Weaving Home for Good – African Weaver Birds

 

Weaver Birds
African Weaver Birds. Usually Small, often colorful, seed-eating birds, makers of intricate, basket-like nests. Masked Weaver.

Suspended from the tiny tip of a twig at the attenuated top of a branch extending from an itself slender limb of a bristling thorn tree, an African weaver bird’s nest bobs.

"No uninvited guest, dinner guest at that, much bigger than a butterfly is likely to lite on that nest," I thought, marking a quick entry in my notebook. Africa, I read later in my apartment in Gaborone, capital city of Botswana, is home to more than fifty types of weaver birds, and India hosts a dozen or so more.

IN SPITE OF FREQUENT SIMILARITIES WEAVER BIRDS SHOW FASCINATING VARIETY 

In spite of frequent similarities, these birds are prone to fascinating variety. Weavers are active "anters," for one thing. They will clutch up an ant and apply it vigorously to their plumage. No one is exactly sure why. Still, as a group, they are probably most famous for weaving their chicks a good, solid nest.

Weavers are active "anters,"  . . . They will clutch up an ant and apply it vigorously to their plumage. No one is exactly sure why . . .

 

With an agile flick, a bright yellow, black-faced Masked weaver, Ploceus velatus, swoops in to cling upside down to the woven nest I've been watching. Near by, a handful of other small nests, all about the size of large grapefruit, are similarly sited with offspring security in mind.

Weaver bird
Black-Headed Weaver hangs from his nest as he knits the new home together.

Immediately his caterwauling begins, an insistent call, demanding the attention of females. Distinctive parts of the call sound to my ear like the rapid metal-to-metal tapping of a tack hammer on the end of a dangling steel rod. Although sometimes they just hang while calling or perhaps sway a bit, the suitors also frequently snap their black and yellow, narrow wings open and shut adding visuals to their audio display.

As with all his brethren, as mentioned above, this weaver knits up a lavish home for his potential spouse. Carefully building a tough yet airy nest by skillfully "weaving" fresh, flexible grass or palm fibers. At first bright green, his construction dries rapidly in the dry desert air, like a sphere of tiny steam-bent canoe ribs, into a resilient yet wonderfully light habitation.

. . .  as with all his brethren, as mentioned above, this weaver knits up a lavish home for his potential spouse. Carefully building a tough yet airy nest by skillfully "weaving" fresh, flexible grass or palm fibers . . . 

 

Some weaver birds choose to create their baskety nests above standing water to thwart predators. Others set up housekeeping near protective neighbors: wasp nests or roosts of bigger, aggressive birds. Really nervy weavers have taken up residence dangling beneath eagle eyries.

In Botswana, and indeed generally in Southern Africa, the weavers often have a place analogous to cardinals or robins in the United States. Their presence is enjoyed by many members of the regular population, entirely outside birders and biologists. Homeowners try to attract them, and conversation may be about the changing locations of the remarkable nests.

Botswana
Blue represents rain and water, Pula, so important for a nation on the edge of a desert.

According to common information, as a gaggle “. . . weavers are seed-eating birds with rounded conical bills, most of which breed in sub-Saharan Africa, with fewer species in tropical Asia and also in Australia. The weaver group is divided into the buffalo-weavers, sparrow-weavers and typical weavers.

Botswana
Africa, Botwsana indicated at the Southern part, above South Africa.

The males of many species are brightly coloured, usually in red or yellow and black, some species show variation in color only in the breeding season. Weavers get their name because of their elaborately woven nests. The nests vary in size, shape, material used, and construction techniques from species to species.” The small, quick-flitting weavers I watched in Botswana certainly exhibited character typical of their family ties!

. . .  the weaver group is divided into the buffalo-weavers, sparrow-weavers and typical weavers. The males of many species are brightly coloured, usually in red or yellow and black, some species show variation in color only in the breeding season . . . 

 

THE RED BILLED WEAVER OR DREAD QUELEA: A SCOURGE OF EAST AFRICA

Not all nominal weavers—those cone-billed, generally seed eating birds including sparrows and their allies in the family Ploceidae--are welcome because they can become enormously numerous. The so-called red-billed weaver or dread quelea has been a scourge in East Africa. When food is fairly plentiful, usually from well into until the end of the rainy season, the attractive little birds travel in large flocks. In times of scarcity, these communities coalesce into cities on the wing with populations sometimes, terrifyingly for the farmers, into the millions.

