So You Wanna Know About Cape Parrots?

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© Jean Pattison — The African Queen

(Poicephalus robustus )

Since writing this article, the subspecies of Cape parrots has been changed. I have written another article on this subject.

The Cape parrot is the largest member of the genus Poicephalus, and originates from three separate regions of Africa. Their regions are so distinct, and the birds physical make up is so different, some think each could be separate species. Ornithologists and field researches are studying them in the wild and beginning to do studies in DNA subspecies identification to try and make this determination. At this time, they believe the nominate subspecies Poicephalus robustus robustus, that inhabits portions of South Africa, may be a distinctly different species from the other two Cape parrots. The two other members of the Cape species are P.r.fuscicollis that inhabits West Africa which includes Senegal and some of the Ivory coast, and P.r.suahelicus, that inhabits a large portion of Central Africa.

Professor Mike Perrin, Director of the Research Centre for African Parrot Conservation at the University of Natal (Pietermaritzburg), South Africa is currently supervising conservation biology research projects on several species of parrots and lovebirds in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Zambia.

The first, and perhaps one of the most significant projects, was started about 1995 when Olaf Wirminghaus planned his field research on the Cape parrot, Poicephalus robustus robustus. His goals were to determine the status, distribution, habitat requirements, breeding biology and diet of the parrots in their preferred habitat. This was not easy, as the Capes are rare, very mobile, difficult to observe in a forest canopy (that matches their body color), and prefer high altitudes. South Africa is a large country and there was little published information from which to start. However, Olaf was an outstanding field biologist and totally dedicated to his ultimate goal of preparing a conservation plan for the Cape parrot.

Here I summarize his findings which will soon appear as scientific papers and a doctoral thesis.

Cape parrots are localized and most commonly occur in yellowwood, Podocarpus, (afromontane mist belt) forest, which they use for feeding and breeding. Unfortunately, the forests and timber have been over-exploited as the wood is prized for furniture making. The yellowwood forests are now small and fragmented and are surrounded by agriculture or exotic plantations. The birds nest in crags and the holes made by woodpeckers and barbets in the dead yellowwoods, and nesting sites are likely limiting (artificial ones are being supplied). The diet of kernels from yellowwoods change seasonally as the parrots follow the fruiting pattern of the trees. Capes are dependent on yellowwoods, and only use fruits of other trees for a month in mid-summer, and only one nest has been found that wasn’t in a yellowwood. The birds drink daily and bathe at a tiny rivulet that cascades down a sheer rock face. This is a very beautiful site at dawn, but it is also a danger to the parrots. Local boys set traps to catch Rameron pigeons for food, but the traps are non-discriminating and occasionally catch parrots.

The parrots socialize post-dawn and pre-dusk and have a complex system of vocalizations and posturing. The sexes are distinguishable, as are the young when they first appear. Later, the birds disperse to feed, or to roost. Movements between forest patches are essential and are probably routine nowadays, which may have negative implications regarding breeding success.

The birds are subject to illegal bird trading which is likely to increase when they are described as a separate species. Rarity increases value, which increases threats through illegal trading. In the Eastern Cape, the parrots are shot when they feed on pecan nuts on farmers’ trees.

We recommend better legislation and its effective enforcement, the creation of captive breeding colonies; the formation of a stud-book; increased nest boxes (ongoing) and routine censuring (in depth locally, annually nationally); preservation of yellowwood forest, including management to ensure old trees for nesting, and generating saplings to maintain yellowwoods, as cattle are now grazing and browsing the understory.

In the United States, to my knowledge, the nominate P.r.r. is not represented, and I have inquired extensively. The other two Cape subspecies are represented in U.S aviculture. Although the Cape parrot is very obscure in aviculture and in the pet trade, there are really quite a few breeders working with these birds. I know four breeders with between six and ten pairs each. There are also quite a few breeders with from one to five pairs each.

Early on, breeding the Cape parrot was thought to be quite difficult. Many people believed they were hard to keep alive due to lack of a specialized diet. Isabel Taylor (past president of the African Parrot Society and 20+ year veteran aviculturist) was quick to point out that “the Cape parrot was a very sensitive, terrified parrot when first acquired from the wild (the U.S. no longer imports wild birds). The stress of trapping and the over-all heath of the birds were major contributors to their difficulties in the beginning. Many imported Cape parrots were in very poor health, and we did not have the avian veterinary knowledge that we have today.”

Since diets have improved much over the last 15 years, we are finding healthier birds all around, and the Cape is no exception. Troy Hensley, in Georgia, has a pair of wild-caught breeders that recently laid five fertile eggs and hatched four chicks. Troy pulled the oldest three at almost three weeks, and the pair went on to feed the last chick until it, too, was three weeks old. All the Cape breeders agree, a good diet and a lot of nuts seem to be key ingredients. Lois Constaine, in Washington, feeds a high quality soft food that she designed herself. Along with the soft food, she feeds more nuts than seed, and a good quality pellet.

