Saturday 4 June 2011

Red-billed Buffalo-weavers

I sometimes look at the stats that blogger supplies about what people are reading and how they find your blog, and it's been puzzling to me that the most popular page on the blog (by a very clear margin!) is this one about weavers. Most people seem to find it by searching for either white-browed sparrow weaver (obviously a popular species I'll have to revisit), or some variant on "black bird red beak". And they must all be rather disapointed, because there's no picture of a black bird with a red beak for them. I finally took a not too bad picture of a Red-billed Buffalo Weaver back in January, but didn't think to do anything with it as it's not the best. But in order to no longer disappoint quite so many readers, here's the picture you've been waiting for:
Red-billed Buffalo-weaver at Naabi Gate, Serengeti, Jan 2011

And actually, they're quite interesting birds too, though mainly overlooked as they're incredibly common. The most interesting thing about them ecologically, is that they are one of very very few birds to posses a phalliod organ. In fact, the only other one is the White-billed Buffalo-weaver (NB some other birds - notably some ducks and ostrich - do posess pseudi-phalli, but they're not the same as the phalliod organ of a red-billed buffalo-weaver. Honest.). Yup, this blog is finally degenerating into one of those blogs blocked by all sensible filters for discussing (pseudo)-phalli. Interstingly, both males and females have them - but males are much longer, and those male with territories are longer still. Size obviously matters! Unusually for birds, copulations in this species can last several minutes, and the species is very much a polyandrous breeder with both males fathering chicks in the same nest, feeding the young and defending the nest together. In fact, in some nests although there are several territorial males around, it seems that a lot of the time the female sneaks off and finds non-territorial males to father young too. So it follows that there's a lot of competition among males to be fathers, even though genetics tells us that the cooperating territorial males sharing a female are at least sometimes related. What the phalliod organ actually does isn't entirely clear - it's not the route for sperm to flow through - but apparently it needs stimulation before females can be inseminated by the male, and they're the only birds to experience anything that looks rather like an orgasm, so we think it must be related. Somehow.  Interesting things huh? In fact, it goes on - they've got some remarkably evolved sperm too - but that's probably enough for now... Amazing how the dullest of birds often have the most unusual mating habits... Still, hopefully people searching for these terms in the future won't be quite so disappointed now?

And actually, it's useful for me to write all this down, as it was one of the stories I was telling the guides on the training session last week, and we've just started a new blog that is (hopefully) going to house all the science and stories we talked about  (I'll pop this there in time) - and a whole lot more too - over here. We've called it safari-ecology and hope it's going to get lots of stuff of interest to guides and other visitors to East Africa. I've even put the answer to my big sister's question about exactly how doves drink over there, on this post... So, if you want more science and savannah things that's probably the place to start looking...


  1. The most popular page on my blog when people find it by Google seems to be the one about getting a jigger (sand flea laying eggs under the skin) on my toe! I posted a really ugly picture of it and people are always finding it in Google Images...guess there must be a lot of visitors to East Africa with strange bumps on their feet!

  2. I like this blog, couse i like birds
    i'm studying wildlife management in Africa and i will conduct a research on diversity of habituation birds behavior in Nabi Hill Serengeti national park at the end of (30th April 2012)
    to see much birds are habituated by tourist, at what axtent
    then i will present at the college of african wildlife managemnt Mweka on 20th June.
    I welcome Barbara, Walter and your family and the members of this blog to hear why birds are habituated, what make them habituated and so on.
    thanks very much