Colours of Wildlife: Grey Go-Away Bird

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Grey Go-Away Bird

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 is a painting of a Grey Go-Away Bird, Corythaixoides concolor. This species is a relative of the Knysna Turaco. Although in appearance it is a bit drab, being uniformly grey, it is actually an amusing and engaging bird, and one of my own favourites to see (and hear!) in my part of the world. The name comes from its most typical call, which sounds a bit like 'go away!' – actually it's more like 'g'waaayyy!', 'g'waaaahhh!' or in Afrikaans spelling, 'kwêêê!' leading to its Afrikaans name 'Kwêvoël'. Alternatively it is called a Grey Turaco, or Grey Lourie. It is a typical turaco in shape, with its prominent erectile crest and long, floppy tail. Its feet are typical for the family as well, with two toes pointing forward and two backward, to enhance its ability to clamber around trees and shrubs. It has the typical stubby turaco bill as well.

There are actually three go-away-bird species in Africa. This one occurs from South Africa to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Angola, and southern