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:
Ginger's Parrots Rescue, a 501c3 Rescue based in Arizona, is really innovative when it comes to bird rescue. It is the first of its kind. Ginger's Parrots Rescue specializes in Senegal Parrots and Cockatiels. By being a species oriented rescue, Ginger's is able to put a greater amount of expertise and knowledge into rescuing, rehabilitating, and adopting out these parrots.
The Birdie Bus is the newest innovation of Ginger's Parrots Rescue. The bus allows the rescue to go mobile and cruise around the Phoenix area to search for potential adopters for the birds in need. The bus can transport many (but not all) of the rescue's birds at once so that the public can learn about parrots and consider adopting one. Ginger takes the bus to PetSmart adoption days to offer a bird adoption in addition to cat/dog adoptions normally performed inside.
The Birdie Bus itself is really cool. It has 4 different doors so that the bird can get an outside experience in safety. The side and rear door open exposing the bird cages to the outside. Viewers can see and interact with the birds while the cages are securely locked inside the bus. There is also plenty of capacity for moving a tent, tables, chairs, and other items needed at rescue outings.
I went down to Phoenix in November to help Ginger with the Birdie Bus unveiling event. Bird owners from the local parrot community stopped by to show support and people looking to adopt or volunteer came by as well.
Three purposes are served by the Birdie Bus. The first is to get birds out of the rescue for socialization and fresh air. Even if a bus outing does not result in adoptions that day, it is still a victory for the birds to gain experience being out of the rescue and seeing new people. The second purpose is to help the birds find adopters. This is a chance for the birds to meet people and people to meet the birds. Folks going shopping who may have always wanted a parrot have the opportunity to realize that bird adoptions are available! The third goal is to solicit support for the rescue project through donations and volunteers. The bus is fueled not only by gas money but also through a lot of help. The bus does a good job at attracting existing bird owners out of curiosity. They aren't always the best candidates for more birds if they are at their capacity, but having experienced bird owners volunteering is also a big help to the rescue.
There are several ways you can help the Birdie Bus project. The best way is adopting a parrot from Ginger's Parrots Rescue. If you are anywhere near Phoenix and looking for a Senegal Parrot or Cockatiel, this is the place to adopt! Also, Ginger can always use help from local volunteers. But just because you're not adopting or don't live near Arizona, doesn't mean you can't help. The bus needs corporate sponsors, donors, and social media support. If you can send some money, the bus is in need of repairs, maintenance, upgrade, and gas. The rescue is non-profit and depends entirely on donations. Your support will help the rescue get these birds seen by the public and promote the concept of adoption. Finally, even if you don't have any money to spare, you can help by spreading the word. As more people hear about the rescue and the Birdie Bus project, they may choose to adopt, donate, volunteer, or spread the word and the Bus can drive on! Thanks for your help.
Here is a video of the birds going for a ride on the Birdie Bus:
And this is a video of the Birdie Bus unveiling event:
Happy Thanksgiving! In the spirit of giving thanks, I would like to announce Ginger's Parrots the Movie. It's about Ginger and the Cockatiels and Senegals in her rescue. This is a great time to show your appreciation for the work that she does with the birds and for raising the bar for the concept of parrot rescue.
Please make a donation to the 501c3 rescue to support the birds and get a free copy of the Ginger's Parrots DVD. It's a 76 minute movie about the day in the life of this small private rescue. Follow Ginger as she takes care of the Senegals, Cockatiels, and other animals that she rescues. See how much goes into giving these creatures the high quality care they deserve. Check out the trailer and please make a donation from the rescue's page to get your free DVD.
For the last few weeks I have been traveling through Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan with my dad. The purpose of the trip was to visit and learn in greater depth about these countries.
We ventured to Iraq by way of Dubai. Dubai is a bustling megalopolis erected in the middle of a lifeless desert. Despite lavish extravagance and super modernness, Dubai is fake and uninteresting. Dubai is a hodgepodge of Las Vegas and Disney World, a Mecca of PG-13 entertainment in the center of the middle-east. Attractions in Dubai all seem artificially created to impress tourists while having nothing to do with the country itself.
