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To Weave is instinctual

Updated on April 25, 2014

Born to Weave

Weaver birds are members of a large family of hard-billed passerine (i.e. perching) birds similar to finches and buntings. The Ploceidae, as these birds are collectively named by those who have a scientific bent, are found mostly in Africa although some species are native to Asia. The name, weaver bird, is given them on account of their ability to create fantastically woven nests.

Quelea quelea flocking at waterhole.

Quelea quelea

Subsisting largely on seeds, grains and insects, these birds sling their neatly woven nests from branches or other tall vegetation and some of their constructs can be extremely large. For instance, the red-billed quelea, Quelea quelea, the most abundant of all wild bird species and an inhabitant of sub-Saharan Africa breeds in colonies that can contain upwards of a million birds and can build several thousands of nests on a single tree!

Communal effort is it!

Quelea however is not the only weaver that displays this congregational trait; weavers are generally gregarious though some weavers tend to congregate in larger numbers than others. The Buffalo Weaver, Dinemellia dinemelli, of East Africa breeds in large colonies and, working together, they use a mass of thorny twigs and sticks to construct large structures which are subdivided into grass-lined chambers in which the birds nest and roost. Communal effort is also the norm with the Sociable Weaver, Philetairus socius, of Southern Africa. Superficially sparrow-like, the birds construct a roof of coarse straw in the branches of an abandoned tree with the entrances below. These nests which are amongst the largest structures constructed by any bird, are large enough to house several dozen pairs of birds, containing several generations of the weavers at a time. Highly structured constructs, the nests provide its residents with a more advantageous temperature relative to the outside. The central chambers, a separate one for each nesting pair, retain heat and are used for nighttime roosting with each having a side-chamber for the eggs. The outer rooms, typically used for daytime shade, maintain temperatures of 7-8 degrees Celsius inside almost irrespective of how high the outside temperature may be. The nests of the Sociable weaver also provides homes for several other bird species such as the pygmy falcon,the rosy-faced lovebird and the Ashy Tit, which species are known to use the nests for brooding or roosting. Additionally, for larger birds such as owls and vultures, the nest serves as a platform upon which to build their own nests.

Sociable Weaver nest showing underside entrances.

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Regarding nesting, the Sparrow Weaver, Plocepasser, adopts a somewhat different approach. Considerably less gregarious than many other weavers, the Sparrow Weaver is found in groups of two to eleven members consisting of a breeding pair and non-reproductive associates. The breeding pair will construct several nests, sometimes as many as a dozen, in one tree; however, only the true nest is lined inside, all the others being left unlined.

Most weavers display a yellowish plumage somewhat browner on top than on the bottom, but there are many that present a different appearance. Bishop-birds, Euplectes, for instance display marked seasonal changes when it comes to dress. The Northern Bishop-bird, E. Fransiscanus, which makes its home in sub-Saharan Africa north of the equator, is pale yellow, streaked above and shading to whitish color at the bottom and displays a buff supercilium, i.e. a stripe that runs from the base of the bird’s beak above its eyes to a point somewhere to the rear of the head. Females are somewhat smaller than males. When it is time to breed however, the male undergoes a dramatic change; the breeding male is displays a scarlet coloration apart from its black head and waistcoat and brown wings and tail. Such changes also occur amongst the Southern Bishop-bird, E. Orix, which is found in sub-Saharan Africa south of the equator. Slightly smaller than its northern cousin, the females and non-breeding males display a streaky brown coloration which is paler below whilst the breeding male displays bright red or orange and black plumage, black face, forehead and throat, and brown wings and tail.

The waxbills, Estrildinae, are a group of small and very pretty weavers some of which display scaly-patterned underneaths and red waxy bills whilst others have black dots, white below with reddish or vinous in their plumage. A native of sub-Saharan Africa, the ease with which it survives in captivity has contributed greatly to its popularity and it has been introduced in many other parts of the world. The red-headed finch, a member of this group, is well-known for its habit of taking over and re-lining the discarded nests of other weavers.

Quelea Facts

1. Quelea quelea is the world's most abundant wild bird species.

2.It is found in sub-Saharan Africa, apart from the deeply forested areas and the southern reaches of South Africa.

3. There are an estimated 1.5 billion adult breeding birds and about 10 billion birds all said.

Asian weave.

Although, as stated earlier, most weavers are African, weavers are also found in Asia. The Baya Weaver, Ploceus philippinus, is found in the India and across Southeast Asia. Social and gregarious, these birds forage in flocks for seeds both on the plant and on the ground flying in close formation and performing some very complex maneuvers in the process. The birds are dependent on wild grasses as well as human crops such as rice for both their food and nesting materials. Mostly, they glean harvested fields for grain, but sometimes they damage ripening crops causing them to be considered as pests.

More seriously a pest, is the Java Sparrow, Lonchura oryzivora, with its soft gray plumage changing to chestnut on the belly and white cheeks offsetting its black head. Also known as the paddy-bird or rice-bird, it is considered a major agricultural pest of rice. Consequently, the United States has banned the importation of the bird and in California, it is illegal even to own the bird, although there are breeding populations of the birds on several Hawaiian islands. More rice-dependent countries like China and Japan have not regulated the bird.

Red Avadavat: From India to Europe with love, 1700.

Weavers are amongst the most popular cage-birds in the world and have been so for centuries. The Red Avadavat or strawberry finch, Amandava amandava, crimson with white spots breeds in India during the monsoon season and derives its name from the fact that it was from the city of Ahmedabad that the first specimens were exported to Europe in about 1700. Another very popular cage-bird, notwithstanding the depredations that it can cause on rice fields, is the Java Sparrow which has been extremely popular in China and Japan for centuries. The bird’s long association with humans has led to the breeding of specimens of several different colors such as white, cream, agate, silver/opal as well as the pied Java Sparrow.

Conservation Status

The conservation status of weavers differs from species to species. Most weaver birds are classified as being of Least Concern by the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) including the Red-billed Quelea, the world’s most common wild bird, the Common Waxbill and both species of the Bishop bird. A few, however, raise some concerns. The Java Sparrow is classified as vulnerable on account of habitat loss and hunting which has made the bird more and more uncommon in its native areas. Another weaver that is of concern to the IUCN is the Asian Golden Weaver, Ploceus hypoxanthus, a native of Southeast Asia which is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN as its natural habitats, subtropical or tropical seasonally flooded lowland grasslands, swamps and arable lands come under increasing pressure from human activities.

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