Well known for their nest-building abilities, weavers (Ploceidae) are small passerine birds with the majority of the family’s 117 species found in sub-Saharan Africa, and smaller numbers making their homes in tropical Asia. While there are some exceptions, weaver species are very sociable and generally breed in colonies. Sparrow Weavers in Africa are known to build large condominium-style nests with between one and three hundred breeding pairs sharing one structure in which each pair has its own chamber with narrow entrances facing downward. Other species, such as the Lesser Masked Weavers, may build their nests as individual structures, but will nevertheless be found in groups, sometimes with more than one nest dangling from a branch.
Closely related to finches, weavers are sometimes referred to as weaver finches and get their name from the manner in which they build their nests. Thought to be the most elaborate nest-building technique of any bird, weavers use locally available materials such as grass, twigs and fibrous leaves, to weave their nests. Some of the species strip fibrous leaves into fine strands to weave a nest together that will withstand all types of weather, but others are not quite so fussy and will build untidy looking nests which are deceptively strong. They tend to build their colonies near water and they are a common sight hanging from willow trees alongside streams and lakes in Africa. Social weavers, found in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, build some of the largest colonies of nests in trees and on power lines or other structures. These colonies will house several generations of birds at the same time, and in addition to the protection factor of a large group against predators, these large colonial nests offer protection from the extreme temperatures often experienced in Africa.
Primarily seed eaters, some weaver species are considered by farmers to be pests as they damage crops. The Red-billed Quelea falls into this category. With an adult breeding population estimated at 1.5 billion pairs (with some studies suggesting the overall population is 10 billion birds) found only in sub-Saharan Africa, the Red-billed Quelea is the world’s most abundant wild bird species. In colonies of thousands to millions of breeding pairs, these weavers can decimate a farmer’s field in a matter of hours.
The Skylark, or as it is scientifically known, Alauda arvensis, is a small greyish-brown passerine bird species with streaks all over its upper body and a pure white belly. They are about 16 to 18 cm long with the male lark having broader wings than that of the female for more efficient hovering. Like other larks, the skylark is not a spectacular looking bird but is rather a dull species with a short, stout crest on their heads, which they can lower or raise, and stout legs. A lot of their time is spent foraging for food on the ground as they eat mainly seeds and insects especially in the breeding season.
When the skylark takes flight it sings a beautiful song, which can be clearly heard by all, although it can be difficult to see him as he flies 50 to 100 m above the ground, staying in one spot. The song lasts for about 2 to 3 minutes but lasts longer as the season changes and it gets later in the year. When they fly away from you, you can see their short broad wings and short tail because of the white tail and edges of the wings.
The Skylark breeds mainly throughout Britain and Europe, in the mountains of North Africa and in certain parts of Asia. The eastern populations are a more migratory type bird, moving south for the winter. Even the western populations will move to the coast and lowlands for the winter. The skylark enjoys open areas like cultivated land, heath land and meadows. The skylark also uses the ground to make a grass nest, which it hides in between the foliage making it difficult to find. The female will then lay between 3 to 6 eggs during June and may have a second and third brood later on in the year. The eggs are an off-white with brownish-purple spots near the large end of the egg.
In the last 30 years the UK skylarks have decreased in numbers to the point of there being only 10% of what was recorded three decades ago. This large decline in the population seems to be connected to changing farming practices more than because of the pesticides used. Before cereals were planted in spring, grown through the summer months and harvested in early autumn but now that has changed, which has made it harder for the skylark to find food.
Garden birds come in large varieties and knowing a bit more about them will make watching them that much more interesting. To identify garden birds in your area use a region specific garden bird guide. For example if you are living in Britain, use a British bird field guide.
The most common garden birds you will find are of the passerine group. Passerines are perching birds and song birds which have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back. Passerines that are commonly seen in gardens include sparrows, thrushes, mynahs, crows, wagtails, chaffinches, goldfinches, magpies, starlings, bulbuls, weavers and more. Weaver’s nests are often easily spotted hanging from the outer branches of trees. It is fascinating to watch the male hard at work building his nest. Thrushes can often be seen darting around under bushes in search of insects. Beware of magpies as they are known as the kleptomaniacs of the avian world. Details on specific garden bird species can be found in a good field guide.
The other group of garden birds are the non-passerines. These are non-perching birds. Non-passerines that may be spotted in the garden are pigeons, doves, woodpeckers, hoopoes, parrot species, swifts, owls, cuckoos, lapwings, various smaller birds of prey and so on. Obviously the size of your property will determine the types of garden birds that will be seen. Doves and pigeons will probably be the most likely species of non-passerine that you will see as they often frequent garden bird feeders.
Garden birds can be enticed to your garden by a ready supply of food, bearing in mind that different species have different preferences. Likewise, many bird feeders are available to attract various types of birds, and a bird bath is always a welcome addition to a garden. By providing such accessories you will open up a delightful opportunities to view and identify birds in your own garden.
If you live in North America you may well be familiar with the Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga Columbiana). This adorable passerine bird is fairly large in size and is ash-grey in color with black and white wings and tail feathers. The bill, legs and feet of the Clark’s Nutcracker are also black – all in all a fairly ordinary looking bird. However, the Clark’s Nutcracker is anything but ordinary.
Honeyguides, also known as indicator birds or honeybirds, are a relatively small Old World family of near-passerine birds, related to woodpeckers and barbets. Honeyguides are entirely parasitic, laying their eggs in the already occupied, but temporarily vacated, nests of other hole-nesting species such as barbets, kingfishers, bee-eaters, woodpeckers and tinkerbirds. For this reason, honeyguides are often treated as pariahs by other birds in their neighborhood. Birding enthusiasts agree that these aggressive, opportunistic little birds are fascinating to watch.