I’ve just come back from paradise. I’ve been in the Seychelles, a place so beautiful that the people who discovered it thought that they had found Eden. The climate is warm but not dry. The achingly white beaches wrap themselves around rounded granite boulders bigger than houses and dripping, steaming jungles rich with palm trees and ferns. And all of this is gently embraced by the sea, a patchwork of blues and aquamarines and indigos. There is no better place in the world for a holiday.
I couldn’t live there. Sitting quietly was just too quiet. The jungle should have been bustling with life. Monkeys should have peeked down from the canopy. A riot of birds should have shrieked and clattered through the treetops, sending the odd discarded fruit dropping down to forest antelope below, tip-toeing their way carefully through the undergrowth. Slinky, sleek-muscled, cat-like things should have flowed through the shadows, appearing and disappearing like phantoms in the half-light. But they didn’t. Because they aren’t there.
The Seychelles is a bunch of islands. It’s nearly a thousand miles from the nearest continent. And that means that anything living there had to fly there or float there. Which isn’t easy. The only mammals are bats. Giant bats. There are lizards, and geckos, and tortoises. Giant tortoises. And there are birds. But these are mostly sea-birds. There are some land birds, and some of those are pretty special, like the Black Parrots of Praslin, or the Seychelles Scops-Owl. There just aren’t enough birds. The whole place feels like a block of flats (apartments) before all the units have been sold.
When we got back, I sat for a while out in my garden. A family of Hadedas picked their way across the lawn, probing the lawn for earthworms with their unfeasibly long beaks and menacing the dogs. A kingfisher settled into the tree above our pond, eying out my new fish. A Fiscal Shrike took up his usual position in the thorn tree at the bottom of our garden, all fierce eyes and natty black and white feathers, pretending to be vastly bigger than he was. The trees were full of life; Grey Louries crept through the branches, doves cooed, tiny little white-eyes hopped from twig to twig. The flats here are full.
Then there’s the Lowveld. The flats down there filled up long ago, and now there are families living in the bathrooms. The lobby is full of vagrants sleeping on the floor and there’s a strange fellow upstairs living in the broom-cupboard. Yes folks, after an unacceptably long break, it’s time for part two of “A Bird in the Bush”.
Gangsters come up often in my wildlife posts. This is what happens when you grow up listening to gangster rap. But there is a bird down in the Lowveld that cannot be described any other way. It’s called an Arrow-marked Babbler, and I feel uncomfortable referring to it in the singular, because I’ve never seen one alone. They travel in little groups of about six or seven, and their main goal in life is to make a noise.
If you sit out in the bush for long enough, one will arrive. They stick pretty low to the ground. The advance guard will settle in a low bush, and start to babble. Then the rest of the gang will arrive, and an unholy racket ensues. One or two of them will hop down onto the ground to find something to eat. Then they will break for another babble. Some of them might pause for a quick drink of water. Then they will babble. They might do some preening. Then babble. A bigger, tougher bird might move them along. Which will make them babble. And if they meet some other Babblers? Damn!
This all makes them sound annoying. They’re not. They have their own charm, and the noise they make is as much a part of the ambience of the Lowveld as the roar of a lion or the cry of a Fish Eagle. Like all gangsters, they are territorial, and all that babbling is their way of telling other gangs of Babblers to bugger off. But they have annoyed me. Terribly.
When my son was about a year old, we took him down to the bush for the first time. Like all new parents, our lives were completely dominated by him. And he wasn’t a sleeper. Our days were governed by his (ludicrous) sleep patterns. And so, when it came time to leave, we planned ahead. We woke before dawn, and packed up the house. We were on top of things. He was going to sleep as we drove. A seven hour drive with a one-year old is not fun. We packed up the car, and settled in for a last cup of coffee. And then a Babbler flew into the house.
Everyone reading this has had a bird in the house. It’s no big deal. You open a window and shoo the poor, confused creature out. This was not a normal bird though. It was a Babbler. Mindful of the precious time we were wasting, we opened the window to shoo him out. And the rest of the gang flew in. And babbled. They settled on what suddenly seemed like the stupidly high rafters and mocked us. I came up with a plan. I threw a hammer at them. Not a real hammer. A large, novelty children’s toy that squeaked when you hit something with it.
