THE BOLL WEEVIL SONG

There was a time when my father grew dryland cotton on his farm in the De Kaap Valley. He eschewed spraying the cotton in favour of allowing Helmeted Guineafowl to roam freely through the cotton fields to feed on the pests.

I remember anxious times waiting for the rain; checking the flowers on the cotton plants; walking through the rows looking at the swelling cotton bolls; cotton pickers moving through the lands; heaps of cotton piling up in the shed; and large sacks being filled with cotton before being loaded on the back of the truck to be taken to the cotton gin in Barberton. There even used to be an annual Cotton Festival in that town.

This picture shows the start of this process, when the first pickings of cotton were loaded onto an old wagon in the shed prior to being bagged. I am standing in it together with my eldest brother.

Growing cotton had its moments and the boll weevil is a particularly nasty pest to be reckoned with – which is why we couldn’t resist giving my father the 78 rpm record of The Boll Weevil Song by Brook Benton. The introduction seems innocuous:

Let me tell ya a story about a boll weevil
Now, some of you may not know, but a boll weevil is an insect
And he’s found mostly where cotton grows
Now, where he comes from, hmm, nobody really knows
But this is the way the story goes

To the horror of the farmer, the boll weevil sounds delighted to have found a home for his whole darn family. Then comes the desperation: The farmer said to the boll weevil “Say, why do you pick my farm?” This is aggravated by the response of the boll weevil:

And the boll weevil called the farmer, ‘n’ he said
“Ya better sell your old machines
‘Cause when I’m through with your cotton, heh
You can’t even buy gasoline.”
(I’m gonna stake me a home, gotta have a home)

Cotton is no longer grown there. The cotton gin closed down decades ago. There is no longer any reason to hold a Cotton Festival. Life moves on – imports grow …

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JULY 2018 GARDEN BIRDS

Welcome visitors passing through the garden this month have included a Southern Boubou calling loudly below my bedroom window; Crowned Plovers flying raucously overhead; a few Southern Masked Weavers; and a pair of Common Waxbills. None have stayed for long. I was particularly pleased when a Cape Wagtail entertained me over tea while it worked its way across the pipes in the pool: up and down it would go until the water became too deep, then it would fly back to the edge and start all over again – picking at tiny insects from either the water or on the pipe. This is a photograph taken with my phone from some distance away – for the record!

While we may still be feeling the chill of winter, the birds have already sensed and are preparing for the spring that is still a way off: a pair of Black-headed Orioles call to each other from tree tops across the garden, swooping down now and then to sip at the nectar feeder.

Many Village Weavers are sloughing off their winter tweeds and sprouting their bright yellow breeding plumage, while they fill the shrubbery with their cheerfully lolling swizzling songs or chase each other off the bird feeder.

A pair of Fork-tailed Drongos as well as a pair of Olive Thrushes have been chasing their prospective partners all over the garden for days. An Olive Thrush has been collecting nesting material lately.

Nesting is also on the mind of a Cape Weaver that has been carrying strips of grass towards an as yet undiscovered location in the back garden. For the birds then, spring is definitely in the air!

My July bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird (Black)
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Shrike (Fiscal)
Common Starling
Common Waxbill
Crowned Plover
Fierynecked Nightjar
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redeyed Dove
Redfronted Tinkerbird
Redwinged Starling
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon (Rock)
Spectacled Weaver
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Village Weaver

BEAKS VS BILLS

A topic that crops up in conversation every now and then is ‘when does a bird have a beak and when is it more apt to call it a bill?’ One would think it is clear: a Village Weaver has a beak and a Spoonbill obviously has a bill! What is the distinction then?

I can no longer recall from where I noted this information, but according to this source beak is the general term applicable to all birds, although it usually refers to raptors, and when striking or pecking is in question. The terms beak and bill are often used interchangeably for crows, finches, and sparrows. Bill on the other hand is almost exclusively used for sunbirds, pigeons, waders, and web-footed birds. There does not appear to be an official difference and it seems that these terms are synonymous; their use might according to personal preference.

Trevor Carnaby in his very useful book, Beating about the bush: Birds, describes a variety of shapes of beaks that are adapted according to the feeding requirements of the different species of birds. There is an interesting discussion on this topic at https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/natureshomemagazine/archive/2017/08/24/beak-or-bill.aspx

What do you think?

Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Secretary Bird

Boubou

Ostrich

Cape Weaver

Red-necked Spurfowl

Egyptian Goose

SONGBIRDS OF VENDA

Venda, which used to be an independent homeland, forms part of the Limpopo Province, close to the border with Zimbabwe. In 1985 this series of stamps was issued to highlight some of the songbirds that occur there. They are of special interest to me as two of them occur in my Eastern Cape Garden – much further south – while two others are similar to what occurs here.