The original imported wild caught Cape parrots have now become accustomed to captivity, and are proving to be good breeders.

Breeding the cape parrot doesn’t seem anymore difficult than breeding the other species of Poicephalus. I set pairs up with compatibility being my top priority. This method has worked extremely well with the other Poicephalus species in my collection and I paired the Capes in the same manner. In doing so, most of these pairs went to nest within six months and the remaining pairs producing within the first year. Early aviculturists, with fewer pairs, could not offer mate selection as an option. When the birds did not go to nest in a timely manner it was thought that Capes might be a difficult bird to breed. Once aviculturists had larger groups, mate selection could be left up to the birds and reproduction was much more easily accomplished.

Cape parrots, so far, have proved to be very good parents, as are the rest of the Genus. Currently, one of my pairs is raising babies while a large track-hoe, digging drainage ditches, is working within 20 feet of their nest. The parents seem oblivious to the construction around them. I wouldn’t recommend trying this yourself, but this construction is beyond my control. Sherry Duhing, in Connecticut, has one pair that was not good at feeding their babies, but they allowed her to take the babies out to feed and place them back in the nest, with no harm to the babies. Many people are of the opinion that hand-fed males will not become good breeders. Even more of a concern was the thinking that hand-fed males that were once pets, would not go on to be reliable breeders. Both of these concerns are being proved false. There are now domestic birds in breeding situations, in larger numbers, and we are finding, they indeed, will breed and even fledge their young. Ben Cooper, in California, has one pair comprised of ex-pets. The male was a pet for over three years, and this pair fledged six perfect babies this past year, and they are sitting on three more eggs. Ben allows all of his African birds to fledge their own young. Joe Rydant, in Massachusetts, has a pair that are hand-feds and three years old, that just laid their first clutch of eggs, and one is fertile. I myself have a male Cape that was nine years a pet and was placed with a seven-month-old hen. He is very devoted and protective of her. She is now five years old and this past season they produced and fed their first chicks.

I believe that too many generalizations, too soon, are made in regards to aviculture and breeding our birds. The Cape has proved to be no exception to this trend. Much of what we read is opinion rather than fact, and many times a new aviculturist comes along and proves a belief to be incorrect that has been held for years! In our world of birds, it does, at times seem that ignorance truly is bliss. It is very important we keep an open mind when working with our charges. Every day we are learning exciting new things about breeding and behavior.

A Cape in a flight cage “appears” to look almost the size of a small African Grey (Psittacus erithacus erithacus). However, upon weighing them, their weight is anywhere between 200 and 400 grams, plus or minus. The average weights are in the high two hundreds and the low three hundreds, which is more the weight approximation of the Timneh African Grey (Psittacus erithacus timneh). In my opinion, so far, it appears P.r.f. is the smaller of the two subspecies, and P.r.s. is the larger. A large cage suitable for an African Grey or an Amazon would be an excellent choice. Normally, I do not think bigger is necessarily better with some of the Poicephalus species, but in dealing with the Cape, I do prefer a larger cage than usual. Capes in breeding flights seem to fly a lot more than any of the other species of Poicephalus.

Cape parrots are dimorphic when in adult plumage. Both sexes, when fledging, have the adult hen’s coral color patch above the cere. At about 6-8 months of age, during the “baby molt” both cocks and hens lose the color. As the adult feathers come in, the hens head feathers begins to regrow in a more brilliant coral. So far, all my chicks that have a more intense and larger area of color have been males, where as the fledging hens have a more subtle color.

Capes parrots like to play very hard and oftentimes get quite rowdy. They like fighting with their toys and will chase a ball or perhaps a walnut, all over the bottom of the cage or the front room floor. A play-pen should contain a ladder or some hanging toy for climbing down and another long toy for climbing back up. They seem to enjoy climbing down, then across, back up and over, then down again. A Cape will play like this for 15-20 minutes at a time, of course stopping along the way to occasionally chew on a wooden block or beat up an acrylic toy. A bird with a beak as large as a Cape is definitely a chewer, and can go through perches in just a few days. Be prepared to replace perches often and supply a vast amount of wooden toys, which are meant to be destroyed.

In contrast, the Cape parrot does not seem to be a nippy bird. I refer to the Cape as the “Gentle Giant.” Perhaps Capes think just seeing their beak is enough to let you know they could do a lot of damage if need be, so they don’t have to prove it. Cape parrots do not seem to become cage-bound and nippy as other Poicephalus, if left in their cages for long periods. In breeding season the male Cape will open his beak very wide, throw his head back and shake his head very rapidly at other males nearby. It seems very obvious that he knows he has a big beak and he wants the competition to know it also. Considering their powerful beaks, it should be kept in mind that it is essential to only use stainless steel for banding chicks. Cape parrots have been known to bend and even break the aluminum bands.

