On a recent trip to South Africa, I had the amazing opportunity to see Cape Parrots in the wild. I also got to meet Sanjo from the Cape Parrot project to learn more about the project and about the wild Cape Parrots.
The South African Cape Parrots are restricted to a fairly small habitat, the subtropical cloud forests of the eastern Cape. It is a dense wet forest environment with frequent mist and rainfall. The temperatures are cooler because of the 3,000ft+ elevation. It can be fairly warm in the summer but in winter time, these birds can be dealing with below freezing conditions.
This is why it should be no surprise that it was very difficult to get to see them. Not only did we have to travel to a fairly remote part of South Africa, that was only the beginning! Their population is very small and they are quite hard to find. They are considered quite large for an African Parrot, however, they are still a medium parrot at best when you compare with Cockatoos and Macaws. Green parrot, green trees, misty forest, and a broad range makes them a tremendous challenge to see. They travel for many miles from roosting to feeding sites so there is only a brief span of time when you can see them where they live. At night they are sleeping and in the day time they are spread out feeding. Only in the early hours of morning and at dusk can you catch a glimpse of them heading out and coming back.
With the help of Sanjo from the Cape Parrot Project, we set out early in the morning looking for the birds. We woke up and were out by 5AM to catch them as the sun was rising. Unfortunately a thick fog blanketed the entire area. We drove to higher ground to break out of the fog but still could not find them. We walked around several places known to be visited by Capes before we so much as heard a single call from them. Following the calls we saw a small group flying and followed them to the tree they finally landed in. We were lucky to be standing in enough of a clearing to even see where they went. Standing in the forest, it would be impossible to track them.
It was a joy to watch flocks of Capes flying and to listen to their familiar calls. The beautiful South African Cape Parrots are truly a sight to behold. But finding and seeing them is extremely tricky. Although they stay in groups, they aren't quite a "flock bird." The trees they land on are high and dense. They aren't ostentatious like Conures and other parakeets I've seen in the wild. Nor are they shy like Senegal Parrots and other small Poicephalus. They really do fall somewhere in between. They are certainly more shy and prone to spook than other types of parrots but at the same time, they are the most courageous of the Poicephalus genus.
What does that mean? Well, in regards to how close you can approach them or how predictable their movements are, that is how I rank them to be somewhere in between. It was not impossible to get footage of them but it was quite difficult. You have to be very patient, know where to look, and be even more patient still. It took us hours of observation across two days to get to spend just about 15 minutes in their majestic presence. And then, as quickly as they had come, they were gone.
It was so exciting to watch the resemblance of these wild Cape Parrot to Truman, my pet Cape Parrot at home. I got to see preening, calling, and playing behavior in the wild Capes that was essentially identical to the behavior that Truman exhibits. It was just so familiar even though I had never seen a South African Cape in person before.
What is the difference between Truman and the Cape Parrots in South Africa? Truman is a different subspecies. He is definitely not the Poicephalus robustus robustus subspecies. He is one of the other two and most likely the Brown-Necked subspecies (Poicephalus robustus fuscicollis) which is endemic to the semi-rainforests of Sierra Leone region of West Africa. You will notice in the pictures that Truman's subspecies is a bit larger while the South African Cape Parrots have an olive yellow head. Otherwise, they do look the same.
The South African Cape Parrots are extremely rare to find in aviculture or captivity. The ones you find as pets in the US and Europe are of the Brown-Necked Fuscicollis or Grey-Headed Suahelicus subspecies. They are more similar to each other than to the South African Robustus Cape Parrot. We encountered one Robustus Cape at a bird park in Johannesburg and heard that there are a few breeders of them in South Africa. I have yet to see or hear of any Robustus Capes outside of South Africa.
There has been research done by South African researchers and the Cape Parrot project to reclassify the South African Cape Parrot (P. r. r.) as a separate species from the two northern subspecies. They hope that by naming it a separate species, it could end up on the endangered species list and receive CITES protection. However, even as of 2016, Bird Life International and the IUCN Redlist, have not accepted there to be sufficient evidence to name them separate species. Heck, the differences between Timneh and Congo Greys or between Jardine's Parrot subspecies are far more significant than between the most distant Capes.
