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The ecology and conservation biology of Lilian's lovebird Agapornis lilianae in Malawi.

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Despite their popularity, parrots are the world’s most threatened birds. Lovebirds (Agapornis) are very popular pet and aviary birds and as ecologically specialised species in the wild, they are also among the most threatened group of birds. Lilian’s lovebird Agapornis lilianae is a mopane Colophospermum mopane woodland specialist. This study represents the first detailed investigation of the species ecology in the wild. The current distribution of Lilian’s lovebird in Malawi was explored. Furthermore, the extent of the largest resident population in Liwonde National Park (LNP) was investigated. Five new atlas records are reported; three within 40-56 km of the LNP population, and two were over 150 km south and north of LNP respectively. One of them in Kasungu National Park is about 66 km from the Lilian’s lovebird population in Luangwa Valley, Zambia. Lilian’s lovebirds occurred throughout LNP with the highest abundance in the central section. Seasonal movements to areas outside the park were recorded. A variety of vegetation types were used by the lovebirds. The strongest vegetation associations were with seasonally wet grasslands and not mopane woodlands. The abundance and density of the Lilian’s lovebird in LNP was investigated. The highest density estimates of 17 ± 4.8 lovebirds km-2 were recorded in LNP’s mopane woodland. However, number of observations per transect differed significantly. Waterhole counts had the lowest estimates (10 ± 3.5 lovebirds). Flyway counts had the intermediate estimate (14 ± 3.0 lovebirds). The total population of Lilian’s lovebirds in LNP is therefore estimated to be about 4000 individuals. The use of line transect counts at the end of the rainy season is recommended for continued monitoring of Lilian’s lovebirds abundance in LNP. Lilian’s lovebird is a secondary cavity user adapted to mopane woodlands. We investigated its roost characteristics and roosting behaviour. We quantified tree and roost site variables for roost and non-roost trees. Roosting behaviour was observed during the morning and late afternoon. Lilian’s lovebirds’ roosts were located in large tall mopane trees with a mean diameter at breast height (dbh) of 57.4 ± 1.64 m, a mean height of 16.5 ± 0.42 m, and with a mean cavity height of 10.0 ± 0.05 m. All roosts were located in mopane trees within mopane woodland with 10 – 50 % tree cover. Non-roost areas had significantly smaller trees (mean dbh = 39.4 ± 1.72 m) and were located significantly closer together. Human disturbance was low in both areas, however, evidence of elephant Loxodonta africana browsing was high with large areas of stunted mopane woodland recorded in non-roost areas. We recommend that the current LNP vegetation map be updated to highlight areas of stunted mopane woodland unsuitable for Lilian’s lovebird roosts. The impact of elephant browsing on large mopane trees should be assessed to understand its impact on the availability of suitable cavities for lovebirds and other tree cavity-reliant vertebrate species. Investigations into the diet and foraging behaviour of the Lilian’s lovebird revealed they fed on 30 different plant species. These occurred in six habitat types, two of which were outside LNP (agriculture fields and dambos). In the wet season majority of Lilian’s lovebirds (23 %) foraged in dambo areas, whilst in the dry season (August – November) the lovebirds mainly foraged in grasslands with tree cover (18 %). In mopane woodland feeding flock sizes differed significantly between the wet (mean = 20 ± 1.0 lovebirds) and dry season (mean = 34 ± 2.3 lovebirds). Grass seeds were their main food source from December to June. Lilian’s lovebirds diet was more diverse from July to November and included leaves, leaf buds, fruits, fruit seeds and herbs. Grass seeds fed on during the wet season had a high protein and energy content. The Lilian’s lovebirds foraging habitat is protected within LNP, however, early burning in areas outside the park needs to be monitored. The breeding biology of the Lilian’s lovebird was investigated. Data were collected through a combination of direct observations and infrared camera traps during three breeding seasons. Results show large similarities with the black-cheeked lovebird A. nigrigens in Zambia. The breeding season was from February to May. Lilian’s lovebirds nested mainly in south-east oriented deep cavities (≥ 1 m) located in large mopane trees (mean dbh = 57.6 ± 2.35 cm). Nests were located in loose clusters in the areas they roosted (mean distance to nearest nest = 24.2 m). Nest fidelity was observed. Clutch size ranged from 3 – 6 eggs, (mean 5.0 ± 0.22). We recorded 49 % hatching success and 69 % fledging success. Results suggest a low breeding success mainly due to the loss of eggs to predation. The use of poison to kill wildlife is a threat to biodiversity. In LNP illegal hunters poison naturally occurring waterholes to catch mammals and birds for food. Lilian’s lovebirds are among the victims at these poisoned waterholes. Lilian’s lovebird population in LNP represents about 20 % of the global population. The drinking habits of the Lilian’s lovebird, the availability of natural waterholes and the occurrence of poisoning incidents in LNP were investigated. Results showed Lilian’s lovebirds congregate at waterholes in the dry season with flock sizes ranging from 1 to 100 individuals. Significantly larger flock sizes were seen in the dry season compared with the wet season. The number of poisoning incidents/year ranged from 1 to 8. The dry season had the highest numbers of poisoning incidents. Lilian’s lovebirds were killed at approximately four poisoning incidents each year between 2000 and 2012. The number of lovebirds found dead at a poisoned pool ranged from 5 to 50 individuals. A list of other species affected by the poisoning is provided. There is need for increased efforts in preventing this lethal activity in the park. Avian diseases are considered to be one of the key threats to bird conservation. Psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD) is the most significant infectious disease in psittacines. It is caused by the beak and feather disease virus (BFDV) and currently has no cure. PBFD threatens the survival of wild populations of endangered parrots in Africa. The occurrence of BFDV was investigated in wild populations of Lilian’s lovebird. In addition, evidence of blood parasites presence was also investigated to determine their general health. All samples (n = 48) tested negative for BFDV. Blood parasites were observed in 13 of the 48 samples (27 %). Investigation of virus occurrence in other known populations of the species is recommended to assess the conservation risk faced. Lilian’s lovebirds (n = 55) were mist-netted and ringed in LNP. Measurements showed that females were significantly larger than males. About 50 % of the birds ringed in October were half way through their primary moult indicating that moulting starts in earlier months possibly just after the breeding season in April. This study highlights three of the key threats (waterhole poisoning, habitat loss and predation) to the conservation of Lilian’s lovebirds in LNP and provides proposed actions to address these threats.


Ph. D. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg 2014.


Lovebirds--Ecology--Malawi., Wildlife conservation--Malawi., Parrots--Ecology--Malawi., Theses--Ecology.