Parrots are a bird family made up of around 390 species, most of which – including all of the parrots of Africa – are tropical or subtropical. By far the greatest number of parrot species come from Australasia and South America, but in this article we explore the four species of parrots in Africa – including the islands close to the mainland, such as Madagascar and Mauritius.
What is a parrot?
Parrots come in all shapes and sizes, but despite their variation in size, colour, form and distribution all parrot species share three key distinctive characteristics:
1. A powerful curved bill, with the upper part (upper mandible) fitting over the lower part (lower mandible)
2. An upright stance
3. Strong legs with clawed zygodactyl feet (two claws pointing forwards and two claws pointing backwards)
Quick parrot facts:
- In terms of coloration, many parrots are very brightly coloured, and some are multi-coloured.
- Most parrots’ diets are made up of seeds, fruit, nuts, and other plant material.
- Most parrots nest in tree hollows, where the females lay white eggs.
- Few parrots are completely sedentary or migratory, with most falling somewhere between the two extremes, making little known regional movements.
Along with birds such as ravens, crows, and jays, parrots are among the most intelligent birds. In parrots, various studies have found their intelligence presents itself in the form of learning, problem-solving and applying knowledge. Due to their looks, intelligence, and ability to mimic human speech, parrots are popular as pets, and have been kept in captivity by many different cultures for thousands of years, including the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.
The six parrots of Africa
So, now we know a bit about parrots, let’s look at the six species of parrots found in Africa:
The Cape parrot is a large, temperate forest-dwelling parrot endemic to South Africa, and found only in small patches in the east and south of the country in forests dominated by yellowwood trees. The parrots are sexually dimorphic, with females identified by an orange patch on the forehead.
As with the echo parakeet, the Cape parrot is critically endangered. They mature late, don’t breed every year, and raise few chicks to adulthood, so recovery from their wild count of 1,500 will sadly likely be a struggle.
The echo parakeet is the world’s rarest parrot, with less than 20 individuals in the world in the late 1980s. This parrot is found only in Mauritius, but habitat loss and invasive species through the 20th century led to the echo parakeet becoming critically endangered.
The parrots have been brought back from the brink of extinction with various captive breeding programs, but are still extremely rare, with an estimated 750 in the wild.
Feeding on fruit and leaves from native plants echo parakeets are medium-sized parrots, around 40 cm long with a 50 cm wingspan. Males and females are both green, with female darker overall and with a black upper bill, compared to the red upper bill of the male.
(also known as: Congo grey parrot, African grey parrot, Congo African grey parrot)
Grey parrots are found on some West African islands, and across the continent from the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Kenya and Tanzania.
The Congo grey parrot is slightly larger than the Timneh at about 33 cm, and has light-grey feathers, a red tail, and a black beak. Unusually for birds, they are born with black irises, which change to a light yellow colour after a year.
Nine subspecies of lovebirds are found in the savannas and tropical forests of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. Although lovebird fossils nearly 2 million years old have been found in South Africa, their closest relatives are thought to be hanging parrots, found in Asia.
Most lovebird species have a green body and a variety of head feather colorations, except for the grey-headed lovebird which is found only in Madagascar. These monogamous birds reach sexual maturity at ten months old, when they begin courting to find a mate they’ll spend their 15-year lifespan with.
These parrots are cavity dwellers, making their homes in holes in trees, rocks, or shrubs. Some species nest in groups, while others make their nests away from the flock. As with most parrots their diet consists of fruit, vegetables, seeds, and grasses.
(also known as ring-necked parakeet)
The rose-ringed parakeet (also known as the ring-necked parakeet), is a noisy African parrot with an extremely large range, stretching across central Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan and Egypt in the east. There are two subspecies in Africa, though are very hard to tell apart as they differ so little.
These parrots have a wingspan of around 30 cm, and average 40 cm in length, including their long tail feathers. Whilst both sexes are a distinctive green colour, other colouring on the rose-ringed parakeet depends on the sex. Adult males sport a red or black neck ring and females and immature birds of both sexes having no or pale shadowy neck rings.
Rose-ringed parakeets are herbivorous, feeding on fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, berries, and seeds.
Captive individuals are able to learn how to speak, and their popularity as pets has led to them being released in numerous cities around the world, where they now have stable populations.
(Also known as Timneh African grey parrot)
Timneh parrots are endemic to the forests and bordering savannas of West Africa, specifically Upper Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Ivory Coast.
Averaging 25 cm in length, the Timneh is slightly smaller in size than the Congo grey parrot, though has similar intelligence and talking ability. The Timneh is a slightly darker charcoal grey with a deeper red tail and a light-coloured area to part of the upper mandible.
And that’s your lot for the parrots of Africa. Perhaps you’ve had the chance to spot one of these stunning parrots whilst on safari. Please do share your experiences in the comments section below!
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