Every time we test blood from new endangered parrot species with small, isolated wild populations, we find Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) virus, a particularly nasty airborne circovirus that destroys the skin and feathers while opening large, painful fissures in the beak that eventually breaks it apart. Cape parrots, black-cheeked lovebirds, Carnaby’s cockatoos, New Caledonian parakeets, Norfolk Island Green Parrot, red-fronted parakeets, swift parrot, orange-bellied parrot, and Echo parakeets are all endangered by catastrophic deforestation and/or widespread capture for the wild-caught bird trade, and ALL have high levels of PBFD virus in the wild population. Is this the “Doomsday Virus” for Endangered parrots?
Our research has demonstrated that PBFd is endemic to the wild Cape parrot population and thus should exist at low levels in the wild. Something has disturbed the balance… This poorly-known virus also attacks the immune system, opening the PBFD-positive parrot to bacterial infections like avian TB, Pseudomonassp., and pneumonia. The first to go are the down feathers, then the crown, breast, rump and eventually all body feathers disintegrate, leaving a naked parrot with just flight feathers. At this advanced stage the parrots are up to 50% under optimal body weight and die of exposure in temperate climates. The virus is airborne and highly-contagious, dispersing into the environment in the excessive feather dust caused by the disintegration of skin and feathers.
Parrots with PBFD have the appearance of being homeless and out of place. Forlorn and dejected by their circumstance more than their condition. It seems that, once a parrot population simply does not fit into their natural habitat anymore and have to abandon preferred food items, nesting trees and even habitat types, this malevolent virus slowly takes over until they cannot survive another day in the wild. The only solution is intervention at all levels with rehabilitation protocols for sick parrots and community-based habitat restoration projects. When beak and feather disease takes over it is time to take action and assist these intelligent birds in finding a new way of living sustainably in the wild again. Parrots are cultural animals that have highly advance vocal chords to support their complex languages of emotion, intention, attraction, information-sharing, kinship and ownership. They share information on food resources, vigilance for predators at feeding sites, safe roosts and breeding sites, as well as the companionship of, for the most part, a highly social bird taxon. African grey parrots have survived in captivity for over 85 years and have demonstrated advanced cognitive abilities by constructing sentences and developing a vocabulary. Most parrots are long-lived and mate for life, maintaining pair bonds through constant allo-preening and mutual affection.
We have been studying an outbreak of PBFD in a wild population of Cape parrots since 2008 and watched infection rates go up to 50% in 2011 and then a staggering 100% in 2011. This was due to a drought that resulted in a very low availability of suitable food resources. It was heart-breaking to follow panicked, sick and starving parrots searching for food. Soon they were turning up dead or unable to fly under trees, in swimming pools, and at clinics. We only managed to save four parrots in 2011 and one in 2012, and hope to do much better next year with more sick parrots expected in the future. We are currently raising funds to build a flight aviary in the Eastern Cape to house parrots during rehabilitation. Our research on PBFD in wild Cape parrots at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology with the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (University of Cape Town) is the most in-depth study of the molecular systematics and activity of the PBFD virus ever undertaken. PhD student, Guy Regnard, has worked tirelessly to analyze and re-analyze all the samples as part of PhD thesis. We are now in a position to develop a vaccine specific to Cape parrots that could be used in the proposed re-introduction of a disease-free population in an area where they have gone locally extinct. We are also planting tens of thousands of indigenous trees in large indigenous fruit orchards or forest plots with local communities to provide alternative food resources within the next 10-15 years. Our project team has already erected over 200 Cape parrot nest boxes in Afromontane forest patches where suitable large hardwoods have been removed. Every year the Cape Parrot Project grows with new partnerships, new opportunities to stimulate positive change for Cape parrots in the wild, new members of the Cape Parrot Project Group, and more people involved. Please share this video and these links with your friends and become part of the revolution…
Great links for additional background information on Cape Parrot Project: