It was late in the day as I drove up to a waterhole. I’d been away from camp for a day or two and had planned a couple of hours in the shade of a henna bush, as the sun went down, to see if any elephants came to drink, and to check what else was around.
As I nudged in through the bush, I was startled by a bull elephant who crashed past the car at a run, trumpeting – head raised, ears out, tail up. He was clearly terrified.
There aren’t many things that frighten an elephant. He might have stumbled on a pride of lions, but more likely he’d seen a person, or caught the scent of humans. I’d come in from downwind, as usual, so as not to spook any animal drinking. He’d not given me a glance as he passed though, so I didn’t think I was the cause. That left poachers or lions. The waterhole is only a few miles from a ranger post, so poachers seemed unlikely. There was no sign of lions; I was mystified – more so when I got to the pool to find only a small flock of tiny red-billed birds drinking.
As I watched they were joined by a few more from the branches above, and then a line of others trickled in. They would hover briefly, land a few inches from the water’s edge then hop forward. Each scooped a single beak-full and then fluttered back into the air. As they did, drops spilled from their beaks, to be caught and scattered by the wings of those below. The trickle of birds grew to a torrent and a fine spray formed above where they drank. Within seconds there were thousands flying in. The spray caught the light and for a few moments, I stood mesmerized, backed by a partial rainbow, the centre of a whirling flock.
The spell was broken as a shadow whipped over the ground; a lanner falcon above it. The birds rose as a cloud, and the roar produced by thousands of tiny wingbeats sounded more like a train passing by. I knew then what had frightened the elephant.
They descended, chattering, on to the surrounding henna bushes and the branches sagged beneath them. They seemed to forget the falcon the moment it was out of sight – it might have been successful … I couldn’t see in the melee.
Seconds later, one brave soul fluttered down to drink and immediately ten thousand others followed.
Until last week, if asked, I’d have said that elephants had a greater presence than any other animal in Tsavo. For the last few days though, the giants around our camp have been eclipsed by this tiny bird, no bigger than a sparrow.
Alone, it would be noticed only by an avid ‘birder’, and ticked off as a ‘red-billed quelea’ – the most populous bird species in the world. As such, it might warrant a quick glance through binoculars, but then be passed over in pursuit of bigger, more exciting quarry.
When they get together though, red-billed quelea are impossible to ignore. The same swirling flocks that can panic an elephant, can destroy a farmer’s crop in hours.
In years of exceptional rainfall, as they migrate across the continent, their nesting ‘season’ rolls from one to the next and they can raise four or five broods in a year. This year, the short rains persisted a month beyond normal, and as a result, the grass grew thicker and more extensively than it has for years.
Now, it is all setting seed and that has brought the quelea. Where they come from is a mystery. We have a few resident flocks in Tsavo but, when conditions are right, they get swamped by migrants. This evening, coming home after filming, we drove alongside some. Their gentle, undulating flight maintained a constant 40 km/hr. They can sustain that for hours. The birds we are seeing might have flown a thousand kilometres, in just a few days. What I don’t understand is how they knew there was food here, and how they timed it so perfectly. In another week it would have gone. I have seen how elephants react to distant thunderstorms and travel to where new growth will appear a few days after rain… but how quelea manage it, and the distance they fly, amazes me.
Time and again, we’ve tried to track them from the air, but it is not easy. They are most visible as they rise from the ground with the setting sun behind them when, for a second or two, their backlit wings show clearly. We have an ancient Cessna (think 40 year old land-rover… with wings), but flying into the sun, with a crazed and milky windscreen, it is hard to see anything – let alone a flock of tiny birds.
Besides requiring seed, quelea need to drink everyday – and waterholes are one feature we can find easily from the air. They are a focus for predators, and it is where quelea are at their most vulnerable.
Ever since I was a child, watching starling murmurations whirling in to roost each winter evening in the reedbeds at Marazion, I have been amazed that birds in a flock never appear to hit each other.
Later, I saw that they did – but if they are all traveling in the same direction, then a momentary loss of altitude due to a soft collision has little consequence and goes unnoticed by an observer.
If it happens when birds are hovering over water then the outcome can be very different. A tiny ditched quelea, fluttering across the surface trying to get airborne, then becomes an invitation to a predator. In the past few days, we’ve seen predators from fish eagles to monitor lizards all target the tiny swimmers butterfly-stroking their way to shore. If the water-logged quelea reaches the bank, it can find refuge in the tangle of thorny henna and dry off before rejoining the flock.
Some of the predators at the waterholes are passage migrants from Europe, avian gap-year students, and the stop-over a temporary respite in their travels. In the past few days, European storks, Eurasian rollers and Steppe eagles have all gorged on quelea. The weight that they put on will help fuel their flight northwards, in a few weeks time.
Watching starlings as a boy, a valuable lesson I learned was, occasionally, to focus on the individual rather than the flock. The first time I did it with a starling I was entranced. I remember how the light caught the plumage and produced a sparkling iridescence – the equal of any tropical bird. When I tried it with quelea, I was just as in awe, for within the same species, males come in three different colours; some are blush pink, while others are buff with black face masks, and some have no masks at all. All have red beaks when they are breeding.
In some birds a temporary, reddish colour-change in the breeding season is a sign of good health and condition. It costs the males energy to store and express carotenoid pigments. The advantage to the females is that they can pick the fittest mates, who have resources to burn, simply by choosing the most colourful. It serves the same function as the tail of a peacock, the antlers of a deer or owning a red lamborghini.
Amongst arable farmers in sub-Saharan Africa – quelea have a bad reputation. In the past, whole colonies were wiped out by spraying ‘avicide’ poison from aircraft. Today, farmers still fire-bomb their roosts, using dynamite together with a mix of diesel and petrol. Apparently it has little impact on the overall population. ‘Too numerous to count’ is the phrase most often associated with quelea.
The same phrase was used to describe a similar bird, a continent away, whose population, like the quelea, numbered billions. The passenger pigeon was migratory and seed-eating, much like the quelea. Their immense flocks could darken the skies for hours as they passed through the US, between the Atlantic ocean and the Rocky Mountains.
Like the quelea, passenger pigeons nested in huge colonies; a single colony could cover 850 square miles. In a natural situation, colonial nesting can be hugely successful as it overwhelms the local predators. Bring humans into the mix though, and it can lead to a species’ downfall. In 1800, over a third of all the birds in America were passenger pigeons. One hundred years later, they were extinct in the wild.
In the intervening century they were hunted and killed at their nest sites and roosts – using chemicals, guns, nets or simply by cutting down trees full of chicks. The last passenger pigeon, Martha, died in Cincinnati zoo a hundred years ago – and with her, went the species.
What drove the passenger pigeon to extinction was the ready market for its meat – luckily for the quelea it weighs less than an ounce, barely a twentieth of the weight of a pigeon. Our quelea invasion lasted just a few days. We had no idea they were coming. Before they arrived the grass was head-high in places – now it is flattened, the birds gone. I enjoy the mystery of not knowing where they came from, or where they’ve gone.
I picture them as a tide rolling over the continent, ebbing and flowing with the rains. Lingering just long enough to raise a family when conditions are right – always looking for greener pastures…
In a continent increasingly settled, with wildlife corridors, buffer zones and fences, I like to think that one tiny bird remains a true nomad.
© Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.