And, just as the benefit of agriculture, with its routinized cultivation and its irrigation practices, is the maximization of food productivity for human consumers, this benefit exists for the quelea to the farmer's detriment. Quelea, settling like smoke on millet and sorghum fields, can denude them of food in an hour.

Such ruthless avian reaping has stimulated the human victims of quelea infestation to reply equally ruthlessly. The pest species has been fire bombed, air assaulted with powerful toxins, net trapped, and suffered roost after roost put to the torch. None of these brutal methods serve the desired end: the vast hordes still arrive to chow down on hundreds of tons of agricultural produce.

 . . . such ruthless avian reaping has stimulated the human victims of quelea infestation to reply equally ruthlessly. The pest species has been fire bombed, air assaulted with powerful toxins, net trapped, and suffered roost after roost put to the torch . . . 

 

Sometimes all "weavers" are painted with the same brush. At issue here, of course, is the curious complexity of the nests among true weavers.

VARIETY IN WEAVER BIRD NESTS

Buffalo weavers of East Africa use press-gang tactics, adolescent non-breeding males helping build group nests from thorny acacia twigs. Each member of the dominant bird's harem gets an individual brood chamber. In Kenya, the communal nests of the white-browed weaver are reportedly fashioned with two openings in order to frustrate would-be predators.

Weaver Birds
African weaverbirds - the Brown-Capped Wever

Obviously, among many weavers, nests have taken on deeply social and physiological implications. Once the male masked weaver has selected a site--and unlike some cold climes when the short breeding season demands quick action, the climate in Botswana allows great indulgence--he turns out a nest. Then he literally hangs around whistling at the girls.

It's generally assumed that females, who certainly scope out the guys in the fashion of teenagers around a poolside, use the color of the nest as an indicator of competence. Young males must devote a meaningful period to practicing nest construction before entering the mating fray. In any event, a complete nest finished and still green may signal quickness, health, and dexterity--to say nothing of enthusiasm. Golden brown, drying nests are scorned.

Written sources sometimes say the female weavers will unweave nests they particularly don't like (because these things are tight, this is a real chore, involving undoing the labor which went into the original weaving). I never saw this among the many Masked Weavers and far fewer Spotted backed Weavers, Ploceus cucullatus, I observed while in Botswana. But nests were certainly torn up, abandoned, or apparently duplicated. Some weavers did seem to strip leaves from the twigs they intended to use, and perhaps just stripped leaves as a nervous habit.

 . . .  written sources sometimes say the female weavers will unweave nests they particularly don't like (because these things are tight, this is a real chore . . . 

 

With so many species in Africa it’s easy enough to find the nests. Often sociable, weavers frequently cluster in colonies making the nests yet more prominent. Within the nominal weavers, there's lots of variation in method, strategy, and behavior. For example, if the Masked Weavers lean toward architecture to impress mates, the exotic Red Bishop, Euplectes orix, relies on what looks like a fuzzy, bright-red balaclava and distinctive, attention-getting fancy flights.

Although forming in colonies might be viewed as risky, advertising the bird's presence to predators, some benefits are clear. Once the hen is brooding, the nest entry may be extended, tube-like. Then, if a wily serpent stops in for a bite, its dangerous fore end is sheathed in woven grass while its end hindermost is all too vulnerable to colony-strong pecking. Usually it gets the mob's message and heads off for a less troublesome repast.

Weaver birds
Perhaps for "safety in numbers," maybe in order to confuse predators, some weavers prefer great social constructions of nests.

Also, the general brouhaha of a colonial group helps vivify reproduction while the many adults provide excellent role models for chicks. The sites I visited in Botswana routinely ranged from a handful of nests, some of which were invariably disused, to many dozens. In South Africa colonies of many hundreds were said to be fairly common.

BIRDLIFE IN BOTSWANA

Although Southern Africa is considered to embrace the area south of the Okavango-Zambesi Rivers, it shares much with the general sub-Sahara avifauna. Thus, the region is lush with bird life. Botswana is rich with representative examples within its habitat zones and with seasonal and rare vagrants. Its 582,000 square-mile area is thinly populated with a bare 1.5 million people leaving enormous expanses unburdened by human presence on a regular basis.

[Botswana's]  . . .  582,000 square-mile area is thinly populated with a bare 1.5 million people . . . 

 

Back at a weaver bird colony, the individual birds tap out their calls and noisily fan their wings unless they see me. Discovered, my proximity would bring  about an immediate change: they drop off and flutter to a near-by bush. Curiously, they tend to move down to somewhat lower, leafy branches, keeping an eye on me.