Despite having a visa to enter Iraq, the immigration process was extremely chaotic. Passport control would reject everyone and make them go get a “visa check” for no reason and this took over an hour and a half. Iraq is not an easy country to come to nor leave.
Starting in Basara we worked our way north toward Baghdad. Nasiriya is home to Ur, the first known capital of a civilized state, the Shumers. A pyramid like structure with multiple levels called a Zikkurat was an ancient place of moon worship. Nearby, the ancient ruins of a once bustling city where it is believed that Abraham once lived.
Much of the violence in Iraq is between Shiites and Sunnis. The dividing difference is pretty much that Shiites believe Ali and his descendents have a direct bloodline to the prophet Mohammed while Sunnis dismiss this. An untold number of deaths have been instilled over this division. The city of Najaf is where Ali is thought to have been murdered and buried. A very holy shrine with Ali's tomb is the landmark Shiite pilgrims from all over Iraq and Iran come to visit. Caskets are carried through about every three minutes. This is not surprising because the worlds largest cemetery is located across the street. Shiite Muslims are honored to be buried near their favorite Saint.
Iraq is a very historic country with fascinating history both old and new. The very first agrarian human civilization formed in the golden crescent of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates. This is now Iraq! On top of ancient history, a lot of Islamic history took place in Iraq millenia later.
The world famous ruins of ancient Babylon are located in the center of Iraq. The original gates of Babylon were removed for exhibit in Germany but a replica arch towered marking the entrance. Unfortunately during the reign of Saddam Hussein, he envisioned to turn Babylon into a personal amusement park, the precious archaeological ruins were recklessly restored. The real ancient ruins were buried in concrete and modern construction above. However, not the entire site is restored in this way and it is possible to see what the actual well-preserved ruins look like.
A palace of the ousted fascist dictator sits on a hill overlooking Babylon. We were free to walk Babylon and Saddam's palace. There are no restrictions of where you can walk, what you can touch, or for that matter take. This is one of the most massive tourist attractions in the world that is entirely void of tourists.
The lack of tourists in Iraq does not come as a surprise. The country is havoced by security concerns and plagues by terrorist bombings. Security check points are very frequent. Hours are lost to prove innocence at these points while bombings seem to persist regardless. To enter the holy shrines in Karbala, you have to go through more security checks and gropings than you do to board an airplane in other parts of the world.
In the capital city of Baghdad, it is nearly impossible to see anything. Buildings of any importance are hidden away behind cement barricades and endless checkpoints. In an empty square in the middle of Baghdad stands a pillar where the famous toppling of Saddam's statue – and for that matter reign – was toppled by the people of Iraq with the help of the US military.
The Friday morning bird market in Baghdad may be the world's biggest bird mart. I have never encountered the sale of so many birds in the same location anywhere else in the world. After a frisk search by ak47 armed policemen, we entered the blocked off street with the bustle of the New York Stock Exchange and the shrill calls of feathered commodities. While pigeons, mynahs, finches, and fowl dominated the scene, it was impossible to deny the presence of countless psittacines.
An African Grey Parrot growled a death shriek as a seller yanked it out of the cage to show prospective customers. For about $400 an African Grey can be purchased along with a budgie cage that it will most likely be kept in till it succumbs. Ring-necked parakeets, cockatiels, and a handful of Amazons were also available. Most surprised I was to come across several pairs of Jardine's Parrots for sale. I asked the seller what kind they were to which he said “brown-headed Amazon parrot” although I could not mistake Poicephalus. The Jardine's parrots appeared most sickly of all birds sold at the market, laying on the bottoms of feces laiden cages.
Budgerigars were abundant in cages by the hundred. Seed is sold out in the open. The push and shove of the market marks an unbelievable demand for birds in a country that was until recently war torn. I am glad that people are turning to peaceful past times but the conditions are deplorable. I hope that better care of companion parrots can be learned by Iraqi people so that they may enjoy the thrill of parrot ownership without the animal needing to suffer.
