Weaver Birds Brighten Up Our Lives
by Roddy Smith
The weavers make up a group of birds which are very easily
recognised both by appearance and behaviour by most people in southern
Africa, even those who are not particularly interested in birds.
Those belonging to the genus Ploceus are particularly familiar.
Lesser Masked Weaver (Ploceus intermedius)
In the breeding season they are possibly our most conspicuous
group of birds, with the males of most species a
predominantly bright yellow colour (left) and anything but shy: they are
very vocal and extremely active and all this activity is centred
around the nesting sites, which are usually in places that are very
easy to see.
In non-breeding season these colours fade to a less conspicuous
shade and they are generally much less visible in their behaviour.
This is probably to make them less obvious to predators, and in
particular to raptors such as goshawks that habitually prey on
This raises the question as to why they should make
themselves conspicuous for several months of the year if it exposes
them to greater danger, and, as so often in nature, it comes down
to the need to procreate, where chances of personal survival
must be traded against opportunities to pass on one's
The bright colours of the males are all to do with the
intense competition to breed. On the one hand they are advertising
their availability to females and at the same time they are warning
other competing males off their particular patch.
It is not
difficult to draw a parallel with young testosterone-filled human
males showing off for the same reasons: our in many ways
artificially constructed lifestyle has not yet managed to sever our
There are other parallels: it may be the male's clothes and
song which initially get the female's attention, but it is
his material assets which determine whether she finally shacks up
The male builds an intricate nest which the female then
inspects; if it is up to the required standard she moves in, but if
not she may pull it to pieces and make him start again, or else
reject him in favour of someone with a better house.
Nature's Little Wonders
It is because of this nesting behaviour for which the weavers are
named, that this group of birds is so well known, and indeed their
nests are one of nature's little wonders. I have freqently
examined a weaver's nest, marvelling at the fact that a bird,
using only its beak, can weave something so intricate and so
consistent that I could never reproduce it with my hands.
Redheaded Weaver (Anaplectes rubriceps)
using its beak to weave the nest
are born knowing how to do this; even birds raised in captivity
succeed in building nests to the pattern of their particular
species. There is some learning involved — as birds get older
they seem to build better and stronger nests.
They also know
instinctively which materials to use, favouring fresh green blades
of grass or strips of palm leaf. Not only are these more flexible
than dry leaves but as they dry they contract and tighten the knots
the birds use to fasten them.
While all the weavers of the genus Ploceus are generally similar,
there are subtle differences between the species — in
appearance, in nest design and and in social behaviour.
Spectacled Weaver for instance is monogamous: the pairs stay
together year-round for at least a few years and possibly for life,
and the nests are usually solitary. Most species, however,
including the Southern Masked-Weaver, Lesser Masked-Weaver and
Village Weaver (previously Spotted-backed but let's not go
there), have a more traditionally African approach: they are
polygamous, with a male having two to three mates simultaneously, each
with her own nest, and (in the Village Weaver) up to 12 mates in a
This seems to me ambitious to the point of foolhardiness,
as the male has not just one but several females pulling his
constructions to bits.
Lesser Masked Weaver (Ploceus intermedius)
adding the finishing touches to the nest spout
More sensibly it seems that in certain
species the male builds only the basic structure for inspection;
having once obtained the female's approval he then adds the
spout (differing in length and shape according to species) and then
the female lines the nest in preparation for laying (again this
varies according to species).
All the polygamous species tend to be
colonial nesters in trees or reed-beds, and quite often a favoured
nest-site will have nests of several different species. Nests in
trees are usually at the ends of hanging branches which may make it
more difficult for predators to get into them.
The nest site is
often used year after year although new nests are built every
season and the males are intensely territorial, vigorously
defending their little patch within the colony from their
Roddy Smith is a wildlife conservationist and safari guide based at Mwambashi River Lodge in the Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia.
Images © Scotch Macaskill
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