I’m not a birder. For the same reason I’m not a suicide bomber. Every faith has its fanatics, its extremists, its lunatic fringe who take things too far, and if wildlife were a faith, the birders would be the ones trying to sneak through airport security with a shoe-heel full of plastic explosive and a craft knife hidden in a hollowed out copy of Roberts Birds of Southern Africa.
These are not quiet, gentle people with a harmless and diverting hobby. These are people who will charter a small boat to sail out into South Africa’s famously stormy seas to see one particular type of petrel. Which looks exactly like all the other petrels. These are people who keep cross- referenced spread sheets of every bird they have ever seen, where they saw it, and when. These are people who plan family holidays around the possibility of seeing a tiny, nondescript little lark come flitting past. They’re looking for lifers; birds that they’ve never seen before that they can add to their life list. They are not to be trifled with.
My parents once went to a dinner party which nearly ended up in a fist fight. Glasses were knocked over, chairs upended, and two factions of birders ended up glaring at each other from opposite sides of the dining room, like rival gangs in a low rent production of West Side Story. All because one guy said he had seen a bird that another guy said he couldn’t have.
As I said, I’m not one of them. Most of my life, I have been in love with wildlife in one form or another, but the birding thing just never quite caught hold of me. But a curious thing has happened. Over the years, I have learnt a lot of their names. I can identify a respectable number of them, but identifying things as they hop, half hidden, through the leaves of a tall tree or shoot past high in the sky doesn’t give me much of a thrill. Other things do.
Every now and then, you will see an otherwise nondescript little bird flap down to a dusty patch and lie down in the dust. It will spread out its wings and fluff out its feathers and just lie there for a while. Then it will hop up, dust itself off, and fly away again. It’s not having a rest, or even a psychotic episode; it’s having a bath. An ant bath.
They have found themselves a nest of particularly aggressive nest of ants, lain themselves down on top of it, and invited the ants aboard. The ants will scavenge off any edible detritus from the bird’s feathers, and take out the odd parasite, but more importantly than that, if they get excited enough, they will douse the bird’s feathers with formic acid, nature’s own pest control. Some birds will even go so far as to pick up some ants and wipe themselves down with them.
Now that sort of thing does give me a thrill. Birds dance. They sing duets. They suddenly stop flying and drop from the sky like stones, only pulling up at the last second. Water birds waggle their bright yellow feet around to lure in fish. Eagles lock claws in the sky and spin around in crazy, uncontrolled circles. Doves, international symbols of peace and harmony that they are, have protracted and bloody battles, sometimes to the death. These sorts of shenanigans are worth watching.
And so, while I’ve never been a birder, I have become a bird watcher. I could go the rest of my life without seeing a brand new species to add to my life list, but I can sit for hours watching the boring old common ones in my garden do something new and interesting. Which is lucky. For me, if not you. Because I can’t carry on writing about the ecosystem of the Lowveld without doing the birds.
I’m starting small. There are over 500 species living in the Lowveld, and because I want to finish this whole thing before I die, I’m going to ignore most of them. I’ll just try to pick out some of the cooler ones.
There are a handful of feathered leprechauns down in the bush which are referred to by the scientific community as “tiny little birds”. There are quite a few of them, with names like Waxbills, Firefinches, Indigobirds and Mannekins. They are all seed eaters. Some of them, like the Waxbills and the Firefinches, are actually quite pretty. They tend to hang around in little mixed groups, hopping around and tweeting quietly. And that’s all they do.
But it doesn’t matter. Because they are tiny. My Aunt used to have a herd of tiny cows, and we visited, we would all go out just to have a look at them being tiny. People get beside themselves with joy when they see those tiny horses that look like toys. We spend thousands on tiny dogs and tiny pigs. Because tiny things are just cool. Sheep are inordinately dull creatures, but if you filled up a field with tiny sheep, people would be lining up to watch them be tiny. Tiny things are just nice to have around.
Like most families, the “tiny little birds” have an embarrassing cousin. This is a pin tailed Whydah.
He’s tiny too. He also hops around tweeting quietly. Bit dull looking, though. The only thing that makes him mildly interesting is that he is a parasitic breeder, like the cuckoos. And then, when he starts to feel that familiar itch common to us all, this happens.
His beak goes red, his feathers black and white, and his tail grows beyond the realms of common sense. And tiny hell is unleashed. The growth of that unfeasibly long tail must be fuelled by testosterone. No more hopping around and tweeting. He spends quite a bit of his time displaying. He will fly up into an open patch and then bob up and down like a cork in rough water, tail feathers flapping about like streamers. He spends the rest of his time trying to kill everything.