When starting my collection of breeder birds, I purchased a few birds that had been pets. Upon receiving them and getting them out of their shipping containers, they stepped up as if I had raised them. I have never been bitten, or even nipped, by a domestic hand-fed Cape. Once they are in a breeding situation, some have become devoted to their mates and will not allow interaction on my part, while others still want their head scritched, and kisses. I, on the other hand, try very hard not to interact with my future breeders, which can be very difficult when you see that perpetual smiley face.

Wild-caught parents, in my collection, are very good parents and don’t seem to be aggressive when I am inspecting the nest box. Pulling babies is consequently very easy when you don’t have to fight with the parents to remove their offspring. I believe this is reflected in the overall temperament of the babies. Most all the babies have been very sweet, outgoing babies. Domestic pairs are a bit more difficult to work with while they have eggs or chicks in the nest. In my aviary, the do not allow nest box inspections as easily as the imported birds do. Removing chicks is more easily accomplished when both parents are out of the nest box. This is sometimes found to be the case with other Poicephalus species as well. If you have a nervous pair, or if the chicks are way at the other end of the nest box so you have to physically move the parents out of the way, this can be traumatic and cause the parents to growl. In this event the babies may be a bit more nervous and skittish. You may want to pull babies early if the parents are particularly nervous. I generally pull all my babies from three to five weeks after hatch. I plan very carefully how to pull the babies. When I open the nest box and see chicks in the far end, I simply close the lid and peek at a later time or the next day. When I find all the babies close together at this end of the box, I reach in and take them. It usually happens so quickly the parents don’t have time to make a scene. Phoebe Linden talks of early memory in chicks and how it affects them later in life, and I agree. Early experiences can and does affect them for the rest of their lives. How calm the parents are during the first weeks of a chicks life, and how easily they were taken from the nest, will play a tremendous part in giving a baby a head start as a quality pet bird. The hand-feeder’s job can be made a lot easier by starting with chicks that have a better start from the beginning.

Cape parrots seem very affectionate, and will snuggle and cuddle at the drop of a hat. Additionally, Capes can be affectionate and snugly without being overly demanding. A lucky Cape parrot owner can walk by the cage, stop and interact and go on his or her merry way with out fear that the bird will scream for more attention. Capes will return to playing with toys and be perfectly happy and content. Capes also want to get into and investigate everything in their path. When they are spending regular time with you, a cuddle and scritches for awhile are expected, then a time for playing and investigating, and then some more quiet time before being returned to the cage.

Isabel Taylor comments, regarding the Cape as a pet: “They are delightful and lovable pets.” Sherry says Capes are “a very low-key, easy-going parrot,” which she also refers to as “The Gentle Giant”. “They just seem to ‘go with the flow.’ The baby hand-feds seem to be very mouthy, and taste and lick with their wide ‘cow’ tongues. They never apply pressure and just seem to be tasting. The babies stay nice and continue to go to anyone, and do not seem to go through the nippy stage.”

It is important to teach a Cape baby from early on what the routine is and what is expected in the form of out-of-cage time. Because Cape parrots have such a high energy level, there should be a play area made especially for the Cape, and a fair amount of time allowed out to play. It is unfair for a Cape, due to its social nature, to not have extended periods out of the cage.

Since I have been specializing in African parrots since 1984, and I have raised many African Greys, it is very hard for me to be objective where mimicry is concerned. To me, no bird mimics as well as an African Grey, and, when using the Grey for comparison, I understand the Capes limitations. Sherry, as well as Scott Lewis in Texas, say that Cape parrots are excellent talkers. Scott believes they will rival an African grey, and Sherry points out they are rather soft-spoken, more like a human, than a parrot. I have a few Cape parrots that can repeat a few phrases, and quite clearly in a very human voice. One of Isabel Taylor’s chicks was adopted by a veterinarian, and he goes to work daily with his owner. This Cape parrot, Fritter, can imitate one particular patient, an Amazon, that comes in to visit for beak trimmings, and Fritter also imitates the rotary drill perfectly. (Glad he doesn’t live in a dentists office!) Fritter also spends time in his cage outside the entrance of the clinic, and he has many fans who stop and give him head scritches. His favorite trick, though, is imitating a screeching fan belt. Many clients have gotten out of their cars to check under the hood, once in the parking lot. When buying a Cape for a pet, you are buying it for its gentleness and undemanding, spunky temperament.

In closing, I would like to say, that, although the Cape parrot is considered a “rare” bird, it is available to the pet trade. A Cape parrot is not for everyone, and you should give much consideration in making a decision to purchase a Cape parrot for a pet.

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