The making of a bird paradise

2010-03-13 00:00

MY daughter’s garden in Sabie has slowly been transformed from a very sterile “perfect” garden to one full of the plants that birds love. Some provide food, some offer safety from the daily Peregrine fly-past, nesting sites have become available and there is always a generous offering of bird seed and fruit to give it five-star appeal.

A resident Cape Robin is the benchmark bird signalling that your garden can now be considered bird-friendly. At last a pair of these feathered delights has put down roots and proclaimed the garden as its own. A spotty youngster earlier in the season was a sure sign that things were going well. But one problem remained — who was mom and who was dad? There can be a noticeable difference in size between the sexes, but that is only really obvious when the two are together. Both sexes appear to sing, so that isn’t conclusive evidence either; is the male the dominant one or does she “wear the trousers”?

With this problem in mind, David and I decided to put up a couple of nets and try to catch at least one of the pair and put a ring on its leg. If we were lucky enough to catch both of them, we would ring one on the left leg and the other on the right. Well, as you all know, the best-laid plans of mice and men … You guessed, we have so far caught neither him nor her; the little darlings are quite determined to remain mysteriously anonymous.

But we have had a lot of fun with the rest of the gang. Gorgeous Golden Weavers whose manly eyes gleam with a golden glow; Thick-billed Weavers — a bite from that heavy beak can make a grown man cry; getting close to a Cape Weaver with a white iris, which signifies it was an adult male. Speckled Mouse- birds are real escape artists and when a flock flies into the nets you can often only retrieve one or two — the others will have wriggled and fluttered their way out before you can get to them. A flock of tiny Bronze Mannikins caused a bit of a headache as they are so small they can almost, but not quite, fly through the net. It takes great skill to untangle these tiny treasures.

The bulk of the birds we have caught are Grey-headed Sparrows; how boring you might think — such a common bird. But large numbers of a single species give a great opportunity to study and compare like with like — to notice subtle differences between the sexes; maybe to discover something no-one before you has noticed. There is a mathematical formula for working out the size of a population based on the number of birds caught and then re-caught; we are working on it and hope one of these days to give an estimate of the Grey-headed Sparrow population in this garden. I have a feeling it will be quite high — they are really happy here.

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