By Pompie Burger
Redbilled quelea, Quelea quelea
Impressive, not only in numbers, but also in many other ways, is the Redbilled quelea, so much so that some people, because of its sheer numbers, regard it as the most successful bird species in the world.
There are records of over a million birds in a single flock – it’s no wonder they’ve been called ‘avian locusts’.
To say that queleas are gregarious is somewhat of an understatement. Maybe disgustingly gregarious would be more accurate. Unfortunately they represent quite a scourge for the crop farmer. If a flock of 1 000 or more queleas were to arrive on your farm, the result would be worse than a visit by the taxman, because they can devastate a crop within hours.
To watch a flock of these little birds is, to say the least, fascinating. We had the privilege of watching a flock of probably over 500 at the Kalkheuwel waterhole in Etosha. They have a hypnotic effect on the viewer. Firstly, I was amazed by their organisational skills in flight. That none out of these masses of birds became injured or knocked over during take-off or when landing is mind-boggling. I took quite a few pictures of them in flight and looking at the slides afterwards, it is even more impressive, since it looks as if they are actually flying in formation, and this happens with barely a few centimetres between the different birds. When they fly over water, they look like a rolling mass because of the change in formation as some dip down to take a sip of water. Because of their numbers, they are obviously an easy target for raptors. While watching them, two Lanner falcons were having a ball, diving into the mass of birds and invariably ending up with a quelea in their talons.
While there are a few variations in plumage, especially around the head and face, 90% have a black forehead, face and throat. They are easily distinguished from other queleas by their red bill, except for the breeding female, which has a yellow bill.
About the author:
Based in Windhoek, Pompie Burger is an orthopaedic surgeon whose part-time passion is photography, in particular wildlife, and specifically birds. This regularly takes him to the most remote corners of the country, resulting in riveting images and articles.
Pompie is the author and photographer of the coffee table book Birds of Namibia, which was published in 2008. The book contains articles and photographs which attest to the insight and knowledge of an accomplished observer.
Read more of his articles in our Birding Section.
This article appeared in the September ‘04 edition of Travel News Namibia.