Old World Aviaries

Genus Poicephalus—New taxonomic insights
15 November 2003

Mike Perrin
Research Centre for African Parrot Conservation
School of Botany and Zoology
University of Natal
Private Bag X01
Scottsville, Pietermaritzburg
3209 South Africa

Scott Lewis
Old World Aviaries
Austin, TX

(Editor's note: This article first appeared in AFA Annual Conference Proceedings, 2003. The authors hold copyright to the article and have made some small changes.)

The genus Poicephalus comprises 10 species of small and medium-sized parrots, which collectively are distributed over much of Africa south of the Sahara Desert. The genus is characterized by parrots that:


Figure 1 shows a composite distribution map of the genus (composited from Forshaw 1989). The ranges shown in the figure comprise mainly forests, woodlands, forested savannas, and scrublands. Species of the genus avoid the Sahara Desert, but not the semi-arid deserts of Namibia (Rueppell’s Parrot) and the Horn of Africa (Red-bellied Parrot). They also avoid the rainforests of the Congo River Basin, except for Jardine’s Parrot.

Figure 1. Distribution of the genus Poicephalus.


Table 1 lists the 10 species currently recognized in the genus Poicephalus.

Table 1. Species of Poicephalus.
Common name
P. crassus Niam-Niam Parrot
P. cryptoxanthus Brown-headed Parrot
P. flavifrons Yellow-faced Parrot
P. fuscicollis Brown-necked & Grey-headed Parrots
P. gulielmi Jardine's Parrot
P. meyeri Meyer's Parrot
P. robustus Cape Parrot
P. rueppellii Rueppell's Parrot
P. rufiventris Red-bellied Parrot
P. senegalus Senegal Parrot

With the exception of the recent separation of P. fuscicollis from P. robustus, these species are well established, although P. crassus was formally considered a subspecies of P. cryptoxanthus. (Although P. crassus and P. cryptoxanthus are geographically distinct, given their physical similarities, DNA studies might shed more light on the appropriate status of the two taxa). The Jardine’s Parrot species–complex (P.g. gulielmi, P.g. fantiensis, and P. g. massaicus) needs taxonomic revision and may generate more than one species.

The species of Poicephalus have traditionally been grouped into two superspecies clusters. These are:

Recent genomic DNA studies of eight species of African parrots (Massa, et al., In Press, Solms et al., In Press) reinforce this grouping. Figure2 shows a dendrogram of African parrots based on DNA analysis. Branching points indicate genetic distances among the species.

Figure 2. Relationship of African parrot taxa based on genomic DNA studies (Solms, et al. In Press).

Jardine's Parrot and the Cape Parrot form a separate cluster from the Senegal, Red-bellied, Brown-headed, and Meyer's Parrots (Figure 2), supporting the concept of two major superspecies clusters within the genus. Interestingly, the P. meyeri superspecies complex includes two other clusters, one containing P. senegalus and P. rufiventris and the other P. cryptoxanthus and P. meyeri . (As an aside, this study suggests that African Grey Parrots [Psittacus erithacus] are more closely related to Lovebirds [Agapornis] than to Poicephalus.)

The most recent taxonomic change in the genus has been the separation of the three subspecies of P. robustus into two separate species (Clancey 1997, Wirminghaus, et al. 2002, Perrin, In Press). One species, P. robustus, the Cape Parrot, is endangered and endemic to South Africa . The other species, P. fuscicollis, includes two subspecies, P.f. fuscicollis and P.f. suahelicus, the Brown-necked and Grey-headed Parrots, respectively.

Recently, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) studies have been performed on these taxa along with P. cryptoxanthus as an out-group species (Solms, et al. In Press). Figure 3 shows a dendrogram based on mtDNA differences along with distributions of the taxa (Massa et al. In Press). The numbers in the figure represent relative genetic distance.

Figure 3. mtDNA dendrogram of P. robustus, P.f. fuscicollis, and P.f. suahelicus (Solms, et al. In Press)

Table 2 (Solms, et al. In press) shows the percent divergence of the taxa in Figure 3. As shown in Table 2, P. robustus displays 1.2% and 1.5% divergence from P.f. suahelicus and P.f. fuscicollis , respectively, while P.f. suahelicus and P.f. fuscicollis show only 0.7% divergence.

Table 2. Percent divergence based on mtDNA analysis.
Taxon 1
Taxon 2
Percent divergence
P. robustus P.f. suahelicus
P. robustus P.f. fuscicollis
P.f. suahelicus P.f. fuscicollis
P. robustus P. cryptoxanthus

The mtDNA results indicate that P.f. suahelicus and P.f. fuscicollis are very similar, and both are significantly more distant from P. robustus than they are from each other (Figure 3, Table 2). This study validates the new classification of the species into two species of relatively recent divergence.


Clancey, P.A.A. 1997. The Cape Parrot: an additional valid species. Honeyguide. 43: 61-62.

Forshaw, J.M. 1989. Parrots of the World. Kevin Weldon & Associates Pty Ltd, Australia .

Massa , R., Sara, M., Piazza, M.A.S., Gaetano, C.D., Randazzo, M., & Cognetti, G. In Press. A molecular approach to the taxonomy and biogeography of African parrots.

Perrin, M.R., In Prep. Definition and acceptance of species rank for the Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus.

Solms, L., Perrin, M.R., Downs , C.T., Symes, C.T. & Bloomer, P. In Press. DNA sequencing confirms the species status of the Cape Parrot : Implications for its conservation status.

Wirminghaus, J.O., Downs , C.T., Symes, C.T. & Perrin, M.R. 2002. Taxonomic relationships of the subspecies of the Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus (Gmelin). Journal of Natural History. 36: 361-378.

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