The widow’s long tales

Mid-December in South Africa is usually a time when all the avian migrants have arrived. They add variety, colour and complexity to our avian population. Avian migrants travel further and do not have to contend with the same issues that their human species have to face.

South Africa does not have “birds of paradise”, but it does have resident birds of extraordinary beauty.

“When you look what do you see – what you have been taught or perhaps an association? In nature take some time to look, unaffected and unconditional. Watch its behaviour and you will see its intimate understanding of its surroundings – its natural intelligence. Then perhaps you will begin to see what you are looking at.” ~ Mike Haworth

One male bird which really puts on the ritz in summer is the long tailed widowbird. The family of widowbirds are so-called because they are all dressed in black. Their overall plumage is black with flashes and sashes of vibrant reds, oranges and white.

These widowbirds are seed eaters so once the summer rains nourish the grass it grows quickly producing a bounty of seeds for these birds to feed on.

“The bird of paradise only alights on the hand that does not grasp.”~ John Berry

The transformation for the summer breeding season is extraordinary. The next image was taken of an adult male long tailed widowbird in the non-breeding winter season. The males lose their long luxurious black tail feathers and their winter plumage moults to a dark streaked brown colour though they retain the red-orange epaulet on their shoulders with a white band under the red shoulder marking.

Young males at the start of the breeding season begin to grow their tail feathers but they have not yet developed their striking body colouring.

Even in the non-breeding season the males and females exhibit differences in behaviour and morphological traits. The differences become more apparent as the breeding season develops. Adult males become entirely black, including under their wing-coverts. Males’ wing shoulders are orange red and their wing-coverts white. Their bills are bluish white. Males develop their luxuriously black long tails, which contain twelve tail feathers.

Males defend territories in the grasslands with vigour and panache. Their displays are something to behold. Females have a long nesting period so survey the male territory carefully before choosing a mate. Breeding takes place from February to July, reaching its peak in March and April. Unlike the bishops and weavers, the females weave the nests, which are shaped in large dome structures with a lining of seedheads, anchored in the high grass stems within males’ territories.

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” ~-Brandon Sanderson

The males put on an elaborate display to attract females. When perched on a grass stem, they fluff out their head and neck feathers and open their wings to look larger and more dramatic and show off their epaulets.

One less romantic explanation for why females favour long tails in males is that the expanded tail enlarges the lateral surface area of the male by 2–3 times, making him much more visible from far distances over open grassland.

When a female enters his territory, the male takes off and with a ‘keeled’ tail and starts his deliberate slow exaggerated flight and is sure to flash his colourful epaulets.

“Stories are our primary tools of learning and teaching, the repositories of our lore and legends. They bring order into our confusing world. Think about how many times a day you use stories to pass along data, insights, memories or common-sense advice.” ~ Edward Miller

Widowbirds and bishops are polygynous species. This means the male mates with many females so the females must chose carefully. Females must chose the males which are strongest with the best genes, so the only way to judge this from a distance must be their displays and looks. The grander the displays and longer and more luxurious the male’s tail feathers the more attractive – something like the length and colour of a male lion’s mane.

The long-tailed widowbird’s diet consists mainly of seeds, supplemented occasionally by insects. Watching them at Marievale Bird Sanctuary they seem to do most of their foraging in flocks on the ground and in the grass.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” ~ Jorge Luis Borges

Southern Africa cannot offer the scientifically classified paradisaeidae, “birds of paradise”, which are known for their gorgeous colours and remarkable displays. This part of the world can offer the striking male long-tailed widowbird which has one of the most remarkable ornaments among passerine (feet adapted to perching) birds. Their tails feathers have a luxurious black sheen and can be more than half a metre long. They possess the most extreme sexual ornament among the Euplectes family of weaver, bishops and widowbirds.

“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” ~ Ansel Adams

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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