|1000s of quelea at a dam on Manyara Ranch|
So, first the identification. The most obvious thing about red-billed queleas are, as the name suggests, a large red beak! Apart from that feature, females and non-breeding males are rather nondescript, small sparrow-like birds. Breeding males are rather brighter, with the red bill surrounded by a black face and variable amounts of orange on the top of the head and breast, with otherwise sparrow-like brown streaks on the back and wings. Perhaps the most useful identification feature though is the fact that you almost never see just one, but flocks of tens, hundreds or thousands of busy quelea all searching for grass seeds or drinking at waterholes.
|Red-billed Quelea on right in non-breeding plumage. What else do you see?!|
|Quelea always roost together at night - an chance to exchange gossip?|
Another level to explain the large flocks at, is to look at their breeding biology. Quelea are really rather interesting as Africa birds, because they have relatively large clutches: four eggs are fairly common, though two and three are more usual. That's a somewhat higher than average clutch size for similarly sized African birds, where small clutches are the rule (see the earlier blog on African birds doing this slowly to understand why that is generally the case). And even more remarkable is the speed with which they breed. Once adults build up the correct protein reserves they start to nest: incubation is 9 or 10 days, fledging is at 16 days and independence a day or so later, start to finish in 5 weeks and the population has doubled! With more than one breeding event per season, possibly in distant locations, and first breeding at only 9 months old, the species has the potential to rapidly increase in numbers when conditions are good.
There are lots of other things we could talk about weavers too, of course - most recent research on them has focused on trying to explain the red colour in males, which is certainly an interesting topic (I'm saving it for another species of common bird though!). But I think that's enough for tonight!
Bayer R.D. (1982). how important are bird colonies as information centres? The Auk, 99 (1), 31-40