Let us look at them on this first day cover from left to right:

The Heuglin’s Robin (Cossypha heuglini ), now known as the White-browed Robin-Chat, is restricted to the more tropical regions of southern Africa, preferring forests and dense bush, especially near water. They often mimic the alarm calls of other birds. It is the Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra) that occurs in my garden. It too prefers thickets and forest margins and is an accomplished mimic of other bird calls.

The Black-collared Barbet (Lybius torquatus) is also a common visitor to my garden, where it mainly eats fruit as well as insects. A pair will sing in a synchronised duet whilst facing each other and bobbing their heads up and down.

The melodious notes of the Black-headed Oriole (Oriolus larvatus) can usually be heard long before this striking yellow bird swoops down from the tree tops to eat fruit or drink from the nectar feeder. They are mostly seen in the upper branches of trees and tall bushes.

We do not get the Kurrichane Thrush (Turdus libonyana) here. It prefers woodland regions in the northern parts of South Africa. It makes tuneful whistling notes and is also a mimic. Instead, we host the Olive Thrush (Turdus olivaceus) which enjoys the many trees and bushes grown here. It makes a variety of flute-like notes which are very pleasant to listen to.

LOOKING BACK: OSTRICH EGG BREAKFAST

It is a good 57 years ago since our family took a road trip from our farm in the then Eastern Transvaal, through what is now KwaZulu Natal and on to what was still known as the Western Cape. This was an exciting experience which broadened our horizons in terms of the wonderful landscapes South Africa has to offer.

Although I had seen Ostriches in the Johannesburg Zoo before then, it was very exciting to see them in great numbers in the Oudtshoorn area on that trip. The image of the male Ostrich below was taken much more recently in the Addo Elephant National Park.

Even more exciting was actually seeing ostrich eggs in the veld. My father bought some eggs and, not wishing to break the shells (which are very hard, by the way), a hole was made in order to blow the egg to release the contents. As one Ostrich egg is said to contain the equivalent of two dozen hen eggs, there was plenty to feed a family of six for breakfast! In the image below I am holding the bucket to catch the contents, while my eldest brother is blowing an ostrich egg and my youngest brother is holding it carefully.

Judging from the background, I imagine we must have pulled off the road somewhere to make breakfast whilst travelling. You can see our Volkswagen single-cab truck had a canvas canopy on the back with roll-down sides; this is where we children made ourselves very comfortable on our journey around the country. Note the split windscreen – something we do not see anymore!

COMMON FISCAL

Formerly known as a Fiscal Shrike, the Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris) is ubiquitous throughout South Africa and is commonly seen hunting from exposed perches.

It is also common in gardens. This ringed Common Fiscal is investigating the food tray in my garden.

This back view of the Common Fiscal shows the characteristic white ‘V’ on its back.

You can clearly see its hooked beak and the distinctive narrow white outer tail feathers in this side view.

Here you can just make out the chestnut flanks of the female.

JUNE 2018 GARDEN BIRDS

This month has been cold and very windy at times. What remains of the lawn is covered with the dried up leaves from the Cape Chestnut and the many Pompon (Dias cotonifolia) trees. The sun rising later and remaining lower above the horizon for longer has meant that the front garden remains in full shade until well past mid-morning. Generally, this means that the birds seek the highest branches to perch on while the sun warms them up and only come down to inspect the seed I have put out much later. This has caused me to change my routine too: I only provide seed at mid-morning, when I take a break for a cup of tea and also try to find warmth in the weak sunlight.

Here a Village Weaver perches on the hanging feeder:

Although there is no fruit in the garden, there must be something to eat for a flock of at least a hundred Redwinged Starlings wheel about the suburb daily, flying from one garden to the next and filling the air with their mellifluous sounds. A flock of a similar size of Laughing Doves gather in the Erythrina caffra in the back garden almost as soon as the rays of the sun reach its uppermost branches. They gradually work their way towards the front garden, fluttering from one tree to another until one or two finally pluck up the courage to settle down to test the crushed mealie seeds sprinkled on the patches of lawn beaten hard and bare by their myriad feet. I can almost tell the time they will arrive: fifteen to twenty minutes after I have sat down.

A pair of Blackeyed Bulbuls usually arrive mid-morning to investigate what is on offer – cut apples are a favourite. Their cheerful calls from within the yellowing foliage of the Pompon trees are always welcome. With most of the aloes having finished blooming, the nectar feeder has become more popular again, attracting the Amethyst Sunbird, Forktailed Drongos, Cape Weavers, and Blackheaded Orioles among others.

My June bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
African harrier Hawk (Gymnogene)
Amethyst Sunbird (Black)
Barthroated Apalis
Barn Swallow
Blackbacked Puffback
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Heron
Blackheaded Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Shrike (Fiscal)
Common Starling
Crowned Hornbill
Eurasian Hobby
Fierynecked Nightjar
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Southern Black Tit
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon (Rock)
Spectacled Weaver
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Village Weaver