Birds of South Africa

Mike Jones

Grey Lourie
Grey Lourie
Since leaving the village nine years ago we have led very selfish lives. Therefore I cannot write about Scouting in South Africa, or other vocations such as Chris and Priscilla’s work in Cape Town. Ah yes, you recently reported that Ron Wood was retiring. Ron is the only person to have had the “privilege” of teaching our four children. As they have all developed a love of nature, and especially bird life, from his inspired teaching and tours through Brightwell and Sotwell, what better to write about?

We have a lovely house on half an acre of sloping, wooded land. Trees were here in abundance – unfortunately the wrong sort of trees that have gradually had to succumb to progress but the bird life in our garden is fabulous.

The birds come in all sizes and colours. The largest birds to land in our garden have been Hadeda Ibises although probably some egrets almost match their size. The Hadedas are known by their call in flight, which is a harsh and loud “Ha ha, ha de da”. Because ibises tend to fly low in flocks, or skeins, their loud call at 5am isn’t always appreciated! The Cattle Egrets, for example, are those white birds, rather like herons, that one always sees following cattle around in films about Africa.

One other large bird that we can’t claim to be a visitor to our garden is a Spotted Eagle Owl. When we take our dog for a walk in the evening we have met him standing on the ground, or on a convenient porch, watching us and any traffic. Eagle Owls have ear-like tufts and one’s first impression is “Here’s a large cat sitting and waiting for us”. It’s only when the dog’s curiosity exceeds the owl’s tameness that one realises it isn’t a cat after all.

The smallest birds we have, in large quantities, are White-eyes and other kinds of warblers. The White-eyes are yellow-green and rather like a Wren. They are gregarious. Sometimes we have as many as 20 – 30 moving through the trees and bushes. We also have numerous Sunbirds, which have curved beaks for extracting the nectar from our flowers. They are very similar to Humming birds and, because we have several varieties in the garden, their colours vary from black through blue, green and to red and yellow.

It’s amazing to think that many of our birds are migrants from Europe. We have Swifts, Swallows and Martins in and around the garden. They all arrive in September/October. Some, such as the Larger Striped Swallow, come from Russia and Eastern Europe. Probably the most exciting migrant to visit the garden regularly is the Hoopoe. Sometimes there are as many as four Hoopoes in the garden at once. When they land to dig for grubs their large crests become erect. As they are only rare visitors to England, bird lovers would be thrilled to see them here. We also have Redbilled Woodhoopoes in the garden. Unlike their cousins they have no crests. Instead of travelling in pairs they fly in large flocks. They are much noisier too. Their call is a harsh chattering whereas the Hoopoes announce their arrival with a soft, whistling “hoo-poo”.

Most of the birds are very colourful. Masked Weavers are common finch-type birds., The males are bright yellow with black faces. He weaves a nest from long grass to hang from the end of a thin branch of a tree. He then presents his work to his mate. If the female does not approve, she tears it to bits in front of him! It is often amusing to watch this process as a number of weaver nests are right outside our kitchen window. The poor male spends a week or more slaving away, only to see his hard work destroyed in minutes. So he starts again. Love is a wonderful incentive! Once the female has accepted the nest, the male strips the branch of leaves for some way back. We understand that this is to expose any snakes that might raid the nest for the eggs. Fortunately though, snakes aren’t any more common here than in the village.

We also occasionally have another colourful finch, the Red Bishop, with a black head and brilliant scarlet chest and back. They are very common near water but we are some way away from a stream. Some friends of ours have many of them in their garden. They decided to install a feeding tray and were advised to buy chick food to attract the Bishops. What did they get? The neighbour’s chickens!

I’ve already mentioned noisy birds. One such regular visitor is a woodpecker, known as a Crested Barbet. Like most woodpeckers he has some red feathers on his forehead and tail. His face and chest are yellow, with a black and white spotted collar, and a small crest. He sits in the top of a large tree chattering away for what seems hours on end.

Another common bird family are the shrikes. The Fiscal Shrike is conspicuously marked in black and white. These markings are probably meant as a warning to other small birds as shrikes are aggressive killers. It is also known as the Butcherbird as, when it has killed a bird or lizard, it often impales its kill on a thorn bush or barbed wire.

Burchell's CoucalTwo of our more lovable residents are a pair of Burchell’s Coucal. The coucals are members of the cuckoo family, but they build their own nests. They are large ungainly birds, mostly black, cream and brown but with red eyes and some green feathers. They flop down into the garden and then fly heavily into the trees. Last year they produced three young but we are not sure of their fate. We, and all our neighbours, have cats. However, the adults are still here.

Yes, we have thrushes of various sorts too, including a Cape Robin that is so called because of his colouring. We also have sparrows that seem to thrive everywhere we’ve ever been, and several kinds of doves.

Some of you will remember our ducks at Tioga. We have a swimming pool in Pretoria. As much as we’d love to keep ducks here, we are convinced that they and the pool are incompatible. I don’t know if anyone has ever measured a duck’s daily intake of food but we’ve noticed that the throughput is considerable, especially when they are in the water!

I always thought that the birdlife in England was delightful. Here it is much more varied than most people realise. We never cease to be entertained by the different species we come across.

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