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The Cape Parrot – Africa’s Rarest Psittacine Threatened by Disease

The problems afflicting the African Gray Parrot have been very much in the news recently (please see video below), and some important conservation efforts have been initiated. Less well-known, however, is the desperate situation facing the Cape Parrot, Poicephalus robustus. With a wild population hovering at approximately 800 individuals, this relative of the Senegal and Meyer’s Parrot is Africa’s rarest Psittacine, and the most threatened bird in South Africa.

650 Years of Habitat Destruction

Temperate forest in Western Cape South AfricaThe Cape Parrot is limited in range to mountainous forests in South Africa (please see photo), a habitat that has been heavily logged for over 650 years. In addition to actual habitat loss, deforestation also limits the availability of the tree hollows. Rare even in intact forests, hollows are essential to Cape Parrot nesting success…the bird cannot adapt and utilize alternative nest sites. Cape Parrots have also been hunted as crop pests and illegally collected for the pet trade.

Disease Complicates Conservation Efforts

But it is disease that may finally finish-off this beautiful, little-studied bird. Just as an unprecedented fungal epidemic is now causing amphibian extinctions worldwide, Cape Parrots are being decimated by a disease that seems not to have been a major threat in the past.

Over the past 5 years, increasing numbers of Cape Parrots have been succumbing to Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD). Long known in both wild and captive populations of many species, PBFD has never affected so many individuals, and to such a degree, as now. In one study along the southern edge of their range, 100% of the Cape Parrots sampled tested positive. Ornithologists fear that some environmental factor is worsening the disease’s effects or increasing its ability to spread.

Food May Hold Survival Key

Aided by funding from the National Geographic Society, The Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology has launched the Cape Parrot Project. The effort is distinguished by its broad scope and, I believe, should be used as a template for others.

Researchers noticed that birds undergoing treatment for PBFD quickly began to put on weight and recover when they were fed Yellowwood Tree fruit. Subsequent lab tests confirmed that Yellowwood Tree fruit contains compounds that kill a variety of microbes. Yellowwood Trees are now scarce in the Cape Parrot’s range; a lack of this formerly common food may, to some degree, account for the species’ new susceptibility to PBFD. DNA sequencing of the PBFD virus was also commenced, in order to determine if a recent mutation might be involved.

Other work is in progress. Twenty-five thousand native trees have been planted in Cape Parrot habitat, and 600 nest boxes have been erected. Local communities are paid to care for and monitor the new trees. Potentially toxic plants, introduced from the USA, Japan, Mexico and India, are being studied, and supplementary food sources have been planted. The rehabilitation of PBFD-infected parrots continues. It is hoped that a new population of disease-free Cape Parrots can be established in an area from which they disappeared over 150 years ago.


Further Reading

The Cape Parrot Project on Facebook

Understanding Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease

Video: African Gray Parrot Conservation (Nat Geo)

Rare Finches of the Impenetrable Forest

Keeping Senegal and other Poicephalus Parrots



About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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