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| African Parrots
by Rosemary Low
During the past 20 years, parrot conservation has centred on South America, Indonesia and Australia. Africa was the forgotten continent. Little was and is known about the status of the 20 species which inhabit continental Africa. Then Professor Mike Perrin of the University of Natal, switched his attention from mammals to parrots. Last year he set up the Research Centre for African Parrot Conservation. This year he made a lecture tour of East Africa to inform ornithologists, universities and research institutes of the plight of Africa's parrots.
Several projects have been initiated during the past three years to study various species. Most of Africa's parrots are quite localised. Their numbers have declined greatly this century due to habitat destruction. An example is the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). The sub-species known as the nominate race is almost certainly a separate species, based on study of DNA and on behavior and appearance. Found only in South Africa, it has a very small range in the eastern Cape Province and the Transkei. Its habitat is yellow-wood forest (Podocarpus), most of which has been destroyed for agriculture. These parrots are almost totally dependent on yellow-woods, especially Podocarpus falcatus, as a food source. They also nest in these trees. Small flocks move between isolated remnants of forest. The latest population estimate, made this year, suggests that fewer than 1,500 birds remain in the wild population.
Work carried out by the late Olaf Wirminghaus on morphometrics, color and DNA indicate that all three forms are good species. The form suahelicus occurs north and east of the Drakensberg Mountains, primarily in lowland woodlands and fuscicollis is from the Gambia and southern Senegal to northern Ghana and Togo.
The South African Cape Parrot is extremely rare in captivity. There are a few pairs in South Africa; also at least five birds in Europe. The form suahelicus is well represented in aviculture. Fuscicollis is rarer, although in the Canary Islands, due to their proximity to western Africa, birds are breeding in two collections and some of the young have been exported to Europe. Unfortunately, few breeding successes of any form of robustus are occurring. They are not difficult birds to breed but many appear to take five years to start to do so, even although they are mature before then. All three forms are declining in the wild due to trapping and habitat loss; they deserve the attention of serious aviculturists. Too many breeders are not prepared to persevere with birds if they do not breed within a couple of years after purchase.
Identifying the sub-species can be difficult. The main confusion arises with suahelicus and fuscicollis. The head is more silvery grey in suahelicus and some birds have a dark patch on the shoulder. Overall size and beak size are the same. In young birds of both sub-species the head may be browner; it gradually becomes greyer. In adult fuscicollis the head is darker grey or brownish-grey. In some birds the feathers of the lower cheeks remain quite brownish. Some immature female fuscicollis have orange extending right over the crown. This is lost when they moult at about nine to 11 months.
The nominate race of the Cape Parrot is almost unknown in aviculture outside South Africa. The head colour is golden-brown and the head and beak are noticeably smaller.
Jardine's Parrot (Poicephalus gulielmi) comes from central and west Africa. It is locally common in the eastern part of the range, but uncommon in the west. There is very little information on its status and no study has yet been carried out. Jardine's Parrot is quite common in aviculture. Breeding successes have increased greatly in recent years, partly because of the demand for hand-reared birds, which make excellent pets.
With the growing interest in the Poicephalus Parrots and the availability of more sub-species in aviculture, it is vital that breeders are well informed about the identification of the birds they own. There is much confusion over identification of Jardine's Parrots (Poicephalus gulielmi). It was not until I visited South Africa last year that I saw all three sub-species for the first time and learned how they differ. Most written descriptions do not describe the key points. I hope that the following will help breeders to keep the sub-species pure.
However, identification is often not straightforward, partly because of the existence of the sub-species permistus, from Kenya, which is described as being intermediate between gulielmi and massaicus. Although not all authorities recognise this sub-species, being aware of its existence helps to explain some of the difficulties. Another factor to be considered is that full adult plumage may not be acquired until the age of about four years.
In South Africa the nominate race, P.gulielmi gulielmi, is known as the Black-winged Jardine's. Adult birds can be distinguished by the blacker wings than the other sub-species; only narrow margins are green. The orange on the forehead extends to the back of the crown. The bend of the wing and the edge of the wing, also the thighs, are orange. The beak is large; according to Forshaw (in Parrots of the World) the average length of the culmen is 34mm. In South Africa I was told that immature birds are difficult to identify until they are about one year old. By this age the black wing coloration is evident.