The biggest difference between South African Cape Parrots and the other two subspecies are not in their appearance but in their living habits. The South African Capes rely almost religiously on the yellowwood tree. They refuse to nest in anything but natural cavities of the yellowwood tree and they also rely on it for food. Not only do they eat the seeds of the fruit of the yellowwood tree, it has been discovered that properties of the yellowwood fruit help give these birds an immune system boost that helps them battle a beak and feather disease epidemic. Their survival depends on the yellowwood tree for fighting disease as well as for feeding and nesting.
Still, regardless of classification, science, politics, or what you call it, the fact that the South African Cape Parrot is critically endangered still stands. There are fewer than 2,000 known South African Parrot Parrots remaining. Deforestation of their peculiar habitat, widespread disease, and some remaining poaching is making their survival questionable. The Cape Parrot Project is performing research to learn more about these birds in order to focus best efforts on their protection. A main focus is replanting yellowwood forests to protect the Capes' natural habitat. The Cape Parrot project receives funding through donations to the Wild Bird Trust.
Here is an interview with Sanjo about Capes and the Cape Parrot Project along with my footage of Cape Parrots in the wild:
I recently returned from a voyage into the heart of east Africa. For over two weeks I traveled around the countries of Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia. In these travels I experienced many different places, people, animals, and birds. I would like to share a bit about each of these countries with you as well as a glimpse of what I saw through my videos. I did not see any Meyers Parrots or Red Bellied Parrots but I traveled through the ecosystems where they might be seen. I did see parakeets in Djibouti and share a lot of footage and stories about them. Thank you for reading and enjoy.
In Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia you can see the fossil remains of Lucy the famous Australopithecus afarensis. However, the bones on display are just a copy like in any other museum. The real ones are not publicly displayed for fear of theft. Unlike its surrounding neighbors, Ethiopia is predominantly Christian.
South Sudan is the world's newest nation, accepted into the UN in just 2011. The skies of the capital city of Juba are filled with Black Kites lazily circling about in thermal updrafts. Despite recent hardships, the markets are bustling with commerce and activity. The savannah woodlands of South Sudan are in the middle of the range of Meyer's Parrots, Poicephalus Meyeri. However, because I was visiting during the dry seasons, there was no opportunity to see them. I was told by local farmers that during the wet season they approach in large numbers and pillage the millet harvest.
Khartoum, Sudan's capital city, is located on the merge of the Blue Nile and White Nile. Despite skyscrapers and endless concrete, there's no hiding the fact that the city is located in a desert climate. Sand blows down the streets making you feel like you are located in a sandblasting cabinet. You'll be lucky to find the contours of your face in tact after spending any length of time outdoors. Sudan was the center of the Nubia, a powerful ancient empire that once even conquered Egypt.
Now Eritrea is something else. This little country, once a part of Ethiopia, is one of the world's last remaining totalitarian police states. This little nation took the remains of Ethiopia's coastline entirely away leaving Ethiopia with no access to the Red Sea. Asmara, Eritrea's capital, is a remnant of Italian colonial rule. With it's Art Deco laden boulevards, Fiats, and Cafe's it's not a wonder the city is known as Little Roma. Yet, since the country severed ties with most of its neighbors, it relies almost entirely on domestic commerce. There is very little import so the country is living almost as it did back when Italians lived in those central quarters. Donkeys and manual labor take place of machinery, scrap metal is meticulous reused, and cars are few and far in between. There's never a problem finding a parking spot but buses are packed full. A tank graveyard on the cities outskirts is a reminder of the long war with Ethiopia for independence. Massawa, the port city, to this days lays in ruins since the war some twenty years past.
Although Djibouti borders Eritrea, it was impossible to travel from one country to the next. It required a flight first to Yemen and then to Djibouti because of their severed relations. Unlike Eritrea, Djibouti has good relations with Ethiopia and is prospering on international commerce. Djibouti serves as one of the primary ports of import for Ethiopia. For this reason, it is occasionally possible to see diplomats and businessmen in this unlikely corner of Africa. Lake Assal is a salt water lake below sea level.
