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The Brown-Headed Parrot

October 2001

The Brown-Headed Parrot. A species in rapid decline in the wild and seriously underrated and unappreciated in captivity in South Africa.

by Stuart Taylor & William Horsfield

An adult Brown-headed Parrot (BHP) is around 22-23 cm in length. The overall colour is green, metallic green on the rump. The green shades into grey on the neck and head becoming brownish on the nape and crown. The species name cryptoxanthus, means “hidden yellow” and refers to the bright yellow of the under-wing coverts. In some individuals this yellow extends to the carpal edge of the wing and is visible in a resting individual. In many cases yellow patches appear on the median and lesser wing coverts and even on the hind-neck making these birds individually distinct (see feather abnormalities). The BHP is reported to occasionally hybridize with Poicephalus meyeri in the wild and hybrids with other Poice-phalus have been observed in captivity. This has usually been accidental with both species being housed together in a breeding environment. The BHP can possibly be confused with the Niam Niam parrot, Poicephalus cras-sus but the latter is found further north in central Africa and has green and not yellow underwing colouration.

Distribution

Historically BHP’s occurred up the eastern seaboard of southern Africa, from northeastern South Africa which includes KZN, Mpumalanga and Northern Province, through southeastern Zimbabwe and Malawi, the whole of Mozambique, then through eastern Tanzania into southern Kenya. Concomitant with this distribution, 3 subspecies have been recognized, based on colouration and size. P. cryptoxan-thus cryptoxanthus in the south, P.c. tanganyikae in northern Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya, and P.c. zanzi-baricus which is confined to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. However, the existence of the 3rd subspecies is extremely dubious and almost certainly does not exist now, if it ever did.

Environmental conservation in the province of KZN is today under the jurisdiction of KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife. Within the historical distribution of BHP’s, KZN-Wildlife manages 4 game reserves. In three of these reserves, Mkuzi (36 000 ha), Ndumo (10 117 ha) and Tembe (15 000ha), the species is listed as “common” in their bird checklist, whereas in Itala (29 653 ha) it is listed as “occurring”. Stuart has discovered that these birds are in fact not nearly as common as once thought. In Mkuzi they have not been seen in 5 years except for 6 birds in 1999. A couple were seen in Itala in 1998 and not since, no info exists for Tembe and in Ndumo 2 birds were seen over the northern boundary in late Feb 1999. So to sum up, some 10 recorded individuals have been seen in a total of 90 000 hectares of game reserves over the last few years.

The situation is much the same in Northern Province and Mpumalanga. In the south of Mpumalanga, the SA boundary extends eastwards to the Mozambique border. No BHP’s seem to occur in this region. The Kruger National Park (KNP) extends over nearly 2 million hectares and forms a 370km long protected area between the two provinces and Mozambique. Only a few reports have reached Stuart of the species being seen on the SA side of the KNP boundary. Indeed, after having worked in the KNP for 2 years he estimates no more than 2500 BHP’s inhabit the region. To put this into some sort of perspective, there are around 2500 individuals of this “common” species in the wild in SA, with by far the vast majority of them in the KNP. The same park supports nearly 10 000 of the “endangered” African elephant and over 2000 “endangered” White Rhino.

Habitat, breeding and diets in the wild

The preferred habitat consists of a light to medium dense shrub layer with an abundance of taller trees of varying ages. However this general description belies a number of particular specific criteria.