The sub-species massaicus lives in the cloud forest of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Two features aid identification: its overall lighter appearance and its small bill. The plumage is lighter green, with broad green edgings to the wing feathers, so that the upperparts appear mainly green. The feathers are green and brown — not brownish-black. Rump and upper tail coverts are more yellow-green. The green plumage may be tinged with blue. There is less orange in the plumage, and none at all on the bend of the wing in some specimens. The head is smaller and rounder. The average length of the exposed culmen is only 27.5mm, according to Forshaw. I was told in South Africa that massaicus may not show any orange on the forehead until the age of three or four years.
The sub-species fantiensis is the western-most form, from Liberia east to southern Ghana. It is known as the Lesser Jardine's among aviculturists in South Africa. Its total length is about 10in (25cm) or approximately 1in smaller than the other sub-species. But its beak is larger than that of massaicus. The area and depth of orange in the plumage tends to be variable; the orange on the forehead is not as extensive as in the nominate race. The feathers of the upperparts are black with broad dark green margins. This is the most common sub-species in aviculture. Incidentally, the colour of the skin surrounding the eye tends to be whitish in the nominate race and tinged with orange in fantiensis and massaicus. Note that immature birds have no orange in the plumage; the forehead is dusky-brown. Size is of little help in trying to identify them but bill size in relation to the head size may be helpful.
It is also worth noting that because of the nervous temperament of wild-caught Jardine's, over-preening of the head feathers by male and female is a common problem. If the feathers are consistently removed, the feathers which grow back in the plucked area may be orange. This could add to the confusion!
The Brown-headed Parrot (Poicephalus cryptoxanthus) has an extensive range along the eastern coast of southern Africa. It is very vulnerable to habitat loss and fragmentation as this area is a densely populated one with large towns, including Durban. A study is under way to determine its diet, breeding biology and nesting requirements. Although formerly common and widespread, the most basic information regarding its life in the wild was unknown. Stuart Taylor, from the University of Natal, is currently carrying out the field research. His belief is that the greatest threat to this species is habitat loss. In South Africa it is now only locally common and increasingly confined to protected areas, such as the Kruger National Park. It is no longer seen to the west of the Kruger, where it was common ten years ago. It may be extinct in much of the western extremes of its former range.
In his first year of studying Brown-headed Parrots, Stuart Taylor found that from January to April they feed on the fruits of the false mareola tree, then the true mareola, then the Kudu berry. These foods are high in carbohydrate. In March they start to eat higher protein foods, such as the green seeds of white seringa. They start to breed in May (equivalent to our autumn), when the staple diet is the seeds of the sjambock tree. When the young are independent, about four weeks after fledging, they change to a high carbohydrate diet again. They feed on the nectar of the coral tree and finish the year by eating figs.
Unfortunately, local people use the fruits of the true mareola tree to make jam and beer; they extract oil from the kernel of the fruit. The parrots are therefore regarded as competitors for this food source. Taylor believes that the sub-species zanzibaricus has been extinct for a number of years in the wild. It is not known whether any survive in captivity.
Although this species is not very colourful, it is well worth breeding. Hand-reared young make delightful pets.
The Niam-Niam Parrot (Poicephalus crassus) differs in appearance from the Brown-headed in having green, not yellow, under wing coverts, and the iris of the eye is red, not yellow. It is confined to a small area of central-western Africa and is a little known forest bird. There is no information on its status and it is unknown in aviculture.
The Senegal Parrot (Poicephalus senegalus) has always been the best known member of the genus and is the most numerous in the wild. They remain common in open woodland in the southern part of western Africa. In most areas they are very shy birds. Over the past few decades, hundreds of thousands have been trapped for export. For example, for 1997 the export quota from Senegal alone was 16,000 birds. This was in addition to 25,000 Ringneck Parrakeets. Now, more Senegal Parrots are bred in captivity than any African Parrots (excluding the lovebirds), except the Grey Parrot. The trade in this species is very cruel; the birds are badly treated and many die. Export to countries where aviculture is widespread is totally unnecessary. Unfortunately, it seems that there are numerous other countries, which are consumers only, and will import any parrot available. There is little or no breeding in these countries.
