Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
Here you have a fine birdie that is well-known to most South Africans, a Red Bishop (Euplectes orix. It is quite closely related to the Longtailed Widowbird. Bishops and widows all look very similar out of the breeding season, being small, dumpy birds with streaked, brownish plumage. It's very hard to identify them then. All changes when it's time to breed! The group called the widows change their entire plumage, including wing and tail feathers – several species have long tails – but the bishops only change their body feathers, keeping their wings and tails as they are. But they're still spectacular. Species that looked quite similar now look completely different and most are unmistakable when seen well. The red bishop male, as portrayed here, will puff up his showy red and black feathers, to make himself seem much bigger, while singing his swizzling song.
Weavers of the Reeds
Bishops (and widows) are members of the weaver family. This huge family occurs throughout sub-Saharan Africa ranging from deserts to rainforests with every kind of habitat in between. Red bishops are found in fairly dry savannah or grassland. They feed on the seeds of grasses, using their stout bills to pick them off and to crush them. But they nest mainly in reed-beds. They pose their round, tightly-woven nests close to the tips of the reeds. Often more than one reed stem or leaf will be supporting the nest, which has a side entrance overhung by a 'porch'. The males, singing and displaying, will perch prominently above their nests, and sometimes also fly around, still with the plumage puffed out, looking like big, red pompoms whizzing over the reeds. They also may choose prominent perches in trees around the reeds, bouncing from one twig to another while swizzling and rattling. In the reed-beds their nests will be closely spaced, in small but dense colonies. Every male weaves several nests – up to a dozen – and try to win himself females to lay eggs in them. But the females are choosy, and will inspect the nests carefully to see if they're up to scratch. If a female finally chooses a nest, she will add a lining to it, using soft grass inflorescences, and keep adding lining as the season progresses. Each male will defend his females and nests and a small territory around it; males sometimes chase each other around. But breeding male bishops generally become quite aggressive, and will chase males of other species as well. Among themselves, they rarely fight, instead settling disputes by seeing who can display the most impressively. In this species there are many more females than there are males.
There's still a lot of reed-bed habitat in South Africa; indeed, probably more now than before, thanks to the many ponds and lakes formed by human-made impoundments. But red bishops also adapt well to suburban gardens. They'll happily nest in trees and bushes alongside swimming-pools! Like other weavers, they take advantage of the palm trees many people plant in their gardens, tearing off narrow strips from the palm leaves to weave their nests from. Red bishops are appreciative customers at bird feeding tables, where the breeding males will boss around even species much larger than themselves.
Female red bishops do all the work of incubating their eggs and raising their chicks, indeed not even allowing the male near the nest after she's laid her eggs. Nesting bishops are very vulnerable. Many predators target their breeding colonies, from rats and large monitor lizards to birds of prey. They are also targeted by Diederik Cuckoos, which will lay their eggs in any unattended nests, leaving the bishops with the job of raising their chicks. In some regions, only 10 percent of the bishop eggs laid eventually made it into chicks surviving to the point of fledging.
Outside of the breeding season, male and female and newly fledged young bishops join into large flocks. They often mix with other seed-eating species. Though they mainly eat seeds, both directly off grasses or picked up from the ground, they are agile flyers and can catch insects like dragonflies on the wing. They feed their chicks a mixture of insects and seeds. In some regions they're considered crop pests, eating cultivated wheat and millet. Despite persecution, they are still very numerous, and not at all endangered.