BHP’s begin to mate in April, the beginning of winter, and strong evidence indicates that they use the same nest site each year, which consists of a hole in an old tree, dead or alive, and that they maintain a strong pair bond throughout the year and throughout their lives. These cavities are highly prized commodities. Stuart has seen hornbills and squirrels investigate cavities containing BHP chicks without visible alarm from their parents but within hours of other chicks leaving the nest some squirrels had moved in! The principle nest tree is not Adanasonia digitata (Baobab) as mentioned in some literature and the species is not fussy as long as the cavity is suitable. Acacia nigrescens (Knobthorn), Colophospermum mopane (Mopani), Afzelia quansensis (Pod Mahogany), Entandrophragma caudatum (Mountain Mahogany) and various Combre-tum species as well as Baobab are used. A suitable hole is between 4-10m above the ground with an entrance around 10-12cm in diameter. Interestingly, Stuart has observed only the male feeding the chicks in the wild. The female will apparently bring food to the nest but regurgitate this for the male who in turn feeds the chicks. After the 50 day fledging period the chicks are escorted to a “nursery area” where parents hide their families in heavily foliated trees surrounding water (dam, river etc). Each family occupies one tree but they may move if disturbed and evidence exists that they recognize the voices of their own parents. This was determined through playback experiments. The parents return to feed them every 3-4 hours for 2 weeks in the nursery area. After this the chicks start to follow the parents and are still fed until independence at the beginning of summer, by which time they are mostly feeding on fruit as it becomes available. Important species are Diospyros mespilliformis (Jackal Berry) and as the summer progresses Cassine aethiop-pica (Kooboo Berry) and Lannea stuhlmanni (False marula). Surprisingly the parrots in the South of the KNP utilize Strychnos madagascariensis (Black Monkey Orange). The fruit is 10cm in diameter and has a very hard shell with a soft peach-like interior. The parrots eat bits of fruit dropped on the ground by monkeys and baboons who can rip open the hard shell. In mid-summer the Ficus sycamoros (Sycamore Fig) is especially important and up to 50 birds can be seen feeding in one tree. They also eat caterpillars towards the end of summer as well as ants. The Trichilia emetica (Natal Mahogany) is prevalent in Pretoriouskop camp in the KNP and at the end of December attracts parrots into the camp for over a month. They are, if not the most common bird, certainly the most noisy! Chicks are fed various regurgitated seeds depending on availability. In 1997 they fed almost exclusively on the seeds of Cassia abbreviata (Sjambok pod) in the northern KNP. In 1998 that species failed to produce and they fed on the seeds of Combretum and Terminalia species.

Tony Cavalho has observed BHP’s feeding and breeding in coconut palms in Mozambique. They apparently eat the small, green coconuts on the budding inflorescences. In Zavora he saw them breeding in dead Coconut Palms. These trees had been struck by lightning and lost all their leaves and up to 3 pairs were nesting in one tree between 6-8 meters above the ground. Although each nest faced a different direction there appeared to be no aggression between pairs nesting in the same tree.

While they may utilize between 15 and 17 different tree species in the KNP and can therefore be regarded as flexible in their dietary requirements, they depend on at least one tree species for providing food at any time of the year. The removal of any tree species from this mosaic in any one area, which causes even a temporary food vacuum, certainly means the end of the parrots in that area. However, this is not the problem. The ever growing and poverty stricken population of rural Southern Africa, view all trees as either a potential fuel supply or an imposition towards growing food. Notwithstanding the capture and sale of the birds, their habitat has quite simply disappeared. It has changed into buildings, fences, carvings, firewood, and unsustainable agricultural and grazing practices. The last stronghold of probably only 2500 individual BHP’s in SA is the KNP, where at least in some areas the necessary mosaic still exists. In the other reserves and parks they have silently gone extinct.

Species Decline

How did this little parrot go into a massive population decline without anyone noticing? Stuart worked under Ben Pretorius a ranger in the KNP, who is a vigorous and committed conservationist and remembers his words one day when unsuccessfully trying to follow his directions to a specific tree. “Sometimes you look but you don’t see”. All the books and guides tell one that this species is common and so many people are on the lookout for rarities.

The reasons for the decline of the BHP’s in SA are almost a cliche, habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction and trapping. The game reserves mentioned are islands separated by seas of urban areas and agricultural lands. BHP’s are specifically an arboreal species, that is, they require trees for food and trees, especially old or dead trees, for nesting. In rural, poor communities such trees are cut up for firewood. Usually this is the only source of heat and excess wood is made into charcoal and sold. In such a poverty driven society, a few dollars can mean the difference between having a meal and going hungry for a week.

