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Live From the Field: Africa’s Most Endangered Parrot Hanging On…

This photograph was taken by Rodnick Biljon (King William’s Town’s “Cape parrot whisperer”) under 24 hours ago… For the 11 weeks this young female Cape parrot has been stuck in this same tree, recovering from a debilitating beak and feather disease infection that destroyed her flight feathers and ripped out most of her down feathers. It...

This photograph was taken by Rodnick Biljon (King William’s Town’s “Cape parrot whisperer”) under 24 hours ago… For the 11 weeks this young female Cape parrot has been stuck in this same tree, recovering from a debilitating beak and feather disease infection that destroyed her flight feathers and ripped out most of her down feathers. It is an absolute miracle that she has survived so long in the middle of King William’s Town (South Africa), having pushed through bitterly cold weather and the constant threat of predation. We called her “Lady Grey” after a nearby village that her flock from the Stutterheim area would have flown over in search of food in 2011 when drought hit the region. They were making 300 mile round trips from their mountain strongholds every day in search of food. Some parrots like “Lady Grey” just could not keep up! PLEASE SEND YOUR BEST WISHES TO THIS BRAVE CAPE PARROT THAT NEEDS YOUR SUPPORT IN REAL TIME!!!


Rodnick Biljon discovered her in late July when he saw her flying overhead in a flock he monitors for the Cape Parrot Project. A few days later he found her in the wild plum tree she is still in today. At some point towards the end of July she had glided down from the mountains and discovered that she could not possibly fly back, crippled by beak and feather disease and under attack due to her depleted immune system. Rodnick has been photographing the Cape parrots of King William’s Town for over 6 years, spending most of his time with the parrots. He has been with this brave hen for most of the 11 weeks and his special whistle visibly comforts her. As you can see on 18 August, she was very tired and needed a safe place to fight this debilitating disease. She has been silent and invisible green for almost three months and it seems to be working… She still needs to gain a lot of weight and flight will probably not be possible within the next month or two. Do we intervene now after so long or risk another month?


“Lady Grey” has now cleared most of the wild plums from half of the tree and is eating regularly. She has no access to water and has to rely on the fruits. We are contemplating the erection of a water trough in the tree… Every week we discuss the possibility of catching her and rehabilitating her for release back into the wild. We have done this successfully with Cape parrots that could not even support their own body weight. See this National Geographic video for that story: Every week we decide to prepare for a capture, but let her carry on doing it herself… If she pulls this off, she would have achieved something truly amazing that gives us hope for the future. These little parrots can hunker down and fight this disease! With less than 1,000 remaining in the wild and beak and feather disease outbreak ripping through all remaining populations, we could be held up to judgement if she dies before being able to fly free again. Something happening to our impressive “Lady Grey” is a constant threat looming over us…


Please post your comments of whether we should intervene and rehabilitate this endangered parrot or give her every chance to recover naturally in the wild? There is no doubt that Cape parrots are endangered because human beings destroyed their natural habitat by removing most of the large hardwoods for commercial timber. When do we take responsibility for our actions or is it most responsible to leave nature to its own devices? How do we best serve the Cape parrot, Africa’s most endangered parrot and ambassadors of the decimated Afromontane yellowwood forests they depend upon?


Rodnick Biljon
31 July: Rodnick had been watching her almost on a daily basis for a week and was getting increasingly worried. When is it time to intervene with a wild parrot that could be rehabilitated in captivity? (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
31 July: Low energy levels, degraded flight feathers, and no muscle have this poor female Cape Parrot grounded in this tree vulnerable to cold condiitions and nocturnal predators. She is alone and every one of her instincts are telling her to fly away to the mountains, but she cannot... (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
1 August: Almost asleep in the middle of the day. From the day she arrived in this tree she was just too warn out to fly or move. You coulkd see that she had surrendered to fate and knew that she could on fight on from this tree of life. (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
1 August: We recorded a 100% infection rate in 2011, but did not catch Cape parrots in 2012 to avoid any disturbance at this critical time. We know there is a problem and now simply need to solve it. (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
18 August: After two weeks in the same tree in nighttime temperatures that had people indoors was working, as she had, at least, still alive and eating between long sleeps. The nagging questions were "when do we help her?" and "how long does she need to suffer?". (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
31 August: After a month in this wild plum tree her conditions seems to be getting worse, as the down feathers continue to fall out. We are currently testing these feathers for Pssitacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) virus. (Rodnick Biljon)
Steve Boyes
4 September: The yellow feathers are thought to be the product of an immune reaction that consumes the color pigments. See how the coverage of yellow feathers has increased. Rodnick spends lots of time with her to ensure that she does not fall out of the tree and be attacked or captured. By this time she had formed a strong attachment to Rodnick, which was clear when he approached and made his whistle. Rodnick is our "Cape parrot whisperer" in King William's Town! (Steve Boyes)
Rodnick Biljon
10 September: She exposes her degraded down feathers and poor condition when she jumps to another branch to hide from accumulated onlookers. (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
10 September: Sick Cape parrot perched under the cool, soothing green of the canopy... (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
17 September: Still hanging on after 6 weeks eating wild plums and weathering the brutal cold snaps in the same tree. Her flight feathers are too degraded for sustained flight and her down feathers are too degraded to keep her warm, so infection is taking over. When do we intervene? (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
28 September: After two month in the same tree, the supply of wild plums is about 50% full and her condition has not improved significantly. She seems, at last, to be gaining weight and growing feathers! Every night, however, we risk her being taken by a domestic cat, but this tree is proving to be safe for now. She is eating well, but does not seem to gain weight or improve?! (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
12 October: Young female Cape parrot that has been stuck in the same tree for over two and half months due to advanced symptoms of beak and feather disease. This photograph was taken less than 24 hours ago on the 12th October 2012. She has been there since early August... (Rodnick Biljon)


Please also join the Cape Parrot Project group on Facebook: 

This is the largest parrot conservation group on Facebook and will keep you up-to-date on developments with “Lady Grey”… Some beautiful photographs by Rodnick Biljon from earlier in the year…


Rodnick Biljon
5 April: Stunning vision of a healthy male Cape parrot in the canopy of a wild plum tree in King William's Town (South Africa). (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
15 May: Female Cape parrot feeding on the nutritious, oily kernel of the yellowwood fruit. This consumption has been linked to breeding successes in the 2009/2010 breeding season. This fruit also has strong anti-microbial action that could help stave off beak and feather disease infection... (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
28 June: The future of the species in a stunning pair of Cape parrots. In 2012, we recorded a high proportion of juvenile parrots in feeding flocks, but did not se these parrots in 2011. We hope that the yellowwood fruits in King William's Town have stimulated breeding attempts in the Amathole mountains... (Rodnick Biljon)


We urgently require further funding for the testing of Cape parrot for Pssitacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) and the development of mechanisms to fight outbreaks in the wild population. The Wild Bird Trust, Conservation International, Percy FitzPatrick Institute, Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust, Abax Investments, and Mazda Wildlife Fund are planting thousands upon thousands of indigenous trees and erecting hundreds of nest boxes for Cape parrots in the Amathole mountains. Please help us continue this important research and community-based conservation work by donating to the Cape Parrot Project via the World Parrot Trust:
The Cape Parrot is threatened in the wild by habitat loss, illegal trade and disease. Your donation will help us to conduct research vital to the species survival and enforce laws to stop the wild bird trade.



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Meet the Author

Author Photo Steve Boyes
Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.