South Africa’s Hogsback State Forest is a magical preserve of dewy ferns and giant trees covered in a fuzzy lichen called old man’s beard. Rumor has it that the region’s mist-wreathed hills and plunging waterfalls inspired the literary imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, the South African-born author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Hogsback is a haven for yellowwoods, South Africa’s national tree. Logging companies favor the tall evergreen for furniture, and since the late 1800s they’ve razed 60 percent of the country’s yellowwood forests.
The widespread loss of these native trees has had dire consequences for South Africa’s only native parrot, the Cape parrot, which relies on yellowwoods for food and nesting cavities. An often-fatal virus called psittacine beak and feather disease has also taken a toll. The virus’s origins are debated, but research suggests wild parrots may have caught it from captive birds kept in aviaries. (Learn more about the impacts of deforestation.)
Today the Cape parrot bears the dubious title of Africa’s rarest parrot, with remnant populations spread among three isolated forest patches in the South African provinces of Eastern Cape, Limpopo, and KwaZulu-Natal. But teams of dedicated researchers are toiling to better understand the little-known species and reverse its downward spiral.
Cape Parrot Power Couple
Balanced high on the rim of a hollow tree, a male Cape parrot cocks his yellow head, ablaze in the morning light. “He’s checking us out,” says Cassie Carstens, research manager at the Wild Bird Trust's Cape Parrot Project, as we sit motionless in a grove of yellowwoods in Hogsback State Forest. A flash of emerald feathers and the male disappears into a dark cavity where his mate is likely incubating eggs.
Cassie and spouse Kate Carstens are the power couple of Cape parrot research. They bushwhack through thorny vegetation to find hidden nests, and brave the 4 a.m. chill to follow the birds’ squawking calls, observe their courtship rituals, and study their every behavior. (Read why birds matter, and are worth protecting.)
Constantly on the hunt for yellowwood seeds, Cape parrots fly great distances—easily over 60 miles a day—to find trees that are in fruit. But when their preferred food isn’t available they adapt, eating as many as 30 different types of seeds, nuts, and fruits, though it’s unknown if such substitutes are as nutritious as their mainstay.
At a small pecan orchard about an hour from Hogsback, Cassie hands me a nutshell that a parrot had deftly cracked open. Miming with his hand, he demonstrates how the bird would have grasped the nut in its left claw, flipped it, and gnawed away.
As we walk through the copse of bare-limbed trees, pecan shells crunching under our feet, Carstens happily recalls the February day when he saw nearly 600 Cape parrots soaring over the orchard.
But this grove also holds disturbing memories. Seven parrots have been found dead here in recent years. Some may have been killed by birds of prey such as sparrow hawks, Carstens says, but others could have been victims of poachers. (Read more about the efforts to save South Africa's native parrot.)
There are reports of children from a nearby town using slingshots to down the birds and sell them alive for 200 rand, or about 15 U.S. dollars. Such incidents reveal a lack of awareness and appreciation for a bird that should be valued as a national treasure, say its advocates.
The Carstens are based in the village of Hogsback that’s home to 1,000 people and hundreds of Cape parrots. Flocks of the rare birds can often be spotted winging overhead at dawn and dusk.
Over breakfast at a Hogsback hotel, I chat with a group of tourists exploring the town’s gardens, which have whimsical names like Fairy Realm, Labyrinth, and Mirrors Gallery and Garden. The visitors have never heard of Cape parrots, and they’re surprised to learn that such rare birds soar over the gardens several times a day.
When I mention this to Kate Carstens, she’s visibly frustrated.
“This is known as a mystical place of fairies and forests,” she says. “But here’s this magical bird endemic to South Africa, and many people don’t even know it exists.”
To help increase awareness of the Cape parrot’s presence, Colleen Downs, a zoologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, founded the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day.
Now in its 20th year, the annual event sends volunteers and schoolchildren into the coastal forests to search for the rare parrots or signs of their presence. In May 2017, the census counted some 1,500 birds. (See National Geographic editors' favorite pictures of birds.)
“Numbers have stayed stable in the last 10 years, which we didn’t expect,” says Downs, who has studied the birds for decades.
That stability is owed in part to laws requiring anyone who wants to keep a Cape parrot as a pet to obtain a special permit. But, says Downs, “it doesn’t mean they don’t want them.”
To keep track of captive birds and their origins, Downs teamed up with geneticist Sandi Willows-Munro to create an official Cape parrot studbook. Willows-Munro has identified molecular markers in the birds’ DNA that allow her to identify individual parrots.
“Combining genetic analysis with a good studbook,” Willows-Munro says, “will make it possible to determine if a parrot is captive born or has been taken from the wild.”
Hope Takes Root
To give Cape parrots a chance to rebuild their numbers, South Africa needs to protect at least 18 percent of its indigenous yellowwood forest, says Steve Boyes, scientific director for the Wild Bird Trust. Boyes, also a National Geographic explorer, is working to establish a 45,000-acre refuge for the birds.
Meanwhile, the Cape Parrot Project manages yellowwood nurseries in Hogsback State Forest, supplying seeds and seedlings to growers in a neighboring village and buying the seedlings back when they’re large enough to plant. (Related: "Restoring Trees to Save South Africa's Rarest Parrot.")
One afternoon, Cassie walks proudly through the micronursery in Sompondo village, a collection of small houses in a valley below Hogsback. The village is surrounded on all sides by tall forest ridges, a mosaic of greens interrupted by the occasional waterfall.
In the shaded greenhouse, each owner cares for a small section of baby yellowwoods at different stages of development. Right now, they’re mostly leafy sprouts about a foot high, lined up in pots.
But before long, these tiny trees will take root in the hillsides around us, growing taller and stronger until the long-anticipated day when their canopies are again filled with the chatter of South Africa’s native parrot.