The Maputo Central market deals in everything including BHP’s. You can find 5 birds crammed into tiny cages measuring 50x30cm’s sitting on top of one another. Many have open wounds from being pecked and presumably from being roughly handled by the trappers. The vendors take great delight in vigorously shaking the cage to show that the birds are still alive. This of course, causes huge stress to the parrots. There is no food in these cages and water is available from a cut beer can. The price for one bird is around 7 US Dollars, which is very expensive for a Mozambiquan.

The main trade would seem to be from SA tourists who probably buy them out of sympathy and smuggle them back into SA, feeling that they have done the right thing. Having made some money out of this deal the trader will order more parrots from the trappers and the terrible cycle continues.

They are trapped using Bird Lime, a plant extract which when chewed becomes sticky and is smeared onto branches where the parrots roost. As the feet stick the birds flaps its wings, which also get stuck. The birds can then be plucked from the branches. This also explains why many of the birds on sale are missing toes. These are probably hacked off to speed up harvesting. The trappers are usually kids and the birds are held in cages until someone arrives to buy the whole consignment. These consignments are then transported to the capital for sale. All of the birds caught apparently come from North of the Limpopo as all those on the South have already been caught.

Stuart estimates that at any one time there are about 200 BHP’s on sale in Maputo and at roadsides along the coast. The turnover in the markets is 2-4 weeks either in sales or deaths. This amounts to 2600-5200 birds per year.

Stuart believes a strong pair bond exists in the species and that a parent will not enter a nest if its partner is missing. Therefore the capture of one parent, not only results in one individual being lost to the population, but the loss of the chicks as well. This trade goes on despite the fact that Mozambique is a signatory to CITES which prohibits the sale of BHP’s except under license. The legal annual export quota of approx 400 birds is caught during the BHP breeding season and requests (by the trappers themselves) to shift the trapping period to outside of the breeding season has been refused as it then does not coincide with the hunting season! The BPH is listed on CITES Appendix II. With an estimated 20 000 birds in Mozambique at the last atlas publication in 1999 and with virtually no individuals left in the protected areas in SA, that will satisfy the market trade for 4-8 years at the most. Unless local, national and international communities take notice of the plight of this species the silent decline will continue.

Captive Breeding

The BHP is not a difficult species to breed. Captive-bred birds can be expected to breed no later than 3 years of age and not likely sooner than 18 months. As is often the case, an older bird may encourage a younger bird to breed sooner than it normally would. I found them to prefer natural logs as opposed to wooden boxes and these also lasted longer as they are more difficult to destroy. They are great chewers and the top and bottom of the Syringa logs (which are usually closed with soft pine) should be capped with metal sheeting to prevent them chewing through. Nest-log dimensions used with great success at Amazona Farm are 400-450mm high x 250mm diameter with 50mm entrance hole. This is just large enough to allow a bird to squeeze through and also reduces light into the nest. The round inspection hatch is approx 150mm in diameter and allows the keeper to easily remove chicks carried in hand for ringing etc. without having to squeeze too tightly. A welded-mesh ladder is stapled securely onto the inside of the log to allow easy access, as flat as possible so as to reduce the chance of the birds hooking a toe and getting trapped inside. In ambient temperatures over 30°C, the temperature in the nest will rocket with no air flow and excess heat being given off by the chicks and we always open the inspection hatch to allow the chicks more ventilation. A section of welded mesh is secured to prevent escape. Even small chicks can be seen standing on their tip-toes trying to reach up to the fresh air of the entrance hole while panting and gasping for breath in such heat. Added ventilation can certainly save lives from heat exhaustion or trampling of weaker chicks by stronger ones trying to get fresh air. I offer untreated eucalyptus chips that are rinsed in VIRKON-S or the recently marketed VIRUKILL (contact Marie Bragg on 051-446 3013 or 082 850 9511) as nesting substrate which the birds chew up into fine pieces before the female lays eggs. Using moss, bark, rotten wood and other natural substrates increases the risks of introducing fungal spores into the nest, which flourish in the hot, humid conditions of the nesting chamber and may lead to Aspergillus infections. Up until she is about to lay, both birds renovate their home to such an extent that they often kick and scratch most of the chips up and out of the nest entrance. I have observed them emerge from the nest and give themselves a good shake and seen quite large amounts of nesting material being shaken from their feathers. For this reason the nest needs to be topped up with substrate to prevent the eggs rolling around on the floor of the nest and being damaged. Once the hen has laid, the pair cease their redecorating and the hen incubates alone with the male standing guard near the nest. Prior to laying, the lower abdomen of the hen becomes noticeably swollen. The hen sits very tightly and only vacates the nest to eat, drink and defecate. Voluminous droppings more than 10 times the normal size indicate that she does this only when she is really desperate to go to the toilet! The cock supplement-feeds the incubating hen and her periods off the nest are brief. Clutch size in younger hens is usually 2-3 and in older hens 3- 4. Eggs are pure white and not as rounded as the smaller Poicephalus but typically elliptical measuring approx 30mm x 23mm and laid on alternate days with an occasional 3 day gap. Incubation is 28 days and the first chicks often hatch on the same or consecutive days indicating that the hen only starts to sit tight a day or two after the first egg is laid. Chicks are covered with longish whispy, slightly off-white down and weigh approx 4 grams at hatch.