We also visited the Baghdad zoo. This was a place suited as much for people watching as for animals. It turned out that the zoo and surrounding amusement park is the go-to place for Iraqis on a Friday afternoon. One aviary houses a hodge podge of small parrot species from Cockatiel to Senegal Parrots. Another aviary mixed Blue and Gold Macaws with Green-Winged Macaws. The red macaws got in a fight with the blue ones. When I was asked why they were fighting, I replied "for the same reasons that Sunnis and Shiites fight."
Around Iraq it was very difficult to take photos of virtually anything. Photography of security checkpoints or soldiers is very strictly prohibited and just about any direction you look there is some kind of security. To get onto the plane in Baghdad, a total of eleven security checks was required. Cars are not even allowed within miles of the airport. You are required to transfer and pay for an airport approved car which is then checked three times before entering the airport grounds. At each checkpoint everyone must disembark while bomb sniffing dogs patrol and hoods are opened. Security at Kennedy airport is a breeze by comparison.
Erbil is the capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. The Kurds are not Arabs and speak their own Kurdish language. They were persecuted by Saddam Hussein and remain skeptical of the new Iraqi government. Yet, Erbil is one of the richest and safest cities of Iraq because of Kurdish trade with Turkey.
In Kirkuk we encountered another small bird market consisting of small shops. I was surprised to see crammed cages full of Starlings. I have no idea what they could be used for and if anyone has a clue, let me know. Again some parakeets and budgerigars were being sold. This was a tiny bird market compared to the one in Baghdad but it still shows how popular birds are throughout the country.
We made an overland crossing from Iraq to Iran which took many hours. The complexity of crossing this border was only comparable to some of the most troublesome of African countries. The border agents had never encountered foreign travelers making their way through these parts and simply did not know what to do. They copied everything from passports and questioned us about everything just to be sure they were doing things correctly. The adventure continues in Iran.
I flew by airline to Phoenix, Arizona for a few days to help my favorite rescue, Ginger's Parrots. Although not new on the scene, the rescue recently incorporated and acquired 501c3 status. On Saturday we held a Grand Opening event for Ginger's rescue to celebrate making everything official and to draw attention to the organization.
Ginger's Parrots is a new kind of rescue specializing only in certain species of parrots and with a different approach. Most rescues inevitably become overfilled with parrots as the number of unwanted birds only grows while the birds live long. So instead of focusing on quantity, Ginger focuses on quality instead. Running the small rescue out of her own home, Ginger works individually with the parrots to prepare them for pet life. Rather than trying to get the birds adopted to anyone that will take them, her focus is to make the birds as good or better than baby parrots that can be bought at stores. If the birds are good, they have a much better shot at staying in the same home than in the condition they were brought to the rescue.
The Grand Opening Event brought a nice turn out and collection of donations. I offered a talk on my well-behaved parrot approach as well as a harness training demonstration. During the demonstration with parrots from the rescue I was able to demonstrate the harness desensitization process with visible progress. One of the Senegals was doing so well that I challenged him all the way to voluntarily walking across the perch to sticking his head into the harness collar.
As the event continued, I signed copies of my book, the Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. The rescue event was a very suitable place for selling these books as Ginger applies the techniques I teach in the book on her rescue flock. Also she wrote the foreword to the book based on her success applying my methods to a whole lot of parrots.
I had already been to Ginger's rescue twice and conducted a lot of training work with the birds, setting in motion an approach that Ginger has continued. However, we have bold goals for these birds so there are further skills they could learn. This time, I set a goal of initiating harness training with the birds so that Ginger could take them out and socialize them with people more frequently. Considering the novel no-clipping policy at the rescue, outdoor safety can only be assured with a harness or carrier. The trouble with a carrier is that it doesn't get hands on time with the birds so it narrows everything down to harness.
