The many faces of the red-billed quelea - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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The many faces of the red-billed quelea

Avatar of inke inke - 12. February 2018 - Environment

The varying faces of the red-billed quelea: (above left) male and female birds in winter; (above 2nd from left) a female with a yellow-orange bill during the breeding season; (above 3rd from left) a female with a pinkish bill. The remaining pictures show the many colour variations in males.

Dirk Heinrich

They often appear in huge flocks and descend on waterholes like a cloud. In their thousands they invade fields and destroy harvests – from Senegal across to Ethiopia and down to southern Africa, where vast swarms are on the move in search of food and for nesting. They are the largest population of a single bird species on the planet. Experts estimate their numbers at 1500 billion birds after a breeding season. We are talking about the red-billed quelea. 

Not only are their tremendous numbers extraordinary but also their many different faces. During winter males and females are equally inconspicuous: greyish brown with a crimson bill and white eyebrow stripes. In summer, however, the picture changes dramatically. While the females keep their greyish brown plumage and white eyebrow stripes, their bill turns yellow-orange. Males usually have a black facial mask which covers the forehead and cheeks and via the lores runs down to the throat. The head and collar are pink or cream and sometimes ochre-coloured or orange. In other males the mask is white or brownish-black. Or the head is cream-coloured and the throat is pink. Some have white cheeks with their rosy head and collar. The rest of the body is covered in brown, grey and white feathers while the wings are dark brown. The striking crimson bill does not change in male birds during the breeding season. 

Unusually large numbers of red-billed queleas changing into their breeding plumage can be seen in Windhoek at present. During the winter months (June and July) and until the first rains towards the end of last year residents observed enormous flocks of the birds heading for the Kleine Kuppe, Auasblick, Akademia and Olympia residential areas to spend the night in the leafy trees of numerous gardens. The noise of thousands of them loudly twittering and chirping caused a disturbance for quite a few Windhoekers until shortly after dark, when suddenly all fell quiet. The next morning the birds took off at first light, to return in the evening.  

In the middle of December last year red-billed queleas chose the Gondwana Collection’s Damara Mopane Lodge as their roosting site. Initially some guests complained about the chirping birds but now they mostly show understanding for the feathered visitors which are likely to disappear after the first good rainfalls in the area.

A red-billed quelea, which was ringed on a farm east of Rehoboth two years ago, was shot eight months later by a subsistence farmer in a pearl millet field near Oshakati in the north of the country (647 km as the crow flies). Quite a few years ago the ornithology team of what was then the SWA Scientific Society received a letter from a teacher in Malawi saying that he had found a red-billed quelea ringed near Dordabis. Last year red-billed queleas bred on farms north of Wilhelmstal. The breeding colony covered several hectares.

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