Let me start by saying : “I saw millions of birds this past weekend” – now I know what you’re thinking ….. just a bit of harmless hyperbole on my part, not unusual in these attention-seeking times. But what if I really did see millions of birds? What kind of bird gathers in those sort of numbers?
There is only one possible answer to that question and that is – the Quelea, or to be more precise in this case, the Red-billed Quelea.
Some background to this latest exceptional birding experience –
We were travelling back to Pretoria after a long stay in Mossel Bay and arrived in Hoopstad, Free State for our second overnight stop, primarily to pay a short visit to Gerda’s family. It was just after 3 pm when we arrived in the small town, the centre of the farming community in that part of the Free State. Piet and Marietjie kindly accommodated us and Piet invited me to join him on a quick trip to their farm some way out of town.
The farm lies on the southern side of the Vaal river, which forms one of its boundaries, and is a well-stocked game farm with a variety of game in a bushveld setting to rival the best that Southern Africa can offer, so for a lover of nature such as myself it is always a special treat to visit this piece of paradise, albeit briefly.
The day was waning as we approached the farm and our progress along the dirt road was punctuated by flocks of Queleas rising up out of the roadside grass at regular intervals, each flock numbering a couple of thousand at a guess. Piet remarked that he had seen many more flocks of larger size that same morning, so we were on the lookout for more Queleas, without realising what we would experience a bit later.
We did a quick tour of the farm, marveling at the numbers of game, ranging from Antelope to Zebra, with the standout animals for me being the incomparable Sable Antelope with their dark brown bodies and graceful, curved horns. (The photo below is from one of my Chobe trips as I did not have my camera with me)
After a brief stop at the farm house, occupied for the week by a group of hunters, we headed back to the main road, but hadn’t gone far when Piet pointed out what looked like a distant cloud of smoke stretching across the horizon. He stopped and we got out to have a better look and realised immediately that this was not smoke of course, but a huge flock of Queleas, visible against the rapidly darkening skyline, moving like a giant serpent across the horizon.
For the next ten to fifteen minutes – I didn’t time it so it could have been longer – the enormous flock grew in length and made its way to some distant, unknown roosting spot, probably along the river. There is no way of beginning to estimate numbers of birds in a flock of this magnitude, suffice to say “millions” is not an exaggeration.
At one stage the flock moved in an elongated tube-like formation directly over our heads and as we gazed up the sound of several thousand small wings filled the silence with an eerie soft humming, like nothing I had heard before.
As it was rapidly getting darker, we left the farm and headed back to Hoopstad, mulling over the impact that birds in these numbers could have on the area, which is one of the prime maize and wheat-producing areas in our country. Piet mentioned that some farmers had already decided not to plant their usual winter crops due to the risk of the crops being devastated by the Queleas.
Suddenly I realised that birds are not always to be regarded as “Threatened” by human behaviour but can also be “Threatening” to some of our food sources – a sobering thought.
Roberts VII Birds of Southern Africa has the following to say about Red-billed Queleas under Population and Demography :
- Perhaps the most abundant bird on earth
- The major pest of cereal crops in Africa
- Population estimate post-breeding is 1 500 billion (so about 200 Queleas for every person on earth!)
- Most abundant bird in Kruger National Park at 33.5 million
- More than 100 million birds killed annually in control operations in South Africa – methods used are aerial spraying and explosions at roosts (but the latter is not favoured as other species get killed in the process)
- Prey of Peregrine and Lanner Falcons
- Drinking birds taken by predators including pelomedusid turtles (!), crocodiles, Marabou Storks and Striated Herons
All in all, this is an interesting bird, often for the wrong reasons. Despite this I always enjoy seeing them in small numbers as they are quite variable in appearance, some drab, others colourful.
Here are a few photos of those I have come across while atlasing –