Lovebirds in Malawi

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The Parrot Society already has become involved in conservation projects in Africa, via Rowan Martin and the World Parrot Trust, with highly successful co-ordination and rehabilitation of African grey parrots confiscated from smugglers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. PSUK assisted financially with the construction of release aviaries, and several rehabilitated birds have now been released back into safe areas. Smugglers have also been prosecuted and imprisoned. For full details see Rescue & Rehabilitation of African Grey Parrots in Africa

Between 2019 and 2021, Rowan Martin contacted us again with regard to the near-threatened species of Lovebird in the Zambezi river basin, known as Lilian's Lovebird (Agapornis lilianae). These birds live in Mopane woodlands along this river, and with the usual story of habitat destruction, nest sites are in very short supply, and breeding populations have declined severely. This project was aimed at building, erecting, and safeguarding artificial nest boxes to assist in the recovery of the species. To that end, the Parrot Society UK agreed the sum of £3,200 in June 2021, towards the construction of nest boxes based around PVC tubes with an air gap between wooden cladding and the box, shading above, and inspection hatches. We were pleased to receive the attached report describing progress so far in July 2021

Using artificial cavities to address habitat loss for threatened lovebirds

Report by Sascha Dueker

Lilian’s lovebirds Agapornis lilianae are endemic to the Mopane woodlands of the Zambezi river basin. This IUCN Near-threatened species has undergone recent range contractions and is largely restricted to isolated populations in the Lower Zambezi, Luangwa valley and Liwonde National Park. Recent research conducted by the World Parrot Trust in collaboration with local partners has highlighted the importance of mature Mopane Colophospermum mopane woodlands as a key habitat resource for the species, and in particular stands of ‘Cathedral’ Mopane, which are used for roosting and breeding (Mzumara et al. 2018, Tripathi et al. 2019). The recent completion of range-wide surveys for this species has revealed that the species has disappeared from areas of its former range in the Lower Zambezi valley (Mzumara et al. in prep.). These patches of habitat provide a critical density of suitable cavities. Loss of these sites due to clearance for agriculture, charcoal production and timber is a major threat to Lilian’s lovebirds as well as ecologically similar and closely related species including the IUCN Vulnerable Black-cheeked lovebird Agapornis nigrigenis which is also endemic to the region.

Through this project the World Parrot Trust has designed and installed nest boxes to support breeding and roosting for A. lilianae in Liwonde National Park, Malawi. Although Lovebirds readily use artificial cavities in captivity, to date there have been no trials of this approach for in-situ conservation. The aims of the project are (1) to explore if nest boxes will be used by wild lovebirds and (2) to understand the most effective spatial placement. Artificial cavities present a potentially rapid and cost-effective means to mitigate the loss of stands of Cathedral Mopane for lovebirds and can play an important role in emergency situations as well as support the reintroduction of lovebirds to areas from which they have gone extinct.

RESULTS _____________________________________________________________________________________________

  Overall, the results have fulfilled the expectations with all 60 boxes placed as previously planned, local students trained, 10 DNA samples collected, 10 birds measured, weighed and rung with individual identifiable color combinations. In three areas of the park, 10 boxes each were carefully installed in the immediate vicinity of existing known roosting areas, while in three other areas, 10 boxes each were installed at about a kilometer distance from existing roosting areas. Lovebirds, like many other parrots, have semi-colonial nesting habits, tending to nest in trees in close proximity to conspecifics (Mzumara et al 2016). We therefore predicted that lovebirds would be more likely to adopt nest boxes adjoining existing nest areas rather than nest boxes further away, and that over time new nesting areas would be established at greater distances. The arrangement of the boxes was designed to explore spatial patterns of nest box use which will help inform strategies for future placement as well as understand the process of establishment of new nesting areas in parrots and the generally variable success of nest box projects for parrots. Each box was placed in a different mopane tree and each tree was selected on the basis that they were of similar height and size to the trees that lovebirds have been found to naturally use (Mzumara, Perrin, and Downs 2016; Mzumara et al. 2019; Mzumara, Perrin, and Downs 2014). The work was led by WPT Lovebird conservation coordinator Sascha Dueker in collaboration with project partners from the National museums of Malawi, the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) and African Parks. Before start of the nest box set-up, all 60 nest boxes were designed by the team using experiences from previous parrot nest box designs as well as Dr. Tiwonge Gawa’s knowledge and research of lovebirds’ natural cavities and then constructed at Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) in the weeks before field work. Dr. Gawa identified existing roosting sites and advised on average height and positions of natural cavities. The boxes were placed in mopane trees at an average of 10-12m height and positioned so that they would be shaded from direct sunlight in summer. Since these areas can get extremely hot, it was important for the team to do all necessary to keep the microclimate within the cavity as close to lovebirds’ natural cavities as possible. All trees were previously checked for being healthy and that they did not already have existing cavities.

This project formed part of a number of initiatives being implemented by the World Parrot Trust’s Africa Conservation Programme and partners to help Africa’s most threatened lovebirds which include i) surveys to understand the status and threats to vulnerable populations, ii) research into the population genetics of the “white-eye- ring” species to inform conservation breeding and reintroduction programmes and resolve outstanding taxonomic questions, and iii) community-based conservation education programmes at key sites including Liwonde National Park. In addition to installing nest boxes, during this field work the team collected 10 genetic samples within 6 different roosting cavities from all three existing roosting sites. All 10 lovebirds were further measured, weighed, and rung with individually identifiable rings. The rings will provide an opportunity for local students to develop research into the reproductive behavior of lovebirds in the wild.

In addition, training was provided to intern Ms. Tamara Chirwa from WESM (Wildlife and Ecological Society Malawi) as well as 7 biology students from Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) to proceed with monitoring of the boxes and to perform additional observational studies on A. lilianae using the nestboxes as well individually rung birds. Presentations were given by Mr. Dueker and Dr Gawa highlighting the importance of the research not only for lovebirds, but also in understanding habitat changes to other biodiversity in the region. The monitoring of nest boxes will now enable rates of uptake and breeding success to be compared between boxes of differing placement.

NEXTSTEPS ___________________________________________________________________________________________
Given a habituation time of about six months, WESM intern Tamara Chirwa and Dr. Gawa’s students from MUST will now continue to regularly monitor the boxes starting in the beginning of the breeding season by the end of the year 2021. WPT will support the ongoing research and is looking forward to updating all project participants on the further development of the study.

As we proceed into 2021 and become more adapted to living and working amidst the presence of COVID-19, we will update you on our progress on this and other work in line with our recent successful application for funding. We thank you and acknowledge the support that you once again have generously offered in support of our work.


Mzumara, Tiwonge I., Michael R. Perrin, and Colleen T. Downs. 2014. "Distribution of Lilian's Lovebirds in Malawi." Ostrich 85 (3):267-272.

Mzumara, Tiwonge I., Michael R. Perrin, and Colleen T. Downs. 2016. "Characteristics of roost cavities used by Lilian's Lovebird Agapornis lilianae in Liwonde National Park, Malawi." African Zoology 51 (1):21-28.

Mzumara, T.I., Martin, R.O., Tripathi, H., Phiri, C., and Amar A. 2019. Distribution of a habitat specialist: Mopane woodland structure determines occurrence of Near Threatened Lilian’s Lovebird Agapornis lilianae. Bird Conservation International

Tripathi, H.G., Mzumara, T.I., Martin, R.O., Parr, C.L., Phiri, C. and Ryan, C.M. 2019. Dissimilar effects of human and elephant disturbance on woodland structure and functional bird diversity in the mopane woodlands of Zambia. Landscape Ecology 34 (2), 357-371