The nominate race and the sub-species mesotypus are most often seen in aviculture. P.s.mesotypus is lighter green, and the green extends further down the abdomen. The third sub-species is versteri which has orange on the abdomen. It is sometimes called the Red-bellied Senegal, a name which should be avoided because of confusion with the Red-bellied Parrot. There is quite wide variation in the colour of wild-caught birds. When making up pairs, pair birds of similar colour, if possible.
The Red-bellied Parrot (Poicephalus rufiventris) has a small range in Ethiopia and Somalia and north-eastern Tanzania. It inhabits arid and semi-arid lowlands, especially where baobab trees are present. Few ornithologists are working in Ethiopia due to the political situation; however, Per Ole Syvertsen of the University of Oslo advised me in February that it is still common in acacia savanna in Borana, but scarce in the central and northern parts of the Rift Valley. It is believed to be widespread in south-eastern Ethiopia. There is one sub-species, pallidus, which is said to be lighter in colour. The colour of the skin surrounding the eye may be black or lighter, according to the bird's exposure to sunlight.
Only since the early 1980s has trapping for export occurred. In some of the Gulf states, such as Bahrain, this species is available in pet shops for very low prices, which suggests that there might be a big export trade. It is not known whether this trade has yet had an impact on its numbers.
In Britain, wild-caught birds are no longer available and its popularity has increased greatly in recent years. Breeding successes are now common. Hand-reared birds learn to talk and can make wonderful pets.
Endemic to Ethiopia, the Yellow-faced Parrot (Poicephalus flavifrons) has a restricted range in the upland forests. Mr Syvertsen informed me that it is uncommon in the Rift Valley but easily located near Shasamene. He has seen it in several locations, but not near Addis Ababa. It appears to be more common in the south-western forests. It is believed that it has declined over parts of its range since the late 1960s, probably in conjunction with reduction in highland forest cover. This parrot is unknown in aviculture, although a pair is said to have been kept in England about 60 years ago.
Meyer's (Poicephalus meyeri) has the most extensive range of any African parrot, being found over much of the southern half of Africa. However, extensive destruction of its habitat has occurred, so that now it is scarce or rare in parts of its range. Next to the Senegal, this has always been the best known member of the genus in aviculture. Several of the six sub-species are available and breeding successes are numerous.
Hybridising of sub-species is unfortunately occurring. Owners of this species must make an effort to identify them if sub-species are to be maintained in aviculture. Most of the birds in aviculture are probably saturatus and matschiei or hybrids between the two. It would be too tedious to try to describe all six sub-species here. Two good reference sources are the newsletter of the Poicephalus Section of the Parrot Society (UK), vol. 2 number 1, where photographs of skins of all sub-species appear, and Parrots of the World by Forshaw.
Ruppell's Parrot (Poicephalus rueppellii) has a small range in coastal south-western Africa, in Namibia and the adjoining south-western part of Angola. It is nomadic to a degree, appearing regularly in certain places. It is therefore difficult to estimate its population, but this is believed to be as small as 9,000 birds. There is growing concern about its conservation. Illegal trapping has been blamed for the declining flock sizes in very recent years. Much of its range is covered in farmland. A three-year project to study Ruppell's Parrot commenced last year, but its continuation is dependent on sufficient funding. Research in the field is being carried sout by Dr Richard Selman and Margaret Hunter of the University of Natal. At the end of their first year of study they had recorded substantial predation by mammals and reptiles, as well as attempted predation by raptors at water holes during the dry season. A communal roost was found, possibly the first ever recorded. Sixteen tree cavity nests were located, but nesting was recorded at only 11 of these. Ruppell's showed no interest in plank nest-boxes provided for them, so natural logs were erected in two localities. Fortunately, in Namibia, some tree species used by Ruppell's are already protected by law. One of the main problems in studying this species is its sparse distribution.
In recent years Ruppell's Parrot has started to become available in Europe. Some of these are legally imported birds, captive-bred in South Africa. Unfortunately, others are illegally exported wild-caught birds. Responsible aviculturists should not buy any bird which is not closed ringed, as illegal capture is a real threat to Ruppell's Parrots.
