Saturday, November 13, 2010

Pets in South Africa

My dogs in the States are very keen about meal times. If breakfast time during the week falls at 5:30 in the morning, you best bet that on 5:30 Saturday morning, when I’d like to sleep in, someone’s bellies are rumbling. Being quite aware that someone’s breakfast time has long since passed, I’ll begin to here the click, click, click of toenails on hardwood floors as the pacing begins along the side of the bed, back and forth, back and forth, click, click, click; then the slap of the bottom as it hits the floor in a way to say, “Hello! I’m here! I’m hungry!”; or even the quivering, twittering, low-key yet irritatingly persistent whine the one of them has: I need you to get up now, I’m hungry. With a soon-dissipated irritation, (good coffee has a way of dissipating early morning irritation), I would crawl out of bed to feed them and grump: Can’t you guys let me sleep in??

I don’t keep dogs in South Africa, although some in our group do. I do think, in feeding the wild birds a bit of crumb every morning, that I’ve inherited another breed of pet in this way. Like with my dogs in the States, I feed my wild birds at an earlier hour during the school week, and like to sleep in on Saturday. This morning, I heard this raucous chatter, this incessant twittering, these clunky landings on the aluminum outside my window and I thought to myself, “Are these birds trying to rouse me out of bed to fetch them something to eat?” It sure felt like it.

I’ve written before about making a big to-do about feeding the wild birds in the States: buying expensive squirrel-proof feeders and two kinds of seed; making special provisions for hummingbirds; finding containers to serve as bird houses; and having a special watering “station” that may or may not require the digging of a pond. Here in South Africa, my bird-feeding life is much simpler, but just as rewarding. I’ve found a small table that I’ve outfitted with a shallow dish for water and a wooden board to leave them a bit of crumb; I don’t even buy bird feed. After the birds drag me out of bed, I chop a handful of peanuts and slice up a half an apple while my coffee is brewing. They have their crumb and I watch their antics from my bedroom window while I drink my coffee. It’s a simple morning ritual that I have come to love and need.

I’m posting general shots of some of my regulars: these photos are not mine but ones I’ve gotten from the internet. I don’t have the talent or the appropriate camera equipment to capture compelling shots of birds in the wild: they seem to refuse to sit still. These guys, except for the bishops and the weavers, are typically plain and unassuming. The cape sparrows and the canaries are usually the rowdy ones making all the fuss to get me out of bed, and are generally around to eat first. But I’ve noticed that size rules in the bird kingdom at the feeder, and the pigeons soon fly end to keep everyone smaller at bay. The smaller ones persist, however, and I love how the sneak and dart underneath the pigeons to steal a bit of crumb. And then my momma hen comes and since she’s really the biggest, everyone flees until she is full. She usually eats most of the nuts or knocks them down to her chicks gathered below. (Six chicks have survived from the original eighteen, and she seems capable of defending the six: I observed her rocket away a yellow mongoose yesterday: that mongoose got the heck out of there!) After the nuts are gone, the bulbuls come in for the chopped apple: they’re fruit eaters. Even with a small amount of food, the eating lasts a good hour or more. And the birds seem to enjoy the fresh water. I love the times that the parent birds bring the juniors: baby birds are so distinct: fuzzy, big eyed, and awkward.

Since different birds eat different things, some of my favorite birds don’t eat at my feeder at all. I have to go to other places to watch some of my favorite insect-eating birds, and I’ll post pictures and stories about them another time.

I will close with a pretty cool bird story from yesterday, however. I don’t have a picture posted to this page of the black-headed heron, but I’ve posted pictures of him before. He resembles our great blue heron back home and is about the same size. I’ve told stories about him coming to sit at the side of the community garden, when I lived in the girls’ dormitory and my room faced out over the garden. It always cheered me to see him come. I’m happy now to report that he visits very near my new home now too; he hunts everyday in the reed bed that sits behind my trailer. He sometimes comes early in the morning, so I enjoy him with my coffee and my smaller birds too. But yesterday, he was hunting in midday and he caught my eye and I paused in my chores just to watch him. (This bird is so magnificent, he demands you stop whatever your doing to come watch him.) Well, I was treated for a bigger show than I could have ever imagined, because after only a few minutes of sitting still, he reached into the reed bed and pulled out the biggest rat I have ever seen! This rat had to be as big as a size 9 shoe, and I was wondering, that after the heron killed the thing, how in the world it was going to be able to open its mouth widely enough to swallow it. The struggle by the rat was impressive and he was squealing loudly. The crane had him behind the neck and jerked him about and clamped his beak ever more tightly about the rat’s neck. Finally, the rat quit struggling and the heron gulped him down! It was amazing! The heron’s neck seemed about 15 inches long and about as round as the size of my thumb, so it was amazing watching the profile of the rat’s body descend down the heron’s throat and into its body. I couldn’t imagine how in the world that graceful neck could swallow such a massive meal! I kept thinking, about the heron, “Boy, you better hope that rat’s good and dead or he’s going to eat you from the inside out!” It was all over in a matter of minutes, with the heron gracefully moving away again into the reed bed with no hint of the rat ever existing.

Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom—in Africa!




  1. COOL! I bet that was really a show in's wonderful to think of your bird theater and how you must enjoy it. Thanks for sharing it with us.