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Growing up with Cape Parrots

By Craig Symes
of the School of Animal, Plant & Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Photographs © Craig Symes

Centocow, a remote Catholic mission station in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, was founded in 1888, when Abbot Francis Pfanner purchased a small farm on the western bank of the Umzimkulu River. It was not far from here, on a farm on the opposite bank, near Creighton, that I grew up. On the farm, Menin - named after Menin Gate near Ypres, where two great-great-uncles fell - I spent most of my childhood years, and in the spirit of a farmboy, gained an appreciation of the flora and fauna that surrounded me.

In the early years of the mission, Trappist monks had developed a flourishing station, with vineyards, orchards and mills. However, later, during the oppressive years of the South African nationalist government, much of this infrastructure collapsed.

During the early years in which the mission flourished, it might not have been long before the fruit of the orchards began attracting birds, especially the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) which, by all accounts, occurred in vast numbers in the forests of the area. Hlabeni, Gxalingene, Nxumeni, Hoha and Underbush, some of the larger forests in the region, were important sources of timber for early colonists, and of particular importance for building were the large podocarps.

Three Podocarpus species confined to forests in the region - large canopy and canopy emergent trees - are an important floral component of these forests which provide an important food source and nesting sites for Cape Parrots. They are long lived, and in periods of low forest food availability, easily accessible apricot and peach orchards may have been a healthy attraction outside of the forests, despite the risks involved. Large quantities of timber were removed from these forests, and one of the reasons for low numbers of parrots today may be linked to the logging events of the past.

My grandfather began farming at Menin in the late 1920s, and remembered with fondness the flocks of hundreds of Cape Parrots flying overhead in the early morning and late afternoon on long distance feeding forays. Impacts of humans may have been quite low in those early years, but the threat to parrots was great.

As a young boy, my father was offered a small reward by the Trappist monks for each “pest” parrot he shot. In a system that relied on growing one’s own food, they were simply a nuisance. He recalled on one day a large pile of dead parrots that had been killed, estimated to number at least 100 birds. It is these long term effects, where impacts are felt only years later, that quite possibly have affected Cape Parrot numbers. Today, flocks of 30-plus birds are seldom encountered, and in many areas where impacts have been particularly great, parrots are now locally extinct.

My grandfather had no personal vendetta against the fruit eating parrots, although he was known as someone who could catch a bird should anyone want one. It was via his method of catching birds that one landed up, for over 20 years, as a family pet. Pol, as she was affectionately known, was apparently quite a character. She was adept at chewing anything left out, and once made fast work of a visitor’s felt hat left on the hat stand. During cold winter nights, she would seek warmer parts of the house by creeping beneath the hot bath.

The demand for parrots in the avicultural trade has always been great and it is surprising that, considering the low numbers of Cape Parrots in captivity today, numbers of wild birds are so low. Many consider them hard to breed, so numbers may simply have dwindled. Or maybe it was never so that large numbers found their way into the avicultural market. Maybe it is simply that numerous other impact factors have reduced wild numbers.

It was a family relationship with parrots that built my association with parrot conservation. In the 1980s, a local resident had brought my grandfather an injured Cape Parrot. My grandfather was getting old and did not want the task of looking after it. That was when he offered it to me, and it was how I eventually came to meet Olaf Wirminghaus, a PhD student at the University of Natal. Olaf had started studying parrots in the area, and was attracted to the ease with which birds could be observed while they fed on the fruit of the exotic syringa (Melia azaderach) near Centocow hospital.

Olaf offered me a research assistant position. I was studying part-time and the job suited me well, but it was a strange turn of fate which later led me to return with him to the very same Hlabeni forest that I knew so well. For a year I helped Olaf with monthly data collection at what is probably still one of the finest Cape Parrot observation sites in the country. Olaf’s life was, unfortunately, cut short by a malignant brain tumour, and together with his wife, Prof Colleen Downs, I faced the task of accumulating and synthesizing a vast amount of recorded data into something that made sense.