In the UK, Ron and Val Moat have been very successful in breeding this species. In 1995 they imported some captive-bred birds from South Africa. One pair hatched 12 young between January 1996 and April 1997. They reared all of them to independence. This shows that potentially Ruppell's is as prolific as the Senegal Parrot. Results with two pairs were as follows:
The Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) has a large range in central Africa. It is still common in some areas and found in large flocks. However, like all African parrots, its numbers are declining due to continuing deforestation. According to a recently published book, Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, the Grey is almost extinct in western Kenya. It was formerly common and widespread in the Kakamega and the Nandi forests. The most numerous and popular African parrot in aviculture, large numbers are bred every year for pets. Its popularity knows no bounds due to its great intelligence, exceptional powers of mimicry and quieter voice than most parrots.
Finally, the smallest African Parrots are the lovebirds of the genus Agapornis. Because some species are so common and free-breeding in aviculture, it is difficult to realise that,like the larger species, lovebirds are also declining. The Black-cheeked Lovebird (A.nigrigenis) is Africa's most localised parrot, occurring only in south-western Zambia. It inhabits mopane (Colophospermum mopane) woodland and feeds on the seeds of these trees. Dry season desiccation due to climate change and deforestation has caused a dramatic decline in its numbers. It must live near water and some rivers which once flowed all year are now seasonal. Another factor which may have contributed to the decline is that crops of sorghum and millet have been reduced in favour of maize. Research is to be carried out to assess its distribution, abundance and habitat requirements. The study will start as soon as funds are available.
Although this lovebird can prove very free-breeding in captivity, the success rate generally is low. Many breeders do not know that it is endangered; it deserves more serious attention.
The Abyssinian or Black-winged Lovebird (Agapornis taranta) is found in the highlands of Ethiopia, generally only in small flocks. It is fairly common around Addis Ababa and may be seen in gardens in the town, according to Per Ole Syvertsen. It is much more common than the Yellowfaced Parrot in the Rift Valley and is also numerous around the Bale Mountains national park. Mr Syvertsen has often seen these lovebirds offered for sale along the road between Addis Ababa and Debre Zeit. They are popular cage birds with expatriates in the town.
Fischer's Lovebird (A.fischeri) also has a small range, being confined to Tanzania and a very small area of coastal Kenya. The Red-faced Lovebird (Agapornis pullaria) has also suffered a serious decline in Kenya. It can still be found in bush grassland and cultivation along the Uganda-Kenya border. Although the other lovebirds have larger ranges, they may also be threatened by habitat destruction and desiccation.
All the species mentioned could be or already have been threatened by over-trapping. Most of the African countries which export parrots are members of CITES and some have adopted trade regulations. However, these have not been effective. New legislation is currently being drawn up in South Africa which, it is hoped, will protect some African parrots more effectively from local and international trade.
Recently a lot has been written about the care and breeding of African Parrots. As already mentioned, hand-reared Poicephalus make wonderful pets. For more information on this aspect, refer to my article in the February 1997 issue of Bird Talk.
One reason for the increased popularity of Poicephalus parrots is that breeding aviaries and cages can be smaller than for pairs of most parrots which are bred for the pet market. Although I would suggest a minimum length of 10ft (3m), many are reared in smaller cages. They can also be bred with great success in an indoor birdroom.
The normal clutch size is three or four. Incubation is carried out by the female alone and lasts for 27 to 28 days. However, the first egg in the clutch may not hatch until 30 days after it was laid, suggesting that incubation does not commence with the first egg, even although the female is in the nest. I have recorded as long as 32 days for the first egg in Cape Parrots. Newly hatched chicks weigh from 6g in the smaller species, up to 12g in the Cape Parrot. They are covered in dense white down. Chicks are ringed at about 17 days. By this age the first down has been lost. At three weeks the thick, white second down starts to grow.
The smaller species spend nine to ten weeks in the nest. The period varies according to circumstances, such as diet and temperature, but is nearer to ten weeks, in my experience. However, the Moats' Ruppell's Parrots, housed in quite small indoor cages, leave the nest between seven and eight weeks. Possibly in such a secluded environment they are more likely to fledge early. The larger species spend ten or even 11 weeks in the nest. Whether parent-reared or hand-reared, they attain independence at between 80 and 90 days. At this age males usually weigh slightly more than females.
In the sexually dimorphic species, young cannot be sexed in nest feather. In the Red-bellied Parrot the males usually have the breast bright orange; in females the breast color varies from a tinge of orange to bright orange. Both sexes may also have orange on the forehead. In Ruppell's the young resemble the female. If rump feathers are pulled after the young are 12 weeks old, the sex can be be determined by the color of the new feathers. These are blue in the female. In the Cape Parrot the young resemble the female, that is, the forehead is orange. At the first moult, by about ten months, males lose this color.