Pin-tailed Whydahs are spectacularly aggressive. They are territorial, but unlike most territorial creatures, they don’t only chase off other Whydahs. They will cheerfully see off other species of bird several orders of magnitude bigger than themselves. Because they have an inferiority complex. Because their cousins look like this.
That’s a Long Tailed Paradise Whydah. It’s a bit more relaxed. Less to prove. It shouldn’t get too cocky though. It has a cousin from the Highveld that looks like this.
Which is just silly.
Hummingbirds. Who don’t hum.
I’ve always been jealous of the Americas, because you guys have hummingbirds. They seem utterly charming; more like huge insects than miniature birds. And we came so close. We have sunbirds. They are almost exactly the same. They’re tiny too. They feed on nectar from (and pollinate) plants that have evolved alongside them, growing brightly coloured flowers whose shape echoes the curve of their beaks.
They are beautiful, too. At least the males are beautiful. Their heads have an iridescent sheen than shines like black opal in the bright Lowveld light, and their chests tend to have bright splashes of red and green.
But they don’t hum. Sunbirds cannot hover, which is the main thing that makes hummingbirds so cool. They have to perch to feed.
Who’s a pretty boy then?
The Sunbirds may be beautiful, but they pale to insignificance next to the Bee-eaters. Who, as you may have guessed, eat bees. Which is a tricky thing to do. They catch them on the wing, and then land, and use a nearby twig to scrape off the sting before swallowing the bee. Which is quite sensible. They eat wasps too. Which is not sensible.
Not content with eating bees and being beautiful. They do some other cool stuff too. They nest in holes in the ground, in steep riverbanks. And when they get cold, they snuggle.
But mostly, they are beautiful. They are sleek and lean and streamlined, and coloured like shards of an African sunset fallen to earth, all pinks and blues and greens and deep, deep reds.
Honeyguides are not beautiful. They can’t even claim to be ugly. They are dull. Uninspiring. Lacklustre.
Or at least, they would be. But they have a party trick. They eat bees too. And unlike almost any other creature on the planet, they can digest beeswax. That’s not their party trick though. It’s how they get the beeswax that makes them cool. The bees round here are not to be trifled with. They can kill horses. And they nest in holes in trees, where they are hard to get at. Which should put them out of reach of dull little birds. But doesn’t.
As you go walking through the bush, most of the birds will either ignore you or flee. If you’re lucky though, you may be joined by a Honeyguide. He won’t ignore you. He will perch on a prominent spot and begin to flap about, making an insistent churring noise, like a box full of matches being shaken. When he’s sure that he has your attention, he will fly a short distance away and do the same thing. Like Lassie when little Timmy has fallen down the well, he wants you to follow him. Don’t.
He’s leading you to a beehive. A couple of hundred years ago, this would have been a remarkably considerate thing to do. These days, when almost everything we eat is laced with sugar, it is hard for us to imagine the lengths that our ancestors would go to get their hands on honey. To get some idea of what I’m talking about, Google the “honey hunters of Nepal”. People used to cheerfully risk death to get their hands on that tasty, tasty sweetness. And some of them still do.
The Honeyguide wants you to build a fire, smoke out the bees, and chop open the nest, so that he can move in and feast on the dead bees, grubs, and wax combs you leave behind. He must be almost permanently disappointed, now that people can just nip off down to the shops and buy a bag of sweets.
It’s not all bad for him though. If at least some of the experts are to be believed, he can always try his party trick on a passing honey badger.
Arts and crafts
If any of you are keen on gardening, you will know that your hobby is fraught with all sorts of hazards that non-gardeners would never be able to imagine. Everybody knows about snails. And slugs, and caterpillars. The gardeners among you will know about white scale, and fungal rot, and black spot. But only people who live in Africa will know about the bloody Weavers. They should be charming. They weave beautiful, tidy little hanging baskets, a different pattern for each different kind of weaver.
And then set about destroying your trees. Every day, the weavers will set aside several hours purely to pick off every single leaf growing around their nests. The ground below the nests will end up littered with fresh green leaves, like autumn without the pretty colours, and your trees will end up with huge, scraggly patches of bare, wintery branches, like winter struck just a tiny patch of your man-made paradise at the end of spring. They’re protecting themselves from snakes, and other predators. If the branches around them are bare, it’s harder for anything to get at them.
You can’t get too angry at them though. They have their own crosses to bear. Their females are from hell. Watching a weaver build its nest is fascinating. They will carefully choose a branch and put up a solid anchor of pliable green grass, and then start to weave a perfectly oval basket, with an open chute at the bottom for the female to go into to lay her eggs. Afters days of endless toil, they will sit back and invite the female in to come and inspect their handiwork.
