If your first thought was “aww that sounds like ‘nom-nom’ parrot!”, you’re right, but in one of the worst ways possible. Before I get to that, let’s talk about why this grass-green and olive-brown flitter would make a good secret agent.

Under the radar

In 1997 Collar said the Niam-Niam (Poicephalus crassus) was the “the least known African parrot”, and it wasn’t until 20 years later that we got a photo in the wild.

Birding Africa and the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology clubbed together to plug a 40-year knowledge gap, and after hearing a shrill cry from a nearby tree, snapped the first photos of the Niam-Niam parrot, one of which is above. There’s always someone who wants to take one home, dead or alive, so the group wisely decided to keep shtum about its actual location. So like a good agent, this parrot has a trusted network. And why break the habit of four decades?

Seriously, it was hard to find anything about this central African flitter, even though it’s thought to be common. Most of the studies I found mentioned it by omission, with some pointing the finger at southern Africa for getting the lion’s share of research resources.

The good news is that it’s not known in captivity either, so it hasn’t been plundered by the pet trade. A spy would definitely be too smart for that.

It does form part of a cool-sounding “super-species” with the similar Meyer’s, Rüppell’s, Senegal, brown-headed and red-bellied parrot, so blending into a group and mistaken identity also play a part here.

Hiding in plain sight…?

Reichenow thought the Niam-Niam parrot was just a teenage version of the yellow-fronted parrot (Poicephalus flavifrons), among other things due to some yellow feathers on its head.

Yellow-fronted parrot, by Nik Borrow.

Neumann, however, blew its cover by saying that didn’t mean anything, it was definitely distinct, and that unlike the yellow-fronted parrot it preferred the lowlands (it rarely ventures above 1,000 metres/3,280 feet altitude). You can forgive someone for mixing up similar species nearby. Not so much in this next instance.

Between January 1994 and June 1997, Garrett collected sightings of non-native parrots in his local area, and the Niam-Niam was apparently among them. Impressive, since this was thousands of miles away in Los Angeles.

Either the spotter misread the literature, or was the worst alibi ever. Or maybe the best…? But that’s not the most outrageous case of mistaken identity involving the Niam-Niam parrot.

Although R. Bowdler Sharpe was the one who documented and named it, the first ever specimen was collected by an F. Bohndorff. At one point he was on the run from Sudanese father-and-son slave-traders Zebehr and Suleiman, and he couldn’t have dodged their soldiers and returned to central Africa – where he later found the Niam-Niam parrot – without disguising himself as a female slave. Yeah…Euro-African relations weren’t fantastic at this point, which brings us to the name.

Code Name: Awkward

I’m not talking about the Latin one, which at first glance sounds like “fat with a different head”. Poicephalus refers to how parrots in this genus have a head that’s a different colour to their body, and crassus apparently means “fat”. It’s probably more like “stout”, but in any case, it’s not a patch on the common name.

Sharpe’s first record of the parrot says it was from Ndoruma, in “Niam-Niam Country”. This is in what’s now South Sudan, but in the 19th century the “Niam-Niam” part was used to imply certain habits of the locals. And yes, the “nom-nom” kind – as Kramer et al. put it, “this archaic and pejorative term…was used to suggest cannibalism”.

Ugh. Parrots should say offensive words, not be named after one.

Niam-Niam Parrot Fact File

Imagery © 2020 NASA, TerraMetrics, Map data © 2020 Mapa GISrael United Kingdom

What? Small green and olive brown African parrot with red eyes.

Latin: Poicephalus crassus

First recorded? Named in 1884 by R. Bowdler Sharpe, part of F. Bohndorff’s collection from what is now South Sudan.

Where? Woodlands and savannah of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Sudan and South Sudan, and possibly also Cameroon.

Probably not Los Angeles, though.

How big? Just under ruler length at 24 cm / 9.5 inches long, with a wingspan of 16 cm / 6.5 inches.

Diet? Going by its relatives, the usual parrot pickings like nuts and seeds.

Social behaviour? It tends to hang around in pairs or small groups, usually close to water, and is thought to nest in August-September. That’s pretty much all we know at this point.

Endangered? It has a large range and is assumed to be common locally, so Least Concern on the IUCN’s Red List (2016).

It looks cute. Does it need my help at all?

For once it’s not threatened by the exotic pet trade, and it’s found in several Important Bird Areas (IBAs) across its range. There are no specific conservation drives, but the Wildlife Conservation Society has several projects in central Africa.

Featured image credit:  © Callan Cohen, Claire Spottiswoode and Julian Francis, Birding Africa.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing

Amadon, Dean. 1966. “The superspecies concept“, Systematic Biology 15(3):245-249.

BirdLife International. 2016. “Poicephalus crassusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22685299A93066799“. 

Boyes, Rutledge S. and Perrin, Michael R. 2009. “The feeding ecology of Meyer’s Parrot Poicephalus meyeri in the Okavango Delta, Botswana“, Ostrich 80(3):153-164.

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. No date. “Zande“. Britannica.com.

First photographs of Niam-niam Parrot, not seen for almost 40 years“. 2017. Birding Africa/Cape Town Pelagics.

Friedmann, Herbert. 1930. “Birds collected by the Childs Frick Expedition to Ethiopia and Kenya Colony“, Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum, Bulletin 153.

Garrett, Kimball L. 1997. “Population status and distribution of naturalized parrots in southern California“, Western Birds 27(4):187-195.

Johnson, Sibylle. No date. “Niam-Niam parrots“. Beauty of Birds.

Joseph, Leo, et al. 2016. “Book reviews“, Emu – Austral Ornithology 114(1):86-90.

Kramer, Robert S., et al. 2013. “Historical dictionary of the Sudan“. Rowman and Littlefield.

Martin, Rowan O. et al. 2014. ” Research and conservation of the larger parrots of Africa and Madagascar: a review of knowledge gaps and opportunities“, Ostrich 85(3): 205-233.

Massa, Renato et al. 2000. “A molecular approach to the taxonomy
and biogeography of African parrots
“, Italian Journal of Zoology 67(3):313-317.

Niam-Niam parrot“. No date. Mascotarios.org.

Pakenham, Thomas. 2015. “The scramble for Africa“. Hachette.

Robertson, Iain et al. 1994. “Recent reports“. Bulletin of the African Bird Club 1(1):28-31.

Salvadori, T. 1906. “Notes on the parrots“, Ibis, a Quarterly Journal of Ornithology VI:124-131.

Sclater, W.L., and Mackworth-Praed, C. 1919. “A list of the birds of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, based on the collections of Mr. A. L. Butler, Mr. A Chapman and Captain H. Lynes, R.N., and Major Cuthbert Christy, R.A.M.C. (T.F.). Part III – Pieidae – Sagittariidae“, Ibis, a Quarterly Journal of Ornithology XI:628-708.

Selier, Jeanetta. 2015. “Cape parrot“. South African National Biodiversity Institute.

Sharbeck, James. 2009. “Crass“. Sesquiotica.

Sharpe, R. Bowdler. 1884. “Notes on a collection of birds made by Herr F. Bohndorff in Bahr el Ghazal Province and the Nyam-nyam Country in Equatorial Africa“, Journal of the Linnean Society of London 27:419-441.

Venuto, V., et al. 2001. “Distress call in six species of African Poicephalus parrots“, Ethology Ecology & Evolution 13(1): 49-68.