College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

The distinctive endangered Cape Parrot, a key subject of UKZN research, is BirdLife South Africa’s Bird of the Year for 2023.

Bird of the Year: A Focal Point of UKZN Ecological Research

The Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) has been selected by BirdLife South Africa as 2023’s Bird of the Year, a distinction that will draw attention to the characteristics and plight of South Africa’s only endemic parrot species.

Also known as isiKhweneneupholiHokweDikgwapa, and Woudpapegaai, this parrot with its striking green body and golden head and neck (with small orange patches on adults and red markings near the females’ beaks) measures about 30 cm and inhabits isolated patches of Afromontane Yellowwood Mistbelt forest in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces.

Classified as endangered, it is estimated that there remain only 1 800 individuals in the wild, and the parrot is threatened by loss and fragmentation of its habitat due to extensive logging of trees that provide food and nesting sites, as well as land use change, degradation and human exploitation that have diminished forests’ range and connectivity. They are also the targets of illegal hunting and capture for trade, and Cape Parrots are susceptible to diseases like the highly contagious and sometimes fatal Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease.

‘As South Africa’s only endemic parrot, the Cape Parrot is a flagship species for Mistbelt forests, which span much of eastern South Africa’s escarpment in patches. As Bird of the Year 2023, the Cape Parrot will bring much-needed awareness to the importance of this ecosystem in providing ecological services to communities and supporting a host of other unique forest biodiversity. Working with the Cape Parrot Project and Cape Parrot Working Group (CPWG), we look forward to a year of raising awareness about this incredible bird species,’ said Dr Melissa Whitecross, Landscape Conservation Programme Manager at BirdLife South Africa, and a Committee Member of the Cape Parrot Action Plan Coordinating Committee (CPAPCC).

The CPWG is one of several conservation and research organisations and individuals working to protect the Cape Parrot. Based at UKZN and chaired by Professor Colleen Downs, South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape and a CPAPCC Co-chair, the CPWG will work with BirdLife South Africa and its Species Guardians and the Wild Bird Trust’s Cape Parrot Project to raise awareness about the Cape Parrot as 2023’s Bird of the Year.

‘We are extremely grateful,’ said Downs of the Cape Parrot’s selection. ‘Many people don’t know that South Africa has an endemic parrot species. Their preferred habitat, Mistbelt forests, are poorly protected. These forests are important, not only for other fauna and flora, but also for water catchment protection and carbon capture and storage.’

The CPWG has prioritised academic research and citizen science programmes for more than two decades and has contributed to management plan development, CITES listings, and practical conservation programmes. In May 2022 it hosted its 25th annual Cape Parrot Big Birding Day, when volunteers monitor forests and roosting and feeding sites, particularly at dawn or near dusk, to estimate the current population of Cape Parrots which are usually spotted as singletons, pairs, family groups or larger flocks.

The bird also featured as the logo of the International Ornithological Congress, the world’s largest summit on avian biology co-hosted by UKZN and the International Ornithological Union in August 2022.

In 2015, research emanating from the CPWG led to the reclassification of the Cape Parrot as its own distinct species, improving its conservation priority and enabling the planning of conservation management strategies.

Cape Parrot research and conservation efforts have also benefited from fundraising support from major retailer Woolworths in the production of two shopper bags; one in 2017 and one in 2022.

Cape Parrot Species Guardians’ work includes running initiatives such as population monitoring, habitat restoration, the provision of nest boxes, species rehabilitation, education of the public, and community outreach, among others. This has notably involved a collaboratively developed, multidisciplinary Cape Parrot and Mistbelt Forest Action Plan to provide a unified vision for the conservation of the species.

Calling the Cape Parrot a deserving candidate for Bird of the Year, BirdLife South Africa highlighted its role in avitourism, drawing birders to the country and supporting rural areas that rely heavily on ecotourism for sustainability. The organisation said Cape Parrots have come to symbolise hope and resilience, persisting despite decades of historical, exploitative logging.

Bird of the Year awareness activities and materials will include educational materials to download free from the BirdLife South Africa website, articles in the African Birdlife magazine, social media posts, and presentations to interested groups. Merchandise such as T-shirts, pin badges, and fluffy toys will also be on sale through BirdLife South Africa’s Shop for the Birds! BirdLife South Africa expressed gratitude to the Bird of the Year sponsor, the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust, for making this initiative possible through its generous donations.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Cassie Carstens