Scrab­ble for food has turned good birds bad

Weekend Witness - - Arts - SALLY JOHN­SON Birds

I THINK that things are get­ting tough out there in the real world as my lav­ish (and ex­pen­sive!) of­fer­ings of bird­seed and fruit are gain­ing a larger au­di­ence by the day. The win­ter car­pet of non-breed­ing Pin­tailed Why­dahs reached the as­tound­ing count of 60, yes 60 of these feisty lit­tle brown jobs with bright red beaks. They still squab­ble, but not with such vigour as they do when decked out in all their sum­mer long-tailed glory.

At a given — but un­seen by hu­man eye — sig­nal they all whoosh off and are re­placed by a mere rug of 20 Laugh­ing Doves. Now doves have the bib­li­cal rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing birds of peace and love; well this lot haven’t read the good book for they ar­gue and dis­agree and bicker about ev­ery­thing.

Even seem­ingly tough birds like a Thick-billed Weaver are chased re­lent­lessly if they dare to come too close to the food. Laugh­ing Doves are re­ally beau­ti­ful, decked out in soft grey and pink tones, but I wish they would be gen­tler to­wards their friends and neigh­bours.

A sprin­kling of sun­flower seeds as­sures a daily visit by a fe­male Thick-billed Weaver and her off­spring. For the first cou­ple of days, the pa­tient mum would pick up a sun­flower seed, de-husk it and then pass it to her flut­ter­ing child.

She now com­pletely ig­nores its fee­ble at­tempt at flut­ter beg­ging, and sim­ply car­ries on eat­ing. Al­though deep down I am rather sorry for the kid, it is highly amus­ing watch­ing its pa­thetic at­tempts at de-husk­ing the seeds. I had never be­fore re­ally thought about how spe­cialised the art of get­ting that nu­tri­tious ker­nel out of the hard cas­ing was. Use your binoc­u­lars and just watch the weaver take up the seed in its mouth, then ma­noeu­vre it into po­si­tion us­ing its tongue be­fore care­fully re­mov­ing the hard outer layer with­out dam­ag­ing the softer ker­nel.

This takes real skill, and the young­ster in my gar­den is find­ing it a hard les­son to learn. We are so lucky to have books and teach­ers to help us with life’s prob­lems. These guys just have to learn it all by trial and er­ror and a bit of in­stinct.

I hes­i­tate to say it af­ter my pre­vi­ous gaffe, but I re­ally do think that the lovely Par­adise Fly­catcher has fi­nally de­cided to head north. For two days now I have not seen that flashy red-brown streamer mak­ing pat­terns against the sky as it flit­ted among the lower branches in hopes of dis­turb­ing some­thing tasty.

I re­mem­ber vividly one July visit to Sa­bie when I saw a male Par­adise Fly­catcher while out bird­ing, and when I re­ported this sight­ing to the lo­cal ex­pert it was dis­missed out­right as very un­likely in­deed. This is a very un­mis­tak­able bird and I am be­gin­ning to think that some in­di­vid­u­als do avoid the ar­du­ous trek north and scratch out a mea­gre liv­ing through our win­ter. Could this be an­other bit of ev­i­dence for the cli­mate change brigade?

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