And she will tear it apart, piece by carefully placed piece, tufts of drying green grass falling to the ground to join the leaves of your once-beautiful tree. Sometimes, she will find the perfect spot and simply drop the whole nest down onto the ground. I have two of them on a shelf next to me now, both made by the same long-suffering male. Because a male weaver is nothing if not persistent. He will just start again. And again. And again. Love does strange things to us men.
As I said before, there are lots of different weavers, and they all have different nests. There are nests with open holes in the side, and nests with long, round tubes sticking out the bottom.
And then there are the Red-Billed Buffalo Weaver nests.
They’re a mess. They are social nesters, so they don’t make neat, discrete little baskets. They just tack their nests onto each other. And they don’t weave their nests out of grass, they use twigs. So you end up with huge, untidy piles of sticks stuck up in a tree, big enough for eagles to nest on top. They are poor cousins to their counterparts on the other side of the country, though. Social Weavers make the biggest nests in the world. They can pull down trees.
Apart from their obvious appeal to the pubescent teenage boys of the world, Penduline Tits exist purely to make the Weavers look even worse in the eyes of their females. They make their nests out of felt. Or something very much like felt. They use spider-webs and plant fibres to make a neat little oval just like a weaver’s. But softer, and snugglier, and smarter. It has a false entrance, leading to a dead end. The real entrance is just above it, but is hard to discover since the Tit pulls it closed. Which is pretty smart for a bird. Especially a bird called a Penduline Tit.
Red Billed Queleas
There used to be a bird in North America called the Passenger Pigeon. Or rather there used to be lots of birds in North America called Passenger Pigeons. Lots and lots. Some say over three billion. And now there are none. Hunting and habitat change took them from being the most populous bird on the planet to extinction in a couple of hundred years. Good one, mankind!
We don’t always have such a devastating effect on the creatures around us though. This is a Red Billed Quelea.
It’s a kind of weaver. It doesn’t look very impressive, does it? But that’s not how you usually see them. You usually see them like this.
That’s quite a lot of birds. Which makes sense; because some experts believe that there are over 10 billion of them. Thanks to us.
There have always been a lot of Queleas, but the numbers really shot up when we started large scale farming. Queleas eat seed. The huge, open grass plains of Africa always provided them with a lot of food, but nothing like the abundance we provide. We may think that we are omnivores, but mostly, just like the Queleas, we live on grass seeds. If you took away rice, wheat, and maize alone, we would starve. And we grow our grass seeds in abundance. Which has proved to be rather nice for the Queleas.
In the bush, they are a joy to watch. They behave more like great, airborne schools of fish than birds. Great clouds of them fill the sky, dipping and weaving in unison. When they feed, they move in a great rolling cloud, the ones in the back constantly flying up to the front of the flock to find some uneaten seed. When they drink, the order is reversed. A great carpet of them will land at the water’s edge. The ones in the front will pause for a brief drink and then fly off, while the ones behind them shuffle forward. And all the time, thirsty Queleas will be landing at the back of the queue to wait their turn.
When they roost, it can be pretty spectacular, too. They will settle on a patch of bush like over-abundant fruit. They are tiny, but the sheer weight of their numbers can break substantial branches.
They are not a joy for farmers to watch. They are a serious pest, causing as much damage as a plague of locusts. And so we have gone to war with them. Not some sort of half assed, chemically based attempts at control; proper war. With dynamite and flame throwers. Government agencies find where the huge flocks are roosting and carpet bomb them. With absolutely no visible effect on the overall population. They don’t have any flamethrowers, or even tiny sticks of dynamite, but they are winning, through sheer weight of numbers.
There is a way to fight them though. By standing in your field. These are birds, not locusts, and a single man can protect a fairly substantial field by just chasing them away. This does, however, entail standing in a filed all day every day for the whole growing season. Which is fine for small scale farmers, but a bit of a hassle for large scale industrial farms. I can just imagine all those farmers lying in their beds at night, after a long day chasing tiny birds around in the sun, dreaming peacefully and happily about Passenger Pigeons.
So that’s it. A start. There are many more bird posts to come. There are water birds, birds of prey, night birds, scavenger birds, game birds, parrots, shrikes, kingfishers, and on and on and on. It’s all a bit daunting. I may have to give up and become a birder, chartering boats and taking my family on crappy holidays, ticking off briefly glimpsed petrels on my life list instead. It seems like an easier option.