The Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) or Levaillant’s Parrot is a large, temperate forest dwelling Poicephalus parrot endemic to South Africa. It has 2 subspecies which may be considered distinct species, the savanna dwelling Brown-necked Parrot (ssp. fuscicollis) and Grey-headed Parrot(ssp. suahelicus).
The Cape Parrot is a short-tailed moderately large bird with a very large beak used to crack all sorts of hard nuts and fruit kernels, especially those of African yellowwood trees Podocarpus spp.. This contrasts with closely the related savanna species (Poicephalus fuscicollis) which feeds on and a wide variety of tropical woodland trees such as Marula, Commiphora spp. and Terminalia spp. These species are sexually dimorphic, with females typically sporting an orange frontal patch on the forehead. Juveniles also show a larger orange – pink patch on the forehead but lack the red on shoulders and legs of adults. These plumage characteristics vary among individuals and among the three recognized forms.
There are conflicting interpretations of the classification of this species due to the existence of three geographically separated but closely related forms that differ in habitat, size and plumage. The dominant view of the ornithological community, especially in Africa, considers these as two species, with the temperate, montane forest dwelling Cape Parrot, P. robustus distinct from the savanna species, P. fuscicollis, including the Brown-necked Parrot, P. f. fuscicollis of West Africa and the Grey-headed Parrot, P. f. suahelicus of eastern and southern Africa. This view is reflected in the 2011 IOC World List (adopted by many, including Wikispecies, as the global standard) along with recent reviews and field guides from Southern Africa. These may in fact be three separate species but this view needs substantiation through studies of plumage, ecology and genetic variation within and among the two forms of P. fuscicollis. The multiple species interpretations are supported by the lack of overlap in distribution between the three forms, by the distinct biomes and dietary preferences of the Cape Parrot (P. robustus) and the other two forms (which occur in different types of tropical savanna) and by limited data on mitochondrial DNA differences among forms. The Birdlife International taxonomic checklist of the world’s birds conflicts with these sources by considering all three forms as subspecies of a single species Poicephalus robustus. This disagreement impacts on the perceived global conservation status of these parrots.
The name Cape Parrot only applies strictly to the form in South Africa. The name Un-cape Parrot has gained limited popularity as a general name for the two savanna forms (as “Brown-necked”, used by most sources, is an inaccurate description of the “Grey-headed” form in the east African savanna).
Distribution and habitat
The Cape Parrot is endemic to South Africa. It occurs in Afromontane forests at moderate altitudes in eastern South Africa from the coastal escarpment near sea-level to the midlands at around 1000m. These forests occur as a series of small patches around the south and east of South Africa and are dominated by Yellowwood trees (Podocarpus latifolius, P. falcatus and P. henkelii). Cape Parrots have a disjunct distribution with the largest population around in the Amathole mountains of the Eastern Cape Province and extending east, with several large gaps, through the Mthatha escarpment and Pondoland in the Eastern Cape and the southern midlands of KwaZulu-Natal Province to Karkloof, near Pietermaritzburg. A very small population, of around 30 individuals occurs over 600 km to the north in the Magoebaskloof area of Limpopo Province. Cape Parrots are absent from large areas of afromontane forests such as those along the southern coast of South Africa, near Knysna, the higher altitude Afromontane forests in the Drakensberg mountains of KwaZulu-Natal, or the moderate-altitude forests of northern KwaZulu-Natal province and Swaziland, which separate the KwaZulu-Natal midlands and Limpopo escarpment populations. All of these areas are within the dispersal range of the parrots and there are old records of Cape Parrots from northern KwaZulu-Natal.
Over one hundred P. robustus parrots are kept as cage birds, most of which are wild-caught birds although they do breed reasonably well in captivity. To date there have not been any successful releases of captive birds and the survival of this species is dependent on habitat conservation to maintain wild populations. Trade and export of wild-caught Cape Parrots from South Africa has been made illegal by the international CITES agreement (appendix list II) and by South African law. They are rare as pets, despite low-levels of ongoing illegal collection and trade. Those that are kept have demonstrated wonderful personalities, and a talking ability that rivals their larger cousin the African Grey Parrot. A small trade still persists in the related Grey-headed and Brown-necked Parrots.
The IUCN Redlist 3.1, which uses the Birdlife International checklist, lumps the common and widespread Grey-headed Parrot with Cape Parrots and Brown-necked Parrots, each of which are more narrowly distributed and more threatened, leading to an assessment of Least Concern. This contrasts with alternative assessments of the South African endemic P. robustus, as Endangered and possible threatened status of the Brown-headed Parrot of West Africa. There are only about 400 in the wild, and the Cape Parrot Project is trying to save them.
Hundreds of volunteers participate on the first weekend each May in the “Cape Parrot Big Birding Day” which is an annual count of the population throughout its distribution. The parrots are relatively easy to count at any forest patch due to their distinctive silhouettes, slow, ‘rowing’ flight and raucous calls. Counts are made in the evening as parrots arrive at roost patches and in the following morning as the parrots leave. A complete census of the population is difficult to achieve, however, as these forests are naturally fragmented and there are insufficient volunteers to count the more remote patches. There are also difficulties in achieving a precise count because the birds fly long distances for food and may be ‘double-counted’ at both feeding and roosting sites. Counts increased from about 500 specimens in May 2000 to over 1000 in recent years, although this may be largely explained by an increase in the particular sites that were counted. The parrots are particularly threatened by the fatal Psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD), a viral infection. Their habitat is being reduced by logging and modification of African Yellowwood trees, in particular the loss of old trees and dead snags with suitable nesting hollows. The provision of nesting boxes has had some success and offers some hope for increasing the proportion of breeding individuals.