It was a good plan. The first throw got at least three of the bastards out of the house. But the second throw didn’t go so well. It made the remaining Babblers babble. And the first three came back in. An hour later, I was still throwing the goddamn hammer. Throw. Squeak. Babble. Throw. Squeak. Babble. We got nowhere. Eventually we sat down and practised the shocked expressions we would adopt when the next family member went down to the bush and found seven rotting corpses lined up next to the window.
But we won in the end. We opened all the doors and windows and went for a drive. This is a very stupid thing to do. A house full of baboons is infinitely more worrying than a house full of Babblers. We were lucky. We came back to an empty, if slightly poo-stained house. Off we set, two hours late, child wide awake, as an unholy babbling followed us up the road.
Imagine you’re a hunter. You’ve stalked the bush for hours through the driving sun. A steady flow of sweat drips from the brim of your hat. The buzzing of cicadas fills your ears, and a swarm of flies surrounds you, endlessly seeking out exposed patches of flesh, but you ignore them. Because you’ve spotted a herd of impala.
You settle into a crouch and raise your rifle to your shoulder. A magnificent ram fills your sights. You relax your body. Breathe in. Breathe out. Gently, you start to squeeze the trigger. “GOWAY!” A crazy, helium filled squawk fills the bush, and the impala scatter.
You’ve found yourself a Go-away bird. It used to be called a Grey Lourie, but some nameless birding bureaucrat changed the name a few years ago. They live on fruit (and, apparently, the succulents in my garden, but I don’t mind), and spend their days clambering through the branches like ungainly rats. And their calls, like those of most of the birds in this post, form part of the fabric of time spent out in the bush.
And that hunter? If he was battling his way down to the coast in an ox-wagon a hundred and fifty years ago, fighting thirst, malaria, and sleeping sickness, and desperately trying to feed himself and his companions, he has my deepest sympathy. If he spent a small fortune to fly out to Africa last week to blow away some of the world’s most beautiful creatures to stick up on his wall, I’m with the Go-away Bird.
Some of the first steps on my journey to my current love of wildlife were the books written by a guy called Willard Price. His two heroes, brothers called Hal and Roger, travelled the world catching wild animals for their father’s zoo. I was enthralled. I devoured the books late into the night, wide eyed and breathless, learning everything there was to know about the wildlife of the world.
I’ve always remembered them fondly. And then the other day I found one in a second-hand bookshop. I bought it. I read it. It was tragic. It was all wrong. It was a staggering collection of half-truths and misinformation. But I bear Willard Price no ill will. He was writing fun stories for little boys, not scientific dissertations.
But I read other things, too. Things that shouldn’t have turned out to be wrong. Non-fiction. One of the things I learned about was mutualism. That’s where two species work together for their mutual benefit. Bees get nectar from flowers, and in turn, the flowers are pollinated by the bees. Clownfish, like Nemo, are protected by the stinging tentacles of the anemones in which they live, and they, in turn, chase off the butterfly fish which eat the anemones. But every time I read about mutualism, the first example given was Oxpeckers.
Oxpeckers are mostly drab brown birds with bright red or yellow beaks. If you’ve ever spent any time looking at pictures of African wildlife, you have seen them. They are the birds you see clinging to the backs and necks and faces of giraffes and buffalo and buck. On the surface of things, they really are a perfect example of mutualism. They clamber about on the backs of plant eaters eating ticks. The host animal gets rid of its parasites, and the Oxpecker gets a meal. Nice.
Or maybe not so nice. Science has learned a thing or two since I was small. And one of the things it has learned is that Oxpeckers don’t just live on ticks. They live on blood, too. Nature is a pretty rough place. Animals get wounded in fights with each other and brushes with predators. They bleed. And then the friendly little Oxpeckers which have been keeping the ticks at bay kick things up a notch. They move in with their razor sharp beaks have a hearty drink. And they peck at the wound to keep it open. For days. The pain must be excruciating.
Grumpy Old Men.
There are hundreds of birds down in the Lowveld. Some are majestic; the Eagles and the Owls. Some are beautiful; the bee-eaters and the rollers. Many are drab and nondescript. But there are few birds quite as charming as the Hornbills.
