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:
A week since I got Truman, my new baby Cape Parrot, I have already had my first successful flight recall. Since he came to me not clipped - and never will be clipped - safely managing his flight is essential. He is not yet a good flier and does not know well how to get from point A to point B. I can use his ignorance to my advantage by catalyzing his learning of flight and shaping it in direction and purpose that suits me. The number one most important thing is that I want him to learn to fly to me. Then I'd like to teach him to fly to appropriate places in my apartment and not others.
I kept the two stands with the perches parallel to each other and within walking distance. I lured Truman to walk between the stands when offering treats. Originally I was putting food straight into his beak because he wasn't eating well on his own so I decided why not at least make him walk for it. As I spread the distance he would reach harder and harder to get across. But as soon as the gap got too large to step across, he would give up trying to cross. It amazed me because he could fly across the room but not across an 8" gap. I continued the walk across exercises with him.
On occasion he would slip as he crossed and reflexively would flap his wings to stabilize. This is the part of the exercise that actually teaches the parrot to use his wings to make it across the gap. I taught Kili to get across the gap in exactly the same way except that I targeted her across with a stick. Since Truman doesn't know the target behavior yet, I simply offered him goodies on the other end. I would rather teach him flight recall before target training (although target training is an excellent method for teaching recall) because I want him to have the longest practice of flight recall in his life. I want it to be his first and most practiced trick. If he forgets everything, I want flight recall to me to be the most remembered and reliable thing in his repertoire. This is why I'm skipping the other stuff for now and going straight to flight recall which is generally a more advanced behavior to teach. Also I want to use his quick baby age learning and willingness to make the most of teaching recall.
A cue is already starting to emerge although it is just temporary. I no longer have to show him the treat or toy that he will get for coming across. I can just tap and point to the perch I want him to go to and he flaps across to it. I am going to practice this just a little more but as soon as he is recalling to my hand I will only practice the recall cue specifically and stop all luring and temporary cues.
Managing Truman's motivation for this basic informal training was fairly simple. He is not on any sort of food or weight management. In fact, he seems to be more motivated by toys many times than food. He's a curious baby and likes to explore so anything that is of interest to him can be positively reinforcing for preempted behavior. However, since Truman has been eating rather poorly on his own in the cage (mostly from a fear of climbing down to where the bowls are), he's been pretty hungry and would gladly take pellets from my hand. I have not yet even developed any treats for him and just feed him any of bland or colored pellets and almonds.
Thus I put all of these skills together and produced the first preempted flight recall with Truman. It is true that he has flown to me prior, however, that was either because he himself wanted to or because I happened to be a convenient place to land. However, this time, by doing the pointing cue like I had used on the perch, I was able to call him to my hand specifically. I just turned the second training perch away and put my arm where it used to be and in the same manner as cuing him to the training perch, I cued him to my hand.
Now increasing distance is quite simple and merely a matter of practice. Now the important thing to work on is developing a solid recall cue and practicing to no ends.
I highly recommend these training stands to anyone that has a flighted parrot or wants to teach a fledgling (or if they let the feathers grow back) to fly and eventually flight recall. You can use the stands to build practice jumping across a gap and then eventually flying to your hand. The height is adjustable so that you can keep the parrot at a comfortable height for your training. Very soon I will be offering these stands at 2x for $99 + shipping so stay tuned.
This morning I headed out to the airport two hours in advance with plenty of time to spare to pick up my parrot. I was nervous about getting stuck in New York City rush hour traffic on the way there but luckily I got there in just over an hour. However, the extra time did not go to waste as it took nearly 40 minutes to find the cargo terminal from which I was supposed to pick up my parrot delivery.
The flight departed on time and even arrived early. An hour after its arrival the parrot carrier was already handed to me. Not bad considering I've often waited even longer just to get my luggage. I was handed the carrier and took the first peek at my new lifetime companion. The little guy was standing right at the edge by the door and got excited to get some human attention albeit from a complete stranger.
I carried him back to the car and drove directly home. Upon bringing the carrier inside, I strategized how to get the parrot out of the carrier without scaring it. I cut the wire ties which kept the door locked shut. I opened the carrier door and waited to see if little Truman would come out on his own or if I'd have to reach in for him. Surely enough within 30 seconds he made his own way out of the carrier and made his way straight for my hand. He helped himself onto my hand and sat there happily opening and closing his beak.
I knew that he'd be really thirsty after the long flight so I decided to use this as the first opportunity to teach him to drink from his water bottle. I pressed the ball of the straw up against his beak and when he realized that water flows out the end, he made a determined effort to get some water out. I didn't make him drink from it for long but I was impressed how quickly he figured out how to work the steel ball with his tongue to get the water to flow.
Truman walked around on the floor but decided to try a flight. He took off and was up to the ceiling near instantly but didn't know where to go. He bumped into the walls and ceiling a few times before crash landing. I fetched him and he stayed on my hand the rest of the time. I hand fed some pellets to him and he happily munched on them. I was surprised, however, that he neither knew what to do with an almond nor had the strength to crunch it when I shelled it for him.
After some play with his toys and checking out his tree, I put Truman into his new home to take a break. Within a few minutes he went for his water and then ate some pellets on his own.