This is not going to be about empty nest syndrome – although my children have all ‘flown the nest’ as it were – but about an empty nest.
Although it is winter now, think back to the mating season when a male weaver wished to breed. He cannot breed without a mate, but even though he is wearing his best mating outfit this is not enough to guarantee him finding one. What he has to do – and do this fairly quickly for just about every other male is doing the same – is locate a suitable site and start constructing an intricate nest that will impress a potential mate.
These birds are not called weavers for nothing. Armed with only his beak, our male weaver has to find suitable material to weave with – usually grass or the long leaves of reeds, although leaves, twigs and even fine roots can be used as part of the construction. The material must be easily available – you don’t want to expend too much energy collecting it – and pliable enough to weave with. He starts making a knot around the twig or thin branch of his chosen site with a long blade of grass. Then he constructs a circular structure by weaving blades of grass in and out with the aid of his beak and feet.
Next, he begins to weave the grass around this ring to form what will become a ball-shaped nest. The nest gradually takes shape as each blade of grass is woven through the rest and tied with a knot to make the nest secure – all done with his beak and feet. Bear in mind too that our male weaver often has to do this while hanging in an upside down position.
Once his nest is secure and nearly complete, the male weaver proceeds to strip the leaves from the rest of the thin branch. As the nest nears completion, our male is happy to display and draw attention to his handiwork – for once a female has approved it, she will mate and may even assist him with finishing off the nest. I have watched both males and females bringing in soft grass and even collecting the fallen feathers of other birds with which to line the nest before the eggs are laid.
All of these activities are completed against a background of a lot of weaver chatting and displaying, chasing other males, attracting females, looking for and eating enough food for energy, finding water … and before we know it there is a brood of young weavers which need feeding. Males might end up constructing – or at least starting – several nests in a season for their females are picky: nests need to be strong and waterproof; perhaps they need to feel comfortable inside; and they certainly must be sturdy enough to withstand the buffeting of strong winds.
Autumn passed with a frenzy of feeding the latest brood; our male weaver is ready for a winter break spent foraging for food and building up his reserves for the start of the next cycle. The chattering of weavers has all but disappeared for the time being. All that is left in a tree now bereft of its leaves and flowers are the vestiges of those initial strong knots with which he began constructing this nest: it is now indeed an empty nest.
So sings the hippopotamus to his fair hippopotamus maid in The Hippopotamus Song by Flanders and Swann:
Mud, mud, glorious mud
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood
So follow me, follow
Down to the hollow
And there let us wallow in glorious mud.
Hippos spend up to sixteen hours a day wallowing in rivers or waterholes –– submerging themselves to keep their bodies cool during the day.
Elephants also cover themselves with mud not only to keep cool, but to protect their skin from parasites. It is enjoyable watching elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park either rolling in mud or squirting it over themselves.
Rhinos also use mud to cool their bodies as they have no sweat glands. As with elephants, a thick layer of mud both helps to protect the rhinos from biting insects and traps parasites that might otherwise burrow into their hide.
Buffalos like a mud bath too. They also use mud as a protection from parasites.
Closer to home, every summer we witness the trials and tribulations of the Lesser-striped Swallows that build their nest from globules of mud.
Mud or dust can be important for humans too: geophagy is the habit of eating mud or dust to augment a mineral deficient diet. Some people feel the need to eat a fingertip of dust every now and then for this reason. This craving to eat earth is also known as pica, and may be an indication that young children have an iron deficiency.
My posts have covered the saga of the Lesser-striped Swallows over the years, faithfully recording them building their nest of mud; it falling down; it being rebuilt … their best ever mud nest was usurped by White-rumped Swifts about two years ago – they have no trouble rearing their young: the nest is well built, well protected from the elements, and well hidden from prying predator eyes. That one is outside our front door, which we try to avoid using once the chicks have hatched for the mess below is copious. Meanwhile, the swallows build and rebuild.
This summer two pairs arrived (I wonder if they are related) and each built and rebuilt their respective nests in the midst of the drought – the sourcing of the mud remains a mystery – beautifully formed nests, built with such hope that lifted my heart as I watched their progress. Such heartbreak followed when finding the dusty remains (twice with broken eggs) lying on the ground. Yet, these stout-hearted little creatures flew around twittering to each other, planning their next project and proceeded to rebuild yet again.
I am very pleased to report that the most recent nest has withstood the heat, the dry weather and the damp.
Look at this nest very carefully and you will observe several things: traces of where previous nests have been built and fallen down; specks of white droppings; and just the points of feathers – indicating a bird inside. That is always a joyous sight for me as it spells success at last. Once the eggs have hatched, the Lesser-striped Swallows flit in and out at great speed to feed their young. I only just managed to capture this one before it disappeared inside.
While one was in the nest, the other swallow perched on a cable, twittering all the while. Note that it has lost one of its tail feathers. The interesting thing about this is that I have seen this happen every year for the past number of years – what happens?
Lesser-striped swallows are already beginning to mass in the sky as they swoop and weave their way through the air to catch insects in the air during the late afternoons. The day is coming closer when all will head north, leaving us scanning the sky for their return.
Regular readers will be familiar with the successes and tragedies that have befallen a pair of Lesser Striped Swallows that have chosen our house for their summer breeding abode. Mud marks under the eaves bear witness to the many nests that have been built over the years – as well as the variations in where the openings have been placed. For years a pair of swallows would faithfully build – and rebuild – in the same place. While they have always managed to raise a brood it has not been easy. My blog has chronicled many nests falling down, sometimes with eggs or hatchlings, and the patient rebuilding of them. These birds are resilient and are willing to start over – again and again and again!
Two summers ago, after yet another structural failure, the swallows built their best nest ever. This strong nest outside our front door still stands firmly – without any maintenance required.
It is sheltered from the elements and is perfect except … they had hardly settled there when White-rumped Swifts booted them out, eggs and all, and have taken it over as their home for the past two summers. Back to the drawing board it was and, after some serious contemplation, the swallows opted to build another nest round the side of the house. Here they raised a family after having to rebuild their nest more than once as earlier ones came loose and fell to the ground.
The good news this summer is that not only one pair came to claim their real estate, but two!
One or other of the pairs tried the sturdy nest but were chased away by the swifts. Each pair then decided to build a nest on the site of the two previous ones respectively. One pair perched on the bathroom window for days before starting the construction in earnest – where they sourced the mud in this drought is a mystery.
They laboured for days on end.
Finally the nest was complete and the laying of eggs could begin.
The other pair had almost completed their nest.
Then … disaster struck … both nests collapsed on Saturday.
The eggs lay shattered on the ground below this one. The other nest had not quite reached completion.
These dear birds are starting from scratch to build their homes.
A pair of Greater Double-Collared Sunbirds (Cinnyris afer) can be seen in our garden throughout the year. The males are like little jewels in the trees, particularly when their metallic colours catch the sun and frequently call from a prominent position such as this one.
As you can see, the male has a broad bright red band around its chest. The sun highlights its glossy, metallic green head, throat upper breast and back. All-in-all, it is a beautiful bird.
They are very active birds, often chasing each other around the garden as well as the Amethyst Sunbirds should they be in the vicinity. Greater Double-collared Sunbirds mainly eat nectar, insects and spiders.
Meanwhile, the drab-coloured females work hard at collecting fine grasses and loose feathers with which to line their nests. This is a nest I have featured before that was blown out of a tree.