Now I have to tell you about who else was staying at the Sheraton hotel. My dad told me he saw a green parrot similar to Kili out the window. I told him he was dreaming, that there can't be Senegal Parrots in East Africa! I didn't believe him till I saw for myself. Except this was no Senegal Parrot. With a long tail and a red chin, it was immediately obvious that this was a Rose-Ringed Parakeet. And sure enough there it was sitting on the outside sill of our hotel window on the top floor. The reason he was there became obvious when I saw the gaping hole in the sill. I sat quietly watching and saw his mate emerge from their little nest. She stretched one wing at a time, dropped, a load, and shot off with the male to follow. They flew over to a nearby tree and got busy. I told them, "Cmon guys! Get a room!" so they did. They flew back over to the Sheraton hotel and went back in to lay eggs in the penthouse suite.
During the daytime, the parakeets were nowhere to be seen or heard. However, in the mornings and evenings they were out and about. I counted at least 3 pairs living in various parts of the hotel wall. Occasionally the parakeets would fly off in small groups to feed on neighboring mango trees but would shortly return to chill in the hotel top. I was thrilled to watch the birds interact with each other and their surroundings for a good length of time. They're shrill calls, green color, and flight patterns make them easily distinguishable from any other local parrot.
We crossed the border by land to neighboring Somaliland. Somaliland is still technically part of the nation of Somalia and is not recognized. However, Somaliland has its own government, currency, border control, and is run more like a nation than the rest of Somalia. Yet, Somaliland is not recognized by the rest of the world as the separate country that it is. The city of Zeila still displays war scars from the fight for independence from Somalia.
There are vast expanses of desert where short of a few camels and herders, there is nothing to be seen for hundreds of miles. Camels are occasionally brought to villages to drink well water and eventually are brought to Hargeisa to be sold in the famous camel market. There are more camels living in Somalia than people. They are used for transport and meat but are mainly exported to Saudi Arabia in exchange for cars and other necessities. Because of out of control inflation, Somaliland's currency is practically worthless. Instead of armored cars, money changers transport their bricks of paper currency by wheelbarrow. Cave paintings in Laas Gaal were only discovered recently and are considered to be nearly 10,000 years old.
The only African animals to be seen in all of Somalia were gathered in one place. The garbage dump! Marabous, Vultures, Spoonbills, Jackals, Hyenas, Baboons, and Warthogs, animals normally found in Africa's Savannahs, are confined to this toxic waste dump. It is the one place they are safe from human predation and food is plentiful. Remains of slaughtered goats, camels, and cows are dumped here and make for a feast to be remembered. Toxic wastepools of motor oils and chemicals form lagoons for water birds. This is a Somalia Safari:
Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, is the world's most dangerous city. A friend of mine exclaimed, "Mogadishu!? Why would you want to go there? If God wanted to give the world an enema, he'd start by sticking the hose in Mogadishu!"
Mogadishu has been war ravished for the last 20 years. The situation has just begun to stabilize and peace hangs by a thin thread. There is no value of human life, dignity, or compassion here. Young children are too busy shooting each other to bother learning to read or write so the literacy rate is under 20%. There is no economy to speak of except exporting a few bananas, most money comes from drugs, looting, ransoming, and piracy. Car bombs, IEDs, terrorists, street war run rampant. There are few places we could even get a glimpse of. The streets are perilous. If you want an idea of what hell looks like, this is it. This is Somalia.
The only Senegal Parrots I saw in Senegal were a pair of wild caughts for sale at the side of a road in the capital city of Dakar. As we were driving through heavy traffic, the seller of these parrots walked up to the car sticking the cage up to the window offering both of them with cage for 20 euros (approximately $30 USD).
Before reading/looking further I must warn you that images, videos, and descriptions are very graphic and you may well not want to see/read this. If seeing images of animals suffering is unbearable to you, stop here. You won't regret missing what I experienced.