Poicephalus are usually good parents. Most problems arise either from low temperatures to which winter-breeding birds are exposed in outside aviaries, or from the parents' habit of plucking their young. This is common in many species of parrot which have a nervous temperament. Another problem associated with winter breeding or indoor breeding, is rickets. Vitamin D or sunshine is essential to enable birds to absorb calcium. The use of a supplement which contains calcium and Vitamin D is essential. If you doubt that sprinkling this on the softfood or fruit is effective when chicks are in the nest, mix the powdered supplement with a little water and administer it straight into the chick's mouth, using a small syringe. Do this a couple of times a week until the chicks are too difficult to handle.
Poicephalus and Greys should be offered pellets, or seed, plus a lot of fruits and vegetables. The small Poicephalus are fairly easy to convert to a pelleted diet. If Greys will not convert, bear in mind that the oil in sunflower seed inhibits the absorption of calcium. Thus chicks fed a lot of sunflower are more susceptible to rickets. Here is a suggestion for a nutritious and colorful mixture. Soak beans, such as butter, haricot, gorbanzo and mung beans, overnight, with maize (corn), then wash well. Cover with water in a saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes. Do not cook longer than ten minutes. Drain and keep enough for the day. Freeze the remainder for the rest of the week. To the cooked mixture add supermarket packs of mixed frozen vegetables containing peas, sweet corn, chopped green beans and diced carrots. Thaw and rinse before use. A few sunflower seeds can be added if desired. All kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables can be offered in season. Favourites are whole green beans, pomegranates and hawthorn berries.
These days more Greys than any other African parrots are reared as pets. A hand-reared Grey can make the most wonderful companion — and, of course — can be a superb mimic. Unfortunately, many people who buy such birds have problems with them. This is not the bird's fault but the owner's. He or she fails to realise the importance of discipline. Greys are extremely intelligent birds. If they do not receive the necessary guidance from an early age, they will try to dominate their owner. Like a teenage child who has never been disciplined, the bird will be out of control and the pleasure in owning it will fade. I am sure that Sally Blanchard will be discussing this aspect — so owners of Greys and other young parrots should listen very carefully.
On the subject of breeding Greys, it should be said that some aviculturists have great success. Others have literally dozens of pairs set up, yet produce no more young than a good breeder with four or five pairs. It should be common knowledge by now that Greys must be visually separated from other pairs of their own species when they are breeding. The success rate is very low where there is not sufficient privacy.
Nest inspection can be difficult with Greys because the female may refuse to move off the eggs or chicks. An L-shaped nest-box is best because the female can move away. Also, if the male enters the box there is plenty of space for him and he will not drop down near the eggs or young. The inspection door should be in the back if the nest is inspected from outside the aviary or in the front if it in inspected from inside. Large pieces of pine (or any suitable wood which is not too hard) should be screwed inside the box for the pair to gnaw. This is not only a stimulus as it is equivalent to nest excavation, but it lengthens the life of the nest-box.
The other point which should be emphasised is their need for calcium. Many Greys suffer from hypocalcaemia - seizures due to low blood-calcium levels. Also, many Grey chicks, hand-reared and parent-reared, are crippled by a calcium deficiency. They may suffer multiple fractures of legs and wings if this happens. It can be corrected with extra calcium supplementation if treated no later than four or five weeks of age. Calcium injections are the most effective form of treatment, so a vet should be consulted.
Because of the declining status of African parrots in the wild, it is very important that avicultural stocks are used to the best advantage now. A good gene pool is essential, thus every effort must be made to breed from the wild-caught birds which are in our collections now. And a number of young should be parent-reared for future breeding purposes. This is because hand-reared males are difficult or impossible to breed from. Breeders should be working for the long-term survival of African parrots in aviculture.
Last year the World Parrot Trust set up a branch in Africa. Donations to enable research to continue or enquiries about the Research Centre for African Parrot Conservation should be addressed to: Prof. Mike Perrin, University of Natal, Faculty of Zoology, Private Bag X01, Scottsville, Pietermaritzberg, 3209 South Africa.