In twos, threes, fives they would shoot out from the thorny bush veld, and with the characteristic rise-and-thrust, arrow toward other thickets. Later, they zooned back, regained their hanging positions at the lips of their basket-like nests, and began again the timeless, enduring calls to potential mates.

AD HOC GARDENS OF JAPAN

Shinto shrine
A tiny Shinto Shrine near a Buddhist Temple – happily, this was on one of my typical morning walks. I was able to capture many images of this glade on the edge of a small bamboo clutch.

AD HOC GARDENS OF JAPAN

My name is Jon Griffin Donlon, I’m a Louisiana artist, educator, and scholar. I received my art degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (Ull now) in the seventies and I’ve been active in drawing, painting, photography, writing and related undertaking since then – right now I manage this website.  Currently aside from developing Dr. Leisure’s Louisiana, I’m most fully engaged in photography, one particular suite is my set of images I call: Ad Hoc Gardens of Japan.

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Pigs Run Wild in Louisiana: Let’s Look at De Soto Parish

 

pigs, not domestic
Wild pigs in an agricultural setting: note the “furry” look and longer snout.

 

. . . . we talked to informants who were timber farmers, cattle ranchers, home gardeners, and pig hunters . . . . 

 

For several months, we did fieldwork for the Louisiana Folklife Program in Desoto Parish, up in the northwest corner of Louisiana. Our primary focus was the theme “living off the land”; as a result we talked to informants who were timber farmers, cattle ranchers, home gardeners, and pig hunters.  While doing this fieldwork, we began to learn much more than we ever thought we might about the noble hog – domestic and wild.

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Remembering Bulawayo: After the Deluge

down in the southern end of Africa
Zimbabwe, long suffered under poor leadership.

For decades there’s been no really good news coming out of Zimbabwe – what the “old Africa hands” perhaps doomed to bad luck by always calling “the former Rhodesia.” Now, according to GB’s The Independent (Aug 2, 2018)  “… Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former spy chief installed after Robert Mugabe’s removal in a coup in November, won Zimbabwe’s presidential election after a poll marred by the deaths of six people in an army crackdown on opposition protests.” Obviously that sounds pretty bleak, but not bleak enough for this battered little nation. It goes on.

. . .  for decades there’s been no really good news coming out of Zimbabwe – what the “old Africa hands” perhaps doomed to bad luck by always calling “the former Rhodesia.” . . . 

 

“After two days of claims and counterclaims, the 75-year-old incumbent secured a comfortable victory, polling 2.46 million votes against 2.15 million for 40-year-old opposition leader Nelson Chamisa. Earlier in the week, soldiers beat and shot at opposition protesters after Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Mr Chamisa claimed he had won the ‘popular vote’ and accused Zanu-PF, the ruling party, of fraud. …” For those of us driven to distraction by the daily abuses, frauds, legal, lies, gaffs, political charades, scandals, sexcapades, and suggestions of tax evasions– it’s almost a relief to be exposed to a nation whose situation is so much worse – so very, very, much worse – than our own. My partner and I would routinely visit Zimbabwe decades ago as it first slid into its torturous adventure – now a new leader has been installed.

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Exotics Out Compete – The Nutria Risk to Wetlands

 

swamp rat
Nutria. Myocastor Coypus. Sleek of fur, orange of tooth.

South Louisiana, the Gulf Coast, the jewel-like Atchafalaya region, and agricultural land roundabouts all have a cute but troublesome visitor. Nutria (species Mycastor coypusof the kingdom, Animalia; the phylum, Chordata; the class Mammalia; the order rodentia and the suborder, Hystricognathi; family, Myocastoridae; and, of course, genus Myocastor) is a native of South America. This huge rat’s native area is from the center of Bolivia, to the south end of Brazil, and further on to Tierra del Fuego – the land of fire.

Nutria (species Mycastor coypusof the kingdom, Animalia; the phylum, Chordata; the class Mammalia; the order rodentia and the suborder, Hystricognathi; family, Myocastoridae; and, of course, genus Myocastor) is a native of South America. . .

 

Either intentionally or accidentally, decades ago nutria from ranches and fur farms, back in the first part of the twentieth century, escaped or were set free. Now, the lushly-coated, orange-toothed vegetarian rats exist in troublesome numbers outside their “normal” habitat, with large populations also living in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere in North America.