The three most common hornbills in the bush, the Grey, the Red Billed and the Yellow Billed, all have rather attractive black, white and grey feathers. And they all have enormous beaks. Silly beaks. Hopelessly impractical beaks. Watching a Hornbill pick up and eat a morsel the size of a breadcrumb is equal parts comedy and tragedy.
My favourite is the Yellow Billed. Its beak has a pronounced downward curve, making it look permanently miserable. Its baleful yellow eyes, glaring out from under a surprisingly flambouyant set of eyelashes, add to that impression. It even has fuzzy, overgrown eyebrows. Add to that a rather natty little pair of plus-fours and a quirky voice, and you have one of nature’s natural comics.
They live on anything they can catch; lizards and beetles and even small mammals. How those enormous beaks make doing so any easier is beyond me.
They get quite tame. One of them even tried to eat one of tracyloveshistory’s toes. It is a joy to watch them bustle around the stoep (patio), hopping around with a sense of self importance and scolding any smaller birds who cross their paths, looking like unhappy old schoolmasters incensed at finding a bunch of little boys daring to have fun at school.
But they’re not just characters. They’re pretty interesting, too. This is a Hornbill nest.
When a pair of Hornbills finds a suitable hole in a tree, the female gets locked inside. The pair literally walls her in with a mixture of mud and poo. Then she lays her eggs and promptly loses all her feathers. And there she sits, like an undersized plucked chicken with a novelty beak attached, staring at the world through a tiny crack while her partner brings her tasty morsels to eat, until after her eggs have hatched. It’s best not to go too close while she’s doing this. To hide the location of her nest, she and in turn her offspring shoot their droppings out through the crack as far as they possibly can.
Once the nestlings are big enough, the female will break out of her temporary prison and seal the youngsters back in again, so she can help the male to find enough food for them.
And that should be it for this post. But it isn’t. The Hornbills have a cousin. A big cousin. A very big cousin. Too big to sneak into the company of the rest of the birds in this post. But he is undeniably a Hornbill, and is undeniably cool, so here goes.
This is a Ground Hornbill.
As I said, it’s big. It can get up to about 6kg. On the ground, it’s all black except for its bright red face. It has the typical oversized beak and eyelashes a supermodel would kill for.
Like the Babblers, these guys are never found alone. Youngsters from previous broods stick around to help with the raising of their younger siblings, so when you see one, you’ll probably see about four, marching fierce-eyed through the grass like angry little generals. And fierce they are. These birds are not vegetarians. They can eat things up to the size of a rabbit, and are one of the few animals capable of eating tortoises.
Like the other Hornbills, their calls are characteristic of the bush. But they sound nothing like the other Hornbills. If they are far enough away, their calls are deep enough to be confused with roaring lions. They sing each other a duet, the female calling out a deep, melodious “oodoo, oodoo”, and the males answering with an even deeper “oop, oop”.
But that’s all stuff you can find in the guide books. What the guide books won’t tell you is what a problem they can be. We have a little bird in our garden called a Mossie. He makes our lives a misery in summer by tapping away at our bedroom window. “Taptaptap, taptaptap, taptaptap”. He’s locked in mortal combat with an imaginary rival (think about that before you give your pet budgie a mirror to play with). He’s never going to win, he’s never going to lose, and he’s never going to give up. All we can do is wait for winter.
Ground Hornbills are birds too. They also fight with windows. But they win. When first we started going down to the bush, we used to paint the windows with brass polish to stop the hornbills from breaking them. We haven’t done it recently, and we’ve been lucky so far, but the other day we popped over to look at a new house that had been built on the property. It was a dream house, complete with fancy French doors, each with fifteen panes of glass.
The Hornbills had gone to war with them. And won. Every single time. To add insult to injury, they had taken out the windows, too. And feet that can deal with a tortoise are apparently pretty handy for ripping off concrete window ledges too. The dream house looked like it had been vandalised by a bunch of teenage boys with authority issues. I can’t even imagine what it must have cost.
Some unsavoury types don’t find this behaviour endearing, and shoot them. This is a problem. Ground Hornbills are very slow breeders. They only raise one chick at a time, and don’t do so every year. They are slowly but surely disappearing. And a world without creatures like this can only be a poorer place.
And that really is it for this post. There are hundreds more birds down in the Lowveld, and I will get to some of them soon. But I’ve got plants and animals to do first, so it may be a little while. I hope to see you then.