People have been asking me why I did not buy them to keep or release. First of all, I was traveling on vacation with no interest in actually buying a parrot. Taking them out of the country may be problematic but bringing them into the US would be absolutely illegal. Buying the parrots to free them would first off encourage capture of more parrots for sale. Since the parrots were likely caged as such for a long time with no ability to exercise, they were most likely malnourished with atrophied muscles. They would not be able to evade predators or humans if freed and most likely eaten or captured for sale again.
As I explain in parrot training, it is important not to positively reinforce unwanted behavior. And in this case paying for the capture of wild parrots would simply encourage them to do more of this. For all of these reasons I did not do any of this and (besides recording) simply ignored the seller by not offering to pay. Those two parrots are doomed no matter what. They are doomed if they get sold, doomed if they aren't sold, and just as much if they are released. The best thing I can do is not to be a participant in this industry.
The seller was bargaining insistently trying to get us to buy them so to ward him off we asked to see the documents for the parrots which immediately changed his desire to try to push us to buy.
During the trip I spotted wild caught Senegal Parrots and Rose Ringed Parakeets held captive on several further occasions including in a small aviary in a hotel garden. Some of the wildlife reserves had cages with confiscated wild caught parrots that they were rehabilitating for release back into the wild.
I visited the forests of Sierra Leone to which Cape Parrots (Poicephalus Robustus Fuscicollis) are endemic but did not have the chance to see any. The local people have different names for the parrots so it was difficult to explain. But when I showed a picture of Truman, rather than saying where to see them in the wild, they said you can find those for sale on the market from time to time. The Cape Parrots are definitely far less common than the Senegal Parrots. On the other hand, the Rose Ringed Parakeets seem quite plentiful.
During the last segment of my trip in Bomako Mali, I was taken to see the local parrot market. Scattered on the side of the street under cover of trees were about a dozen vendors and many cages. At least as many other kinds of local birds were offered as parrots. Parrots came in two varieties: Rose Ringed Parakeets (Psittacula krameri) and Senegal Parrots (Poicephalus Senegalus).
Atop a garbage pail was a small round cage housing nearly 20 parrots and parakeets. The condition of the cage was so crammed that some of the parrots had to cling to the cage bars or stand on top of other birds. The poor condition of the parrots was evident through plucked feathers, missing eyes, missing limbs, and weak stance. Tossed on the bottom of the cage amidst feces was chicken feed mainly consisting of corn. Despite their tragic lives, the Senegal Parrots still gave off that typical parrot curiosity and watched me as I approached.
Rose Ringed Parakeets were available in abundance and very cheap. The seller offered a pair of them for $15 including the cage. The Senegal Parrots were just a bit more expensive at $10 each. Most of the parrots were not captured in Bomako but brought in from Segou, Mali. How shocked the sellers would be to know that the parrots they are selling for $5-$10 a piece often carry a price tag of as much as $600 in the US. Of course there's no comparison; the American ones are carefully domestically bred and raised while those were snatched from the wild.
The market parrots were mostly being sold to local people (often as decorations for offices and hotels) but some to smugglers to be taken abroad. To show a parrot to perspective customers, the vendor opens a small door on the cage and reaches his arm in. The parrots immediately go into a frenzy and start jumping over each other to try to evade the approaching hand. Meanwhile he starts grabbing and pulling by their wings until they can no longer hold on and fall into his reach.
I alone cannot do anything about the situation. Buying, releasing, arguing, or anything else would not have solved anything. However, I feel that by sharing this with everyone, people may develop a differing view. Whether you travel to Africa or some other place with native parrots for sale, do not under any circumstances buy them (whether to keep or release). Discourage others from buying wlid caught parrots as well. Adopt parrots from rescues, other owners, or buy parrots from domestic breeders. Unfortunately there is little that can be done about the capture of wild caught parrots for sale to locals. However, as long as foreign trafficking of wild caught parrots ceases, the populations in most cases should be sustainable. It is not an easy problem to solve but it's easy not to be a part of it. And finally, just remember to take good care of your own birds and help out birds at rescues so that our descendants of those wild caught parrots can have a better life.