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From dawn to dusk - the Hadedas are taking over!

Updated on March 21, 2011

The Dawn Patrol

“Its loud voice dictates that the Hadeda Ibis becomes a familiar bird to everyone living within its range: its dawn to dusk calling, made during flights to and from roost sites, is one of the most characteristic sounds of those parts of Africa where it occurs.” -W.R. Tarboton in The Complete Book of Southern African Birds (compiled by P.J. Ginn, W.G. McIlleron and P. le S. Milstein, Struik Winchester, 1989).

Every morning I wake my daughter Caitlin, gently as I can, and tell her that it's time to get up. And every morning as I do so we hear the raucous crying of hadedas coming up from the valley, from wherever they have spent the night.

They fly over in a large, extremely noisy crowd, and then split up into smaller groups to go, each group, to its favoured foraging place.

I call this flight of these rather ungainly birds the “dawn patrol”, and Caitlin and I giggle about it every day. The birds are so comical and make such a ridiculous amount of noise. And there seem to be more and more of them every day.

Harry the hungry Hadeda in the CD booklet
Harry the hungry Hadeda in the CD booklet

“Harry the hungry Hadeda”

I have heard it told that the reason they make so much noise in flight is that they suffer from vertigo and their cries are cries of pure terror. I doubt this very much – a bird with a fear of heights? - but it is true that their calls are only heard when they are in the air.

They dig up the lawn in front of our house, they sit on rooftops and lamp poles, shouting and shitting with equal enthusiasm, and they seem to be everywhere.

“Near streams and rivers and the open veld

Or even in your own back garden

There's a prehistoric looking bird

He makes a noise that's quite absurd

“You'll hear the hadeda when he's calling

Like an alarm clock in the morning.”

This is a stanza and chorus from a song on a children's album by South African musicians Ed Jordan and Alan Glass, called More Beautiful Creatures, part of the “Beautiful Creatures” series, which Caitlin really loves to listen to.

This song, one of 10 on the CD, is called “Harry the hungry Hadeda”, the others being “Roddy the Rhino” (“Roddy the Rhino, he's got such style”); “Georgina the gentlest Giraffe” (“She strides with grace and liberty / What height, what stature, and so free”); “Monkey Business” (“You know that I'm a swinging star / I love to swing and play”); “Romeo the Rapping Reptile”, a smooth-talking snake with attitude (“I love myself from head to toe / That's why they call me Romeo”); Ozzy the outsized Ostrich (“With such magnificent plumage / We simply can't be ignored”); “Hip Hop Frog (“He has a unique kind of sound / That attracts girl frogs from miles around”); “Collective Perspective” (“Every group of animals in the world / Has a special name by which they are called”); and then two rather gentle and lovely lullabies, “Time to close your eyes” (“You'll dream the sweetest dreams / Of daffodils and streams”); and “Sleeping Dreaming” (“The world will keep on turning / Spinning round and round”).

Caitlin and her beloved "Gan" - a while before the event recounted here!
Caitlin and her beloved "Gan" - a while before the event recounted here!
"Harry" under the monstera deliciosa in our garden
"Harry" under the monstera deliciosa in our garden

That's where the Hadedas live

But back to the hadedas. They have become quite a feature of our lives with their noise and business. When Caitlin was still very young, maybe two or so, we were visiting my mother-in-law Esmé Pollard, fondly known to her grandchildren as “Gan” (that's right, without the “r”!). She lived at that time in a flat in a block in the suburb of Sea Point, Cape Town.

One day, holding Caitlin and looking out the window, she pointed to the slope of Signal Hill rising behind the flats, and said, “That's where the hadedas live.” And quickly added, pointing to the rather posh houses in the suburb, “And that's where the 'la-di-das' live,” which caused much laughter, although I don't think Caitlin quite got it!

There is a particular bird who comes to our front lawn on an almost daily basis and digs up earthworms, leaving rough holes. When we have been out he is often startled when we open the garden gate to come in, flying up, with a great flapping of wings and loud shouting, to sit on top of our roof, where he continues to berate us for disturbing him. I'm convinced it's Harry.

“Early in the morning dawn

There's nothing tastier than a Parktown prawn

But mostly he digs in the ground

Looking for worms as I make this sound.”

A "Parktown Prawn" (from Wikipedia)
A "Parktown Prawn" (from Wikipedia)

There's nothing tastier than a "Parktown Prawn"

An aside about the “Parktown Prawn” mentioned in the lyrics above: this is the colloquial name for a king cricket, proper name Libanasidus vittatus. It is very common in the gardens of the rather posh Johannesburg suburb of Parktown, hence the name. And it looks somewhat like a prawn, and for an insect, it is rather large. It is regarded by most Johannesburg residents with about the same respect they would give to a cockroach. Interestingly this insect only arrived in the area in the 1960s. It is usually resident and common in more rural areas, and in particular, wet areas around vleis and the like. It seems that the spread of well-watered gardens with extensive lawns, typical of the affluent Parktown area, encouraged these insects to settle there.

Bostrychia hagedash from Kenneth Newman's "Birds of Southern Africa" (SAPPI, 2002)
Bostrychia hagedash from Kenneth Newman's "Birds of Southern Africa" (SAPPI, 2002)

Hadeda Sunrise

When I first came up to the Highveld from the coast, hadedas were not that common here. They were mostly seen in the open veld, around vleis (wetlands) and in valleys. But they have now, in some 30 years, become very common in all the urban areas, where they are not always that welcome.

When I lived in Johannesburg a few years back I had two cats, who were terrified of the birds and would run for cover as soon as one came down into the garden.

The hadeda (Bostrychia hagedash) is a member of the fairly large Ibis family, which includes the beautiful Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus), also common in the Johannesburg and Pretoria areas, though not usually in suburban gardens. The hadeda is on the “least concern” list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

The accompanying video, a short documentary on the Hadeda, has some very interesting insights into the lives of these fascinating birds. It uses some excerpts from Ed Jordan's song and, for those who have not heard its characteristic call, this documentary lets you hear it, loud and clear. It is also an interesting insight into little-known aspects of Johannesburg life!


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