They are initially fed a smooth, cream-coloured consistency by the hen which gradually becomes coarser and filled with more solid bits of seeds, fruits and vegetables as they get older and are fed by both parents. The chicks are quiet in the nest and only vocalize when they are being fed or when soliciting for food. They lie very still if inspected by the keeper or if older and fully feathered, try to crawl under each other to hide their heads. They leave the nest at approx. 9 weeks and the upper beaks of the chicks are a light horn colour and the iris is very dark and hard to distinguish from the pupil. The beak changes to the adult grey colouration within 6 months and the eyes lighten till about 12 months.

Under-wing yellow colouration is slightly more dilute in youngsters and the borders of yellow not as defined as in adults. Chicks are shy when first fledged and sit motionless, almost crouched on the perch, until you approach beyond a certain distance when they suddenly dash off the perch and crash about the aviary in panic until they settle down. Calm, captive-bred adults reassure their chicks and this skittish behavior usually disappears within a few weeks. Wild-caught birds take much longer to settle into captivity and their chicks stay wilder for much longer as well. Wild-caught parents tend to alarm-call to their family more often (at the slightest sign of approaching danger e.g. keeper) and this seems to unsettle the entire family. The hen normally double clutches after the chicks have been out the nest for a month or so but this can depend on the individual pair. The second clutch may be accidentally damaged by the first brood entering the nest to join the incubating female. If the chicks are removed from the aviary as soon as they are weaned (approx. 2 weeks after fledging) then the pair recycles faster. Ideally they should be placed in an adjacent aviary for as long as possible. This improves their breeding potential with them learning the ropes through watching the folks getting leg-over next door. Juveniles that have not been afforded this inadvertent first-hand parental-guidance opportunity, still do breed but just take a bit longer to learn the ropes on their own, invariably get things a bit arse-about-face to begin with!

The species is sociable outside of the breeding season and can be kept in a colony situation in a large aviary without problems. Juveniles can also be kept in groups and this is highly advisable in terms of them learning all the behavioral tricks through this type of interaction. They are curious, playful and intelligent and get up to all manner of delightful mischief. They approach new objects in their aviary cautiously and suspiciously but soon inspect, initially with extended tongue and then by clamping the object in one foot and chewing on it. Fresh branches with buds are relished and objects like pinecones and sugar cane stems are chewed to bits. Some individuals may be more dominant and signs of plucking are usually an indication that the plucked birds are being harassed and the keeper must intervene at this point and separate the culprits from the group for a while.

Breeding flights at Amazona Farm have always been of the suspended variety measuring 1.2m x 1.2m x 1.8m as with all the other small Poicephalus. I would however house them in 2,4m long flights if I were to build new aviaries. Food and water bowls are placed on the same side of the aviary as the nest but away in the other corner so as not to be fouled by droppings or nest material. Food and water is offered in round stainless steel bowls (23cm diameter x 4 cm deep) and the birds enjoy bathing in the fresh water in the mornings.

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