Southern Africa is much better known for its mammals than its birds, since this is home to the ‘big five’, lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhinoceros, as well as a number of other mammals and reptiles that rank higher than humans on the food chain. Nevertheless, if you can keep from looking over your shoulder for things that like to kill or eat people, the birds are plentiful, unusual and very colorful. The birds of southern Africa range from small and agile sunbirds, Africa’s answer to our hummingbirds, to Ostriches, a bird capable of disemboweling a human with a single swift kick. One family of birds in southern Africa that quickly became one of our favorites was Ploceidae, the family of small passerines named weavers, widowbirds and bishops. These birds all have one key skill in common: they weave intricately woven nests of fine leaf fibers, grasses and other vegetation into complex chambers consisting of a thousand strands of material. These nests, built exclusively by the male weavers, start with a single knot (weaver birds are the only bird known to be able to tie a knot), and then painstakingly woven into a solid structure with a narrow, downward-facing tubular entrance. Once completed, the male builder then begins an elaborate series of beautiful fanned wing displays to draw potential partners to an open house, and hopefully a move-in followed by a family. These nests are often built over or near water, and in large communities. We saw single trees with dozens of identical woven nests, although many of them fail inspection for one reason or another and remain unused. Some weaver birds build nests in trees and some on canes in rivers. Sociable Weavers build apartment-house nests in which as many as 300 pairs of weavers have separate chambers entered from individual entrances in a huge complex that can seemingly overwhelm an entire tree.

There are 118 species of weavers, widowbirds and bishops worldwide, and although some live in Asia, by far most of these birds are residents of sub-Saharan Africa. On our recent trip to southern Africa we counted 18 species of weavers, and since it was Africa’s spring we watched and photographed many examples of nest-building. One of the more fascinating species of this family is the Long-tailed Widowbird. Although males and females look remarkably alike and drab during most of the year, when spring arrives the male changes dramatically. His feathers change from tawny to a rich black and he grows twelve tail feathers up to twenty inches in length. Flying with this elongated tail is quite a challenge, and we watched multiple birds that appeared to have trouble staying aloft as they beat their wings in an attempt to keep their 20-inch keel feathers above the ground. Unlike the weaver birds, female widowbirds weave the nests, probably for practical reasons considering the male’s difficulty in maneuvering such a long tail. If you are lucky enough to have an African trip on your radar, try to arrange your visit to include a southern hemisphere spring, and take extra camera cards. And don’t forget to look over your shoulder from time to time. Those mammals at the top of the food chain are hungry year-round.

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