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The Louisiana Purchase: Stealth Aid for Napoleon or Fantastic Land Deal, Adroitly Pulled Off By Rascally Yankees?

 

La Salle
Rene-Robert La Salle, Explorer

Although the story of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the fateful choice to buy at bargain basement prices just about a third of all the eventual United States, is about nations and global politics, much the real story rests in the lives of a handful of individuals. The folks who brought about this exchange of millions of acres included near geniuses, pathological egoists, visionaries, and the most squalid of colonial functionaries.

     . . . details include greedy merchants .  .  .  vanity filled functionaries, astonishingly brave explorers, and monarchs with king sized egos to match their blue blood, at times apparently unburdened by competency or sense of civic duty  . . .

 

The details include greedy merchants. It’s about vanity filled functionaries, astonishingly brave explorers, and monarchs with king sized egos to match their blue blood, at times apparently unburdened by competency or sense of civic duty. Perhaps it was a time of incredible statesmanship; perhaps it was a time when our Constitution was rendered a blank scrap of paper. When the recrimination (or celebration) faded to silence, the ink dried, the people died, the living memory passed on, the Nation had become enormous, and its future potential staggering.

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Stripper Fashion, Exotic Dance, & Expressive Sexuality in American Feature Films and Life

expresive sexuality
Michele Merkin model and celebrity. “Merkin modeled for 15 years, living in Paris, Milan, New York, and Los Angeles, appearing in such magazines as ELLE, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and over 60 commercials …”  Exactly what provides the source material for sexually expressive fashion?

While watching movies, I wondered: presented with opportunity would consumers act in self-interest to create novel and expressive fashion motifs, especially involving human sexuality? human beings are, after all, cultural critters, and we learn culture from one another. Certainly we should learn – and teach – via the films we watch and make. Perhaps this is not always the case. But I’m guessing sometimes it is.

Women spend both more time and more money on fashion as communication. More dollars are spent, more retail outlets exist servicing women’s shopping, and more collateral matter is generated . . . 

Still, before looking particularly at movies it was easy to determine that guidelines do exist, governing time, place, and magnitude of expressive clothing and dress, probably more for women than for men, if only because we can determine that women spend both more time and more money on fashion as communication. More dollars are spent, more retail outlets exist servicing women’s shopping, and more collateral matter is generated – more advertising, blogs, magazines. Continue reading “Stripper Fashion, Exotic Dance, & Expressive Sexuality in American Feature Films and Life”

IT’S ON THE WALL – MURAL

 

mural, Louisiana
Cotton Time, Alison B. Curry, Arcadia, Louisiana, Post Office, (study).

Human beings have acted to create images on wall spaces since well before recorded history. Cave paintings are well known and powerfully appreciated for their evidence of human creativity. The will to decorate these “walls” has, over time, lead to the development of varied means and modes, beyond pounding colored clay into a powder and mixing it with fat. Generally, walls are decorated by changing the surface by applying objects—by affixing small stone or glass tiles to form shape or pattern, and by coloring or dying the surface.

Thus, the vast, soaring space of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque gets it name from the thousands of beautiful Iznik tiles which decorate its interior.  The Byzantine pile at Venice, St. Mark’s Basilica, glows with hundreds of thousands of tiny mosaic pieces, sandwiches of thin glass over leaves of sheet gold. Murals around public buildings in the United States carry on the grand tradition but in the American way, integrated into the community.

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Camel Wrestling

Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul. Once one lays eyes on the magical skyline, the sight is never forgotten.

Forget that familiar, beatific, mellow picture on the cover of the cigarette pack. Put aside those lingering images of the sensuous East so popular with Victorian Orientalists. Elbowing up to the steel fence around a camel wrestling pitch in Turkey and I suppose anywhere is more like spending an afternoon with the good old boys at a NASCAR rally in the broiling sun of the American Deep South than snoozing on a divan with a plump, warm odalisque. Continue reading “Camel Wrestling”

LOOKING FOR LAFAYETTE

Marquis de Lafayette
Gilbert du Mother de Lafayette

At some point after being born in Lafayette, Louisiana, I became aware of both how oddly common it was to see this name on the landscape and, later, I began to look into the history of Lafayette as a character. Part of my family lives up east, so I may have seen signs in Manhattan on a visit, and then slowly notes other examples.  Think about it. You’ve probably come across a county, city, street, park, school, shop, or restaurant named for Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette more than just a few times by now.

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