By publishing a number of scientific papers, we began the process of highlighting the plight of the Cape Parrot. A vast amount of data was collected, which has provided an insight into the biology of this iconic forest species. Work is still ongoing, particularly conservation efforts focussed at protecting the Cape Parrot and its habitat.

After completing work on the Cape Parrot, I worked on a study of the closely related Greyheaded Parrot (P. fuscicollis suahelicus), a woodland specialist with a wider distribution, from northern South Africa to south Central Africa. In many respects, it is quite similar to its afromontane cousin, facing threats of habitat destruction, persecution and capture for the illegal pet trade.

Since the days of studying members of the Poicephalus robustus complex, I have travelled to numerous other parrot locations. Two species remain at the top of my list. The first is the Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) , an unassuming flightless night parrot brought back from the brink of extinction by the dedicated efforts of New Zealand Department of Conservation staff (see Papoušci 2005, 58(4): 224-229).

Volunteering on a supplementary feeding program on the isolated Codfish Island made me realise how vulnerable many species, especially those evolved on islands, are.

The second is the Palm Cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus), a species I had the privilege of seeing in the remote tropical forests of the Papua New Guinea Eastern Highlands. Whilst hiking up a riverbed late one afternoon, a pair of these birds flew overhead, settling and displaying in an emergent snag not far from me. Appreciating this moment was a unique experience that stressed to me the beauty of the world in which we live. Until that moment, I had been hiking for hours, the wet air hindering my progress, as I scrambled up the most precipitous of paths - a living tropical hell now eclipsed by this special moment.

The Cape Parrot is not alone in the threats it faces. Worldwide, parrots are threatened, and although aviculture, in some instances, assists in the recovery of birds on the brink of extinction, in many cases it does not. Only a small proportion of all birds caught in the wild survive. In an overcrowded world, maybe the time is long overdue to make a stand against the threats facing much of our remaining wilderness.

For more information on Centocow see: www.centocowmission.org

This article first appeared in Papousči magazine

Craig Symes has had an interest in birds for as long as he can remember. Growing up on a farm near Creighton, in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands of South Africa, he was always close to nature, and as time passed, that interest became academic. The farm was close to a large mistbelt forest where the call of Cape Parrots was a common sound to his ear, with large flocks visiting the family’s orchards.

During his undergraduate studies, Craig worked as a research assistant to a PhD student at the University of Natal, Olaf Wirminghaus. After Olaf’s untimely death, Craig assisted Olaf’s wife, Prof Colleen Downs, with the continuation of his work on Cape Parrots - still a strong front in the work to conserve and highlight the plight of this threatened parrot species.

After completing his undergraduate studies, Craig began a field study of the closely related Grey-headed Parrot, firstly in south-eastern Zimbabwe, and later in the north-eastern region of South Africa. This, together with a number of other studies on African parrots, increased his knowledge of this threatened group of birds on the African continent, and much of the work undertaken is summarised in a soon to be published book by Prof Mike Perrin, supervisor and co-ordinator of many of these projects.

Having completed his MSc, Craig travelled to Papua New Guinea, conducting a study on the effects of homegarden practices on bird communities in the Eastern Highlands, of which parrots form an important group. There he had the opportunity to view Palm Cockatoos and, for the first time, record geophagy in the species.

Craig has also volunteered on the Kakapo feedout programme in New Zealand, experiencing the sight of these enigmatic parrots in the wild.

Currently, Craig is a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and is continuing his research on birds. He would like to continue work on parrots, and is investigating opportunities (and trying to source funding) to conduct a study in the region of the country where Cape Parrot and Grey-headed Parrots are thought to overlap. This is currently a topic of debate in the Cape Parrot/Grey-headed Parrot split.

Editor’s Note: Prof Mike Perrin will be one of the speakers at the Parrots International Symposium in San Diego between 13th and 15th May. His subjects will be The Diversity of Parrots of Africa, Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands and “Ecology and Conservation Biology of the Endangered Cape Parrot, (Poicephalus robustus)”.

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