving the public in conserving South Africa’s only endemic parrot and highlighting the need for the protection of their forest habitat. Various factors have caused the decline in numbers of Cape Parrots. These factors include: forest degradation; food and nest-site shortages resulting in poor breeding success; removal of birds from the wild for the avicultural and pet trade; diseases, especially the beak and feather virus; and predators.

Cape Parrots are strong flyers and are considered nomadic feeders, moving between forest patches, visiting orchards and coastal forests in search of food. Consequently their presence at a particular forest or feeding site is unpredictable. They are fussy feeders preferring only the kernels/endocarps of fruit, particularly yellowwood Podocarpus spp. fruit, and discarding the fleshy exocarp. They are early risers, being most active for several hours after dawn. They usually rest in the middle of the day and are then active for a few hours before sunset. When active, they often circle over the forest calling loudly before settling in a fruiting tree to feed or on the exposed branches of a dead tree to preen, socialise or sun themselves. Flock sizes vary from single birds and pairs, to groups of 5 – 6 birds. However, at localised food sites, flock size may increase to 100 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. (See Appendix 2 for more details).

The behaviour of Cape Parrots has made a “total count” the most practical method of determining the number of parrots left in the wild. Observation periods last 2-3h in an afternoon session and in a session the following morning with separate tallies for each, which improves the reliability of the count, particularly when the weather is poor during one of the sessions.

This year 339 volunteer observers were posted at 125 observation points throughout the range of the Cape Parrot. A total of 894 parrots were seen during the afternoon count while 969 the following morning. Observers saw parrots at 58% and 56% of the observation points in the afternoon and morning respectively (see Table 1). These results are similar to those of 2003 and 2004. As in 2003 and 2004, there has been some recruitment of parrots shown by observations of juvenile birds at some localities. One of the problems of covering the range of the Cape Parrots is that some observers do not see parrots. However, these nil counts are as important as sightings of the birds. Variability of results between years and discrepancy between the morning and afternoon counts can be a consequence of poor weather, double counting and missing an area where parrots are found. Also when birds are concentrated at feeding sites, they give a false impression of abundance.




Cape Parrots AM Total

Cape Parrots PM Total

Number of locations am

Number of locations pm

% obs. at locations am

% obs. At locations pm









































































Table 1. Summary of results of Cape Parrot Big Birding Day (1998-2005).

A summary of Cape Parrots numbers observed in different regions and provinces of South Africa is presented in Table 2. Most birds (403-488) were recorded in the Eastern Cape (the Amatola Mountain area from Alice to Stutterheim). In the former Transkei region of the Eastern Cape there were 127-181 birds. KwaZulu-Natal recorded 244-350 birds of which most were in the Creighton area. In Limpopo Province only 35 birds were recorded. These results highlight the patchiness of the distribution of the birds that makes conservation difficult. As in past years, a number of Cape Parrots were also observed feeding outside of forests, usually on pecan-nuts as well as on jacaranda and syringa that seems to suggest food shortages.

Table 2. Summary of results of the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day 2005 (May afternoon of the 7th and morning of the 8th) according to areas and provinces.


Cape Parrots in morning

Cape Parrots in evening



















Creighton (KZN)



Creighton (Trans)












Transkei Coast



























REMINDER: Next Parrot Day

The Parrot Day 2006 will be held on the Saturday afternoon of the 6th May and the morning of the Sunday 7th May. Please diarise this and contact one of the co-ordinators in the area where you would like to assist (see Appendix 1).


As always I am particularly grateful for the time and effort that the regional co-ordinators invest in organizing observers in their areas. Many thanks also go to all the volunteer observers without whom the count could not take place. Thanks also to Kate Henderson for her assistance. In addition, the contribution of the DWAF, Sappi and Mondi foresters and E. Cape Nature Conservation and KZN Wildlife officials is greatly appreciated. Special thanks to Jean Pattison and the American Aviculturalists and bird clubs, and Mazda Wildlife for their continued support.

