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GREEN & GOLD: The jewels of our forests

Did you know that South Africa has its very own endemic parrot species, the Cape Parrot? The reason that many people don’t know this, or have never seen a Cape Parrot, is likely due to the fact that their distribution is limited to small patches of isolated indigenous forest in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces. Additionally, there are only an estimated 1 800 left in the wild.

By contributors from BIRDLIFE SOUTH AFRICA, the CAPE PARROT PROJECT and the CAPE PARROT WORKING GROUP. All photos by CASSIE CARSTENS.

Each year BirdLife South Africa announces a Bird of the Year, an initiative used by the organisation to highlight and raise awareness about that year’s species. This year the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) was announced as Bird of the Year, as a way to raise its profile and share the conservation concern about this Endangered species.

The Cape Parrot (also known as isikhwenene, upholi, Hokwe, Dikgwapa, or Woudpapegaai) is endemic to South Africa, which means that it occurs nowhere else in the world. It is a medium-sized bird (about 30cm high) with a striking green body and golden head and neck. Adults have small orange patches on the shoulders and leg feathers, with females also having a red patch above their beaks. They are usually seen as singletons, pairs, family groups or larger flocks. They are most often seen flying, or at roosting and feeding sites, especially at dawn or near dusk.

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), causing a shortage of natural nesting sites and food availability for the species. Cape Parrots are also susceptible to the highly contagious and sometimes fatal Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease.

Several conservation organisations and individuals are working together to protect South Africa’s Endangered Cape Parrot population. BirdLife South Africa is pleased to partner with our BirdLife Species Guardians, the Cape Parrot Working Group and the Wild Bird Trust’s Cape Parrot Project to raise awareness about this species through the Bird of the Year 2023 campaign.

Dr Melissa Whitecross, the Landscape Conservation Programme Manager at BirdLife South Africa, and a Committee Member of the Cape Parrot Action Plan Coordinating Committee (CPAPCC), said: “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. The Cape Parrot being the Bird of the Year 2023 will bring much-needed awareness to the importance of this ecosystem in providing ecological services to communities and supporting other unique forest biodiversity. Working together with the Cape Parrot Project and Cape Parrot Working Group, we look forward to a year of raising awareness about this incredible bird species.”

The work of these BildLife Species Guardians includes initiatives such as population monitoring, habitat restoration, the provision of nest boxes, species rehabilitation, education of the public, and community outreach, among others.

“We had such a great celebration when we found out that the Cape Parrot had been chosen as Bird of the Year for 2023. We live and breathe Cape Parrots every day and feel that everyone should know more about this special species that is only found in South Africa. Through a focus on this flagship species, we are conserving their threatened forest habitat to leave a lasting legacy for them and all forest species,” said Dr Kirsten Wimberger, Cape Parrot Project Director, Wild Bird Trust Trustee and co-chair of the CPAPCC.

Professor Colleen Downs, who is fellow CPAPCC co-chair, Cape Parrot Working Group Chair, and SARChI Research Chair in Ecosystem health and biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, was equally excited: “We are extremely grateful. Many people don’t know that South Africa has an endemic parrot species. Their preferred habitat, Mistbelt forests, is poorly protected. These forests are important, not only for other fauna and flora, but also for water catchment protection and carbon capture and storage.”

David Letsoalo, a BirdLife South Africa-trained Community Bird Guide who is based in the Magoebaskloof area and has been involved in the conservation of the species for two decades, shared his thoughts: “I first encountered the Cape Parrot when I was given an opportunity to join a Cape Parrot census back in the early 2000s. After I saw and experienced them, I started guiding people to see this special bird. I was given another opportunity to monitor them at their feeding and roosting sites, which furthered my interest in them. Now, when I hear them calling and see them flying, it heals me, and I feel proud to have played a part in conserving the Cape Parrot. I am so happy to see the Cape Parrot selected as Bird of the Year 2023!”

Cape Parrots are truly the bright green and gold jewels of the forest, attracting birders from around the world to South Africa, and helping to support avitourism in rural areas that rely heavily on ecotourism for sustainability. They symbolise hope and resilience, and the species persists despite decades of historical, exploitative logging. A deserving Bird of the Year 2023, indeed.

The Bird of the year INITIATIVE

Throughout 2023, BirdLife South Africa, together with our Bird of the Year partners, will create awareness about the Cape Parrot through the production of educational materials, such as posters, infographics, and learning resources for schools that will be free to download from the BirdLife South Africa website (www. birdlife.org.za); articles in African Birdlife magazine; social media posts; and presentations to interested groups. Cape Parrot merchandise, such as t-shirts, pin badges, and fluffy toys, are also on sale through BirdLife South Africa’s Shop for the Birds (www.shop.birdlife.org.za). We are extremely grateful to our Bird of the Year sponsor, the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust, for once again making this initiative possible through the funds they generously donate towards BirdLife South Africa and the conservation of birds and biodiversity.

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