4 Non Blondes and The Carpenters – Birding with Pompie

Life on a table recipe #193 – Mazambala’s Rum and Peach Sponge
March 29, 2016
Another World at Serra Cafema
March 31, 2016
Life on a table recipe #193 – Mazambala’s Rum and Peach Sponge
March 29, 2016
Another World at Serra Cafema
March 31, 2016

Text and Photographs Pompie Burger

Red hair, Sir, in my opinion is dangerous. – P.G. Woodhouse

T he fact that only two percent of people have red hair is already an indication that in our avian population it might not be that common either. The fact that most of the redheads in Namibia are Woodpeckers and Barbets is no surprise. Redheads are known to be hardkoppig (headstrong) and fiery with a sharp tongue (sounds familiar?). The only other red-headed birds in Namibia are two vulture species (Lappet-faced and Hooded) and two very small birds, the Red-headed Weaver and the Red-headed Finch. As with blondes, we are talking natural red and not red as a result of (vain) human intervention.

Interestingly, human redheads are often called carrot tops or ginger kids, which will be a bit of a misnomer with regard to the aforementioned birds because we are talking red as in crimson red. In ancient Greece redheads were killed due to suspicions that there were witches among them. To what extent this is happening in the current day and age, we do not know. If red-headed birds are still killed because of alleged witchcraft, who would know? What we do know is that birds are often killed unnecessarily, not only red-headed birds. Fortunately there is also some good news for the redheads: there is an annual festival called Roodharigendag in the Netherlands, in the town of Bred. I am not sure if any of these red-headed birds are invited but I can imagine that they will definitely revitalize and enhance the level of fun and games at the festivities. Especially considering the fact that most of the red-headed birds are “common” in Namibia, they will not disappoint their human counterparts, as we know most Namibian humans are a bit “common“.


A Crested Barbet inspecting a tree trunk for food.

If you wonder why woodpeckers are fiery you just have to watch them hammering on a tree trunk, either building a nest or looking for food. The great advantage they have over other birds, apart from their strong bill to build and hunt for food in tree trunks, is the fact that they also have a much thicker skull to prevent any brain damage (concussion) during their hammering and drilling activities. Although the barbets also have a strong – but much shorter – bill, they build their nests only in dead trees where the wood is much softer. Thus they do not need a bill as strong as that of the woodpeckers, which can hammer into basically any wood (dead or alive, hard or soft). The bill of the barbets is serrated whereas the bill of the woodpeckers is smooth. The strong serrated bill is for grip and cutting into fruit, as well as tearing wood when making nesting holes. In addition, the barbets have bristles around the bill, apparently to prevent flying bits of timber getting into their eyes. The woodpeckers missed out on that.

Doing their hammering and drilling, the woodpeckers have a very strong stiff tail (hardegat) to support them when hanging onto a tree trunk, whereas the barbets have a relatively soft tail, obviously not necessary for that much support when doing the odd hammering in softer wood. Another addition to the oral anatomy of the woodpeckers is their very long tongue which can reach far around their heads to the opposite eye. Imagine what this can do for them at the Redhead Festival as a party trick. Apart from reaching around its head, the tongue is used for reaching deep into a hole in a tree to collect worms and insects.

The diet of the woodpeckers consists mainly of insects and fruit. They feed their chicks only insects (sounds pretty Namibian to me, not so much the insects but the protein). The barbets on the other hand are fruitarians, eating only fruit. The Black-collared Barbets can do the synchronized duet-singing-thing and compared to the woodpeckers the other barbets are also quite vocal. One wonders if this musical talent and being so vocal is the result of their fruitarian diet. The nests of barbets are very neat and clean compared to the woodpeckers, which are not so high on hygiene.

If you think I am favouring the barbets you can’t really blame me, taking into account that they are neat, vocal (see women) fruitarians (see Noakes), not in the building industry (see Rehoboth) and not hardegat (see men). The only Red-headed Barbets occurring in Namibia are the Black-collared (Lybius torquatus), Acacia Pied (Tricholaema leucomelas) and Crested Barbet (Trachyphonus vaillanti). The Acacia Pied Barbets’ distribution is quite wide-spread throughout Namibia, while the Black-collared and Crested Barbets only occur in the far northeast.

The most famous and well-known redheads, to my mind, are Father Christmas and Rooikappietjie. Other less famous redheads are Woody Allen, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Vincent van Gogh, Jesse James, Vlam and Woody Woodpecker. Whether Woody Woodpecker is related to our woodpeckers I do not know, but I think Woody Allen could be related to our woodpeckers, even if only for his small stature, which according to him is the reason why he can’t play chess.


A male Red-headed Weaver on the job.

The Bennett’s Woodpecker (Campethera bennettii), which occurs in Namibia, differs from those occurring in the RSA in that it has a plain pale yellow rump with no markings. In fact it is classified as a subspecies (capricorni) of the RSA Bennett’s because of the lack of markings on its chest. Differentiating between the other woodpeckers is not that easy, although Mister Brain has a different view on this point. The Bearded Woodpecker (Dendropicos namaquus) is the only woodpecker with a barred belly and white markings on the face. The Cardinal Woodpecker (Dendropicos fuscescens) is the only one with a completely brown forehead between the bill and the red cap (no spots). The Cardinal Woodpecker is also the smallest of the local woodpeckers (I always wonder how one can compare the sizes because I have never seen two different woodpeckers sitting next to each other). The Golden-tailed Woodpecker (Campethera abingoni) has a golden tail (all the woodpeckers have golden tails!) but it is the only one that has a spotted instead of barred back. Obviously there is, as always, one complicating factor and contradiction in all these wonderful theories. Some of the female woodpeckers do not have red heads!

As far as the red-headed vultures (Lappet-faced and Hooded Vultures) are concerned, they are larger than the barbets and the woodpeckers, while the Red-headed Weavers and Red-headed Finches are much smaller. If you cannot distinguish between these – I also have some difficulty. So don’t worry, be happy. The next edition will not carry a story on blonde birds.


A male Bearded Woodpecker with its barred belly looking for food.


A male Red-headed Finch looking smaller than a vulture.


A male Cardinal Woodpecker with a conspicuously barred back.


Two Lappet-faced Vultures discussing the quality of the meat.


A female Golden-tailed Woodpecker with streaked underpants and a golden tail.


The Acacia Pied Barbet occurs all over Namibia.


A Black-collared Barbet with its strong serrated bill and bristles.

This article was first published in the Autumn 2016 issue of Travel News Namibia.

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