This year Gavin Starr completed the Ironman Triathlon (3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42km run) in Port Elizabeth. He was sponsored by various institutions and individuals in Pietermaritzburg and Durban and donated these monies to Cape Parrot Research. The monies were used to get students to Ingeli for the CPBBD (see attached photograph). A report by one of the students is included in Appendix 3.

Another initiative that has increased the awareness of Cape Parrots has been the reproduction of an original painting of Cape parrots by Ingrid Fouche commissioned by Mr Kevin Culverwell of Pietermaritzburg. He has organised and is selling the signed reprints with a portion of the monies raised going to parrot research. Please contact me if you are interested.

Appendix 1. Contact persons for Cape Parrot Big Birding Day 2006

Area Name Tel Email
Overall co-ordinator Prof. Colleen Downs 033 260 5127; 0829202026
CPWG co-ordinator Kate Henderson 0724474485
Zululand (Nkandla & Qudeni) Pat Brenchley 035 474 2629

082 654 3549
Newcastle (Ncandu) Tony Roberts 034 2125585
082 8217779
Karkloof Caroline Goble 033 3304590
Dargle/ Nottingham Rd/ Balgowan Jennifer Willan 033 2344153
Byrne Valley Malcolm Anderson 033 2122744

082 5723455
Boston Barbara & Glyn Bullock 033 997 1783
Bulwer Russell Hill 039 8320053
Creighton/Donnybrook Malcolm Gemmell 039 8331029

082 7895000
Weza/ Glengarry Bongani Dzidla

Colleen Downs

039 5530411


Mpur/Glengarry Louis Marx

Stuart Charlton

Dan Dekker

039 6821468

039 7479050

Kokstad Pat Lowry 039 7273844

Langeni / Matiwane


Gary Harvey 0834520883, 0436422791h, 0406350283w
Hogsback Ingrid Luyt 045-962-1259
Stutterheim Neill Harvey 043-6832384
Wild Coast (Port St Johns) Kathryn Costello 047 5641240
Mbotyi John Duff 039 253 8822
KWT/Alice Gertie Griffith

Peter Mather-Pike

043 7352195

043 7403566


Northern Province David Letsoala

Cathy Dzerefos

Kobus Pienaar

Conrad van Zyl

083 568 4678

015 2762704

083 7462239

015 2765003

082 809 8875

082 801 0014 / 015 733 0444

Appendix 2.

CAPE PARROT (Poicephalus robustus) facts.

  • Found only in South Africa. Regarded as Endangered.

  • Virtually the whole lifestyle of these birds is centred on yellowwood trees. Their preferred feeding, roosting and nesting sites are in forests dominated by these trees.

  • In South Africa suitable forest patches are found in the Eastern Cape and southern KwaZulu-Natal with a few scattered yellowwood forest patches in Limpopo Province.

  • Must not be confused with the Grey-headed Parrot, (Poicephalus fuscicollis suahelicus) which looks very similar to the Cape Parrot, but is found in the Northern Province, Mocambique and Zimbabwe and is now regarded as a separate species from the Cape Parrot.

  • A mature Cape Parrot stands 30cm high and can weigh up to 350g. Like all parrots it has a robust beak that is used to crack open nuts and seeds. The favoured seed is that of the yellowwood tree and their availability greatly influences seasonal movements of these birds. They also feed on other forest trees especially the Natal plum and White stinkwood. If the indigenous food source is in short supply, the parrots are sometimes forced to feed outside forests and will raid fruit orchards or pecan nut trees.

  • Nest in cavities usually in dead yellowwood trees. They usually lay three eggs of which one to two chicks survive the first year.

  • Use mature yellowwood trees, which usually project out of the forest canopy, as roosting sites and vantage points. They are active and inquisitive birds that are often seen flying around and above forest patches in the early morning or late afternoon.

  • Characteristic loud squawk is usually heard when the birds are in flight and contact calls between roosting birds may also be heard.

