Over the past week we got the exciting news that BirdLife South Africa has chosen the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) as Bird of the Year for 2023. I have a soft spot for all parrots. They are such intelligent birds! I had the pleasure of sharing my home for a while with a rainbow lorikeet, so I have first-hand experience of their brain-power.
According to BirdLife SA, the Cape Parrot is endemic to South Africa and occurs nowhere else in the world. This beautiful bird inhabits isolated patches of forest in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces. It is classified as Endangered and is estimated to have a very small remaining population of fewer than 1800 individuals.
Although not quite as flashy as South American parrots, the Cape Parrot is nevertheless a handsome bird. It has a striking green body and golden head and neck. Adults have small orange patches on the shoulders and leg feathers. Females additionally have a red patch above their beaks.
Photo: Female Cape Parrot
For bird enthusiasts they are a special sighting as, apart from being very rare they are quite shy, so they are most often seen as they fly away. These bright green “jewels of the forest” contribute significantly to avi-tourism revenue in rural areas where they occur.
As is the case with so many of our endangered species, the main reason for their decline is loss of habitat through human encroachment. This is especially true for the Cape Parrot.
The Cape Parrot is typically found in the inland Afromontane forests, much of which have been heavily affected by the logging of large hardwood trees like Yellowwoods. Yellowwoods provide both food and nesting sites for the parrots and logging these trees causes a shortage of both these essentials.
Habitat destruction is the main cause of their declining numbers – but there is a secondary reason.
Rose-ringed parakeet – Wikimedia Commons
Enter the rose-ringed parakeet. This beautiful bird was introduced to South Africa through the pet trade early in the last century. Some birds inevitably escaped from captivity and some were simply released into the wild by owners who got bored with caring for them. Being parrots and highly intelligent, some managed to survive even though they were in a foreign landscape and by the beginning of this century, they were firmly established in the wild and breeding successfully.
Colourful flocks of rose-ringed parakeets have dazzled people since they swooped into suburban gardens and parks more than 50 years ago.
But too few people know that the tropical parakeet species, with their green plumage, red beaks and long tails, are amongst the world’s worst invasive parrots. Rose-ringed parakeets have become invasive in 35 countries, including South Africa, and outcompete indigenous bird species for food, nests and space.
Rose-ringed parakeets favour urban spaces, close to human habitation. They are thriving in cities such as Johannesburg, Durban and now also Cape Town. Well-known ornithologist Geoff Lockwood worries that because the parakeets are competing strongly and successfully with birds in urban landscapes, they could eventually do the same in natural areas too. The effect on the Cape Parrot would be devastating. Recently these parakeets have appeared in the Kruger National Park, much to the dismay of bird-lovers.
Should they be culled (“controlled”) aggressively before they start to invade more conservation areas? Durban residents were polled for their reaction – and almost all of the respondents felt they should be left alone and efforts rather focused on controlling Indian mynah birds.
“The only bird that can regularly stand its ground and have a chance of retaining its nests if the parakeets had their eye on it, are the common mynahs, which are also invasive and also alien.” (Ref?)***
What do we know about common (Indian) mynahs?
The Indian mynah is a medium- sized chocolate-brown bird, with a yellow beak, eye patch, feet and legs. The head, throat and tail are black, with the tail having white tips and white under-tail feathers. The large white patches in the upper wings are noticeably visible when the bird is in flight.
Mynah birds hail from South East Asia. They were introduced into KZN in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century as cage birds. Needless to say, a bird as resilient as the mynah did not stay caged for long. Once having escaped into suburbia, they quickly adapted to local human habitation and being prolific breeders, spread rapidly along the east coast and inland.
Mynahs are known to be urban birds, so the threat of invasion into protected natural areas did not seem to pose a problem – at first. But humans live next to and in national parks, and in the last decade, mynahs have followed humans into the Kruger Park, appearing at rest camps and picnic sites. Experts believe now is the time to be proactive and prevent the spread of mynahs further throughout Kruger.
But this will be a big ask. These highly invasive birds have colonised large parts of the world – including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Hawaii and Madagascar. The Invasive Species Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature has declared the Indian mynah as one of the world’s worst alien invasive species.
Who will win the battle? Mynahs, Rose-ringed parakeets or our own Cape Parrot?
The truth is that they are all losers. Habitat destruction by humans has by far the greatest negative impact on all animals, including birds of all kinds.