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Information About Wild Black-Cheeked Lovebirds

Learn about how black-cheeked lovebirds live in the wild, and what they eat.

By Mike Perrin

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The black-cheeked lovebird (Agapornis nigrigenis) has total legal protection and trade has been reduced significantly. Its status has been downgraded from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable” (BirdLife International, 2000) although it may not have recovered its natural population density since heavy exploitation in the 1920s.

Within its restricted range in Africa, black-cheeked lovebirds are uncommon and under serious threat. Droughts, perhaps reflecting long-term climate change, have led to the disappearance of the black-cheeked lovebird from some localities, and may seriously affect its status and distribution. Changing crops from sorghum and millet, which the birds feed on, to maize, is a contributory cause of the lovebirds’ decline. Fortunately, the poor agricultural potential of the land within its range means that large-scale habitat loss to expanding cultivation is not imminent. Because of its small range and population estimate, the viability of black-cheeked lovebirds needs to be monitored. The estimated total population is approximately 10,000, in two black-cheeked lovebird subpopulations: 6,200 in the south and 3,800 in the north. They are specially protected within the Kafue National Park. 

From earliest records, the Nanzhila region has supported a stable population with a regular pattern of daily movement between roosting, drinking and feeding areas. The lovebirds occur in the region throughout the year, although population numbers fluctuate.

The greatest number counted on a single occasion was 1,103, seen overhead near a long pool about 21/2 miles east of the Kalenje Game Guard Post. Flocks usually range in size from an individual bird to flocks of 60, with an average of 12.

Life In The Trees & Plains For Black-Cheeked Lovebirds
Black-cheeked lovebirds inhabit mopane tree woodland, and less often acacia tree woodland, in river valleys at 1,969 to 3,281 feet above sea level. Lovebirds are most commonly found in mopane woodland, probably because the mopane’s superficial root system suppresses perennial grasses, encouraging the prolific seed-bearing annual grasses.

Distribution is patchy even within mopane woodland habitat, with large areas of potentially suitable habitat being unpopulated. This is probably due to the bird’s social nature, food resource dispersion and anti-predator behavior. A permanent water source is essential, as the birds drink twice daily.

Prime habitat comprises low-lying grassland plains fringed by mopane and miombo woodland, interspersed with acacia bushes and termite nest clumps (often vegetated with Euphorbia, Combretum and woolly caper-bush). Most grassland plains near the Nanzhila River are seasonally flooded, as is much of mopane woodland. Mopane woodland habitat can range from mature forest with large evenly spaced trees, to small coppice-type forest, mixed with baobab, pod mahogany and leadwood, which often merge one with another. Lovebirds use miombo woodland for feeding on woolly caper-bush flowers, vegetation between grassland plains for resting, or feeding on the sides of the termitaria and the Euphorbia flowers and riparian woodland to congregate around water pools and drink.

Black-Cheeked Lovebird Flock Behavior
Black-cheeked lovebirds are gregarious, in flocks of varying size, and are most active in the early morning and late afternoon, when they form the largest daily flock sizes. These large flocks drink and feed and are most visible during the dry season when the birds gather at scattered water sources.

 Black-cheeked lovebirds roost inside natural cavities in trees in the center of large stands of mopane. Many cavities are used, for a flock of about 30 lovebirds, with often two or four birds per cavity. In fact, most birds roost in pairs using the same cavity repeatedly, although cavities are common and not limiting.

Most lovebirds drink twice a day, early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Black-cheeked lovebirds are cautious drinkers that are particularly timid in the presence of people, livestock and wild animals.

Black-Cheeked Lovebird Conservation
The decline in rainfall and surface water supplies is the greatest threat to the survival of the black-cheeked lovebird in the wild. Conservation efforts should concentrate on creating and maintaining suitable water sources in prime habitats. There has been a decrease in community-maintained natural sources of surface water in the area, as the Zambian government and various development agencies have been putting in bore holes (water pumps) into the region. Local communities living next to the new pumps will decrease their well-digging activities, thereby reducing the availability of water to the lovebirds.

Other conservation actions include upholding the ban on trade on wild-caught black-cheeked lovebirds, promoting lovebird conservation in association with resource, particularly water and woodland conservation, and continued population monitoring. Ongoing monitoring of the prevalence of psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD) in the population is essential.

No single factor limits population growth although water is limited and local. Farming of sorghum and finger millet, and the growth of agricultural weeds benefit the lovebirds, as does the digging of wells and the filling of cattle troughs. However, increased competition for water and resumption of the bird trade could drastically affect the lovebird population in the future.

Conservation actions need to incorporate an education component, targeted particularly at local school children, to prevent the capture of the lovebirds and to instill wider environmental awareness. 

Native Foods For Black-Cheeked Lovebirds
Black-cheeked lovebirds feed mostly on the ground on a staple diet of annual grass seeds that grow under the canopy of mopane trees.

Known food items include the seeds of:
• Thatching Grass
• Love Grass
• Guinea Fowl Grass
• Rhus

Other food items include the seeds of annual herbs, flowers, leaves, fruit pulp, buds, berries, invertebrates, bark, lichen, resin and soil:
Grasses & herbs include:
Dactyloctenium aegyptium
• Digitaria pentzii
• Chloris virgata
• Jungle Rice (Echinochloa colona)

They feed arboreally on the seeds of:
• White Thorn
• Scented Thorn Acacia
• Mopane
• Euphorbia
• Leadwood
• Jackal-berry
• Woolly Caper-bush
• Umdoni Waterberry
• Poison-pod
• Flame Combretum
• Scale insects

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