How to Conserve Cape Parrots

There are less than 1000 Cape Parrots in the wild, mostly in the Eastern Cape and about 200 in KwaZulu-Natal. 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 food trees at the forest edge and erection of nest boxes will also help.

2.    Help prevent illegal trade

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 033 2605127/082 9202026.

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 2005 Cape Parrot Big Birding Day to be held on the afternoon of Saturday 6 May and the morning of Sunday 7 May 2006.

Cape Parrot Working Group

This is a working group that was initiated by Prof Perrin of the former School of Botany and Zoology now School of Biological and Conservation Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg Campus. It now falls under the auspices of BirdLife South Africa. The Cape Parrot Research group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal is part of the Cape Parrot Working Group and undertakes research and
investigations on the status of the threatened Cape Parrot. One of the important activities is the annual Cape Parrot Big Birding Day (CPBBD), undertaken largely by a team of volunteers, which has been held for the eighth consecutive year in May 2005. Counts are held throughout the range of this parrot.

Appendix 3.

Cape Parrot weekend report 2005- a student’s perspective

Claire Lindsay

My group headed out to Mpetsheni forest for the afternoon of the 7th of May and the morning of the 8th. The adventure began with us getting lost on the way into the forest early on Saturday afternoon. Having driven the road only once before, with a white knuckled forest ranger as my navigator, I clearly didn’t take sufficient notice of the turns and never-ending forks in the road. This set the scene for the remainder of the days/nights outing. Eventually we were on our way into the forest only to remember that the road that we were looking for, for the lookout point, did in fact not look like a road at all. This posed quite a challenge and resulted in me stopping the van and sending Dr Dave running up the hill in search of roads that are not roads. Thankfully, as a keen young scientist, Dave had been taught great skills of observation and thus noticed a rather unique pile of cow excrement on the road. Unbeknownst to us, this would prove very useful later on. After finding the road-that was not a road, we ambled down the hill and pointed out what we thought to be good observation points overlooking the respective forest patches, to the two groups that we left there. The three remaining keen young scientists, returned to the van and continued the journey following the unidirectional forest side signs to the forest lodge, well to the forest lodge gate at least. Undeterred by this obstacle, one of the keen young scientists decided to tackle the climb over the gate, and only after adding extra aeration to her new shorts by becoming attached to barbed wire, did another keen young scientist point out that you could, in fact, just walk around the gate.

After the mornings excitement we walked up the road until we found a good vantage point from which to observe what we hoped to be large flocks of Cape Parrots. Perched on a flat slab of rock overlooking the most spectacular valley, we heard the unmistakable sound of two parrots flying overhead. This excited even the most “botanically minded plantologist” in the group. The afternoon went well with 8 parrots being spotted from our lookout and another 8 from the other lookout across the valley.

The drive home, however, did not go so well. It began with us taking an hour and a half to drive a 20 minute route, to the observers placed along the road that is not a road back along the road with unidirectional signposting. Eventually we found the others along the road that is not a road, cold, tired and appearing somewhat mutinous. Keen and ready for a warm dinner and a good nights rest, the driver (no names mentioned), then kindly took the group for a fantastic hours night drive around the forests spotting an antelope of sorts as well as a spotted eagle owl. Although the group was begging for the night drive to continue, the driver and her navigators had decided it was time to head home. On route home, we encountered another group of keen night drivers, out looking for the lesser-spotted, nocturnal Cape parrot observers. Thankfully, upon arrival home, the kitchen and braai fairies had visited and we were all very grateful for a nice warm meal.

The next morning was far more successful in terms of number of parrots spotted and multi-directional navigation. All in all I think it was the general consensus amongst the students that the Mpetsheni and Ingele forests are truly beautiful areas and that the weekend was successful.

Report on the 2005 Cape Parrot Big Birding Day

21 July, 2005 (13:34) | Uncategorized | By: Craig (Thor's Dad)

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