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Meyer’s Parrots in the Okavango Delta

By Steve Boyes
Research Centre for African Parrot Conservation, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Photographs © Steve Boyes

The Okavango Delta in Botswana is one of the last remaining pristine wilderness areas in southern Africa - or the world for that matter - as, for the most part, the system has remained unmanaged, unfenced and free of human encroachment.  The delta is Africa’s greatest wetland wilderness and it provides for spiritual renewal and the opportunity to be immersed in something completely natural.

The system includes 18,000-square-kilometres of permanent swamp, floodplains, woodland, riverine forest, grassland, saltpans, islands, channels and water.  This patchwork mosaic of habitats and niches has provided for the rich diversity of plant, mammal, reptile, amphibian and bird species within the system, making this the jewel of Botswana’s wildlife resource.  There are over 530 bird species represented within the delta, including only one parrot, the Meyer’s Parrot.

The Meyer’s Parrot

The Meyer’s could be considered to be a parrotlet, at 21cm in length.  Most subspecies have a traverse band of bright yellow feathers across the top of the head.  The predominantly brown to dark grey parrot has striking yellow patches on the carpal joints and brilliant blue-green on the lower back, rump and on the lower breast down to the vent.

This parrot is fascinating in that it has the widest distributional range of any African parrots, and is the most abundant parrot in the atlas region.  The Meyer’s Parrot Project, based in the Okavango Delta, was initiated to facilitate learning and discovery about this little-known, but topical and important, African transcontinental parrot.

The Meyer’s had not previously been studied in the wild.  The project aimed at examining the ecology, taxonomy, the interaction of the two subspecies and possible intermediate in the Okavango Basin, and providing the tools for the development of a conservation plan for the future.

Observations in regard to feeding, breeding and nesting will be used to improve and support captive breeding programs, help Meyer’s Parrot owners more fully understand the requirements of their pets, and support a sustainable harvesting project in the villages surrounding the Okavango Delta.

Parrot conservation is twofold, whereby we have to support captive breeding for the pet market, while ensuring the sustainable harvesting of wild populations, and that the habitat and spatial requirements of the species are accommodated.   Just like what is happening to the Ruppel’s Parrot in Namibia, the Meyer’s Parrot is poised for exploitation where healthy populations exist.

In the Meyer’s Parrot lies the key for African parrot conservation, as the species shares habitat and sometimes niche with all the other African parrot species.  Understanding the Meyer’s Parrot and its relationship with these species will provide us with a complete image of what needs to be conserved for future generations.

The Meyer’s Parrot Project managed, between July 2004 and August 2005, to complete 241 census runs, census the feeding activity of 2,106 parrots in 990 sightings, and observe 15,399 minutes - or 63 min of feeding activity - per census run.  During the course of the census runs, observations were also made of nesting activity, roosting, drinking and vocalisations.

Over the 2005 breeding season (March – July), 11 active nest sites were monitored, nest hole dimensions measured and vocalisations recorded.  Intensive fieldwork was done over the 2007 breeding season, with the objective of a more comprehensive understanding of their breeding biology for application in captive breeding programs, and in the design and testing of artificial nest boxes for use in captivity and in the wild.  We are currently gathering funding for this portion of the project and the awareness program.


The Meyer’s Parrot was discovered by Rüppel in the Sudan in 1827, and later named by Cretzschmar in honour of Hofrat Dr med Bernhard Meyer (1767-1836), who practised medicine in Germany and was a respected botanist and ornithologist.  Since then, man’s relationship with the Meyer’s has developed from one of co-existence and balance, to a complex interaction of threat and persecution, and love and stewardship.

Due to population and agricultural encroachment in the last 150 years in Africa, the Meyer’s have been viewed as occasional crop pests, congregating on orange orchards and grain fields (eg sorghum and millet).  This has been viewed as a nuisance, and the parrots have been persecuted as a result.

In the Northern Province of South Africa, where the Meyer’s became a large-scale pest in the orange orchards, they were combated so effectively with traps and poisoning that they are now a very rare sighting.  The parrots have also been seen to congregate on grain fields around the Okavango Basin and Luangwa Valley, where, as a result, they are caught in nylon snares and mist nets, and offered for sale or clubbed to death.

On the other hand, the species has become very popular with aviculturalists around the world.  There are many breeders, especially across Europe and North America, who specialise in Poicephalus species, and some will even attempt to maintain pure specimens of the different Meyer’s Parrot subspecies.

The primary source for the parrots is live capture, as the Meyer’s does not breed well in captivity, and breeders need parrots with a traceable lineage for their breeding programs.  Increasing demand has resulted in relatively high exports of the bird to Europe and North America in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Significant numbers were traded from Tanzania, peaking at just under 12,000 in 1987, but declining to <1200 in 1990.

The extent and effect of current trade levels and persecution of the Meyer’s Parrot throughout its range is currently unknown, but whether the relationship is love or hate, both interactions result in capture or persecution in the wild.  Since the 1990’s, live capture has declined, as improved captive breeding techniques have supported higher success rates in breeding programs.

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