Since the main focus of the rescue is Senegal Parrots, aggression is the key target for rehabilitation. Ginger has noted a tremendous decline in biting while an increase in confidence with the birds since they've been flighted. Although the birds are capable of flying away, they generally don't. They merely use their awareness of being able to fly away to drive their confidence to cooperate without reverting to biting. One challenge, however, has been to keep the Senegals from fighting with each other as they are no longer geographically isolated because they can fly.
One of the solutions to reduce territorial issues with the parrots (while also simplifying cleaning) is to eliminate the long standing trees (which were arranged one per bird) in favor of a more communal approach. We wheeled all the tree stands out of the room and set out to make a full new set of hanging play gyms instead. I shipped ahead a bundle of NU Perch sticks I was donating for the bird room remodeling. On the spot we bought a few additional supplies and in 2 afternoons built 8 original play gyms and hung them from the ceiling. The all hanging approach eliminates base cleaning and makes a single cleaning of the floor a lot easier. It also provides an unstable platform that stimulates the birds to think more about getting around. It has been a blast watching the birds get around their stands because they tip and rotate in place as they climb. When one parrot flies off a stand, the remaining parrots end up going for a merry go round ride. The birds were so preoccupied with the new stands that they were too busy to get into fights with each other.
To ease the transition to the new stands, I played a targeting game with the birds to encourage them to climb around. Not only was I able to get them to climb to all ends of individual stands but between stands as well. One particular Senegal who has been really difficult to tame, really took to target training. In a single attempt, I was able to teach him to target. I'm sure he'd been watching the other Senegals and had it all figured out. He was just waiting for the opportunity to be involved as well. In no time I had him climbing between playgyms and flying to other perches for opportunities to target.
A different Senegal has recently regained his flight feathers but was unsure how to use them. He seemed very eager to target but just didn't fly for it. So I put together a set of Training Perches and began the perch to perch targeting method of teaching him to fly. Before the evening was over, the parrot that just didn't know how to fly across 4 inches, was flying 15 inches between stands with ease. An interesting thing is that he wasn't really doing it for the food. He was much more eager to fly across the gap to target (ultimately for a treat) than directly for a treat lure. Since the birds get to watch each other targeting, they see a particular excitement for the opportunity to play. The motivation they exhibited in targeting around the room far exceeded their hunger for treats motivation.
The morning after the event and upon the 5th harness training session, I got a harness entirely on the promising Senegal. Ginger and I took him to a Sunday morning parrot group that meets at a park with their birds. Although this was sooner than I would have liked to put a harness on a parrot in this stage of training, we went for it for lack of time. However, I knew this would not be a problem because this was a super tame bird that doesn't mind being held. He was not upset having the harness on (which is important to avoid trouble putting it on next time) but he did want to chew it. To reduce chewing, I grasped him in my hand, through a towel, or did things to occupy his attention as much as possible. Once at the park outing, he was preoccupied with the activity and paid less attention to the harness.
I taught Ginger about socializing the parrot to complete strangers and went from very controlled interactions to random interactions based on my 12 step socialization approach. The Senegal went from hand to hand, allowed people to scratch him, and didn't bite anyone. The outing was a tremendous success and we got a harness upon him with ease for another outing the following day.
Since that Senegal Parrot is extremely hand tame and enjoys laying in hands, I held onto him a lot to keep him from chewing the harness. Since the squeeze of my hand is more noticeable than the harness it took his mind off of it. I began playing a game with him and in no time taught him a new trick which is to allow me to toss him in my hand like a bean bag.
The event, bird room remodeling, training, and outings have been a tremendous success. Not only have we made big improvements but we also set things for continued improvement in the future. I signed countless books and talked to parrot owners. Although I hope these things were educational, most of all I hope that they were inspirational. Rather than expecting someone who came to one of my talks - or met us on an outing - to have the skills to succeed, I hope to leave them with the inspiration to continue their education and to set goals of what to achieve. I want people to realize that parrots young or old, friendly or mean, can all learn these basic pet skills. If I can teach these rescue parrots to wear a harness or target fly in such a short span of time, then surely any parrot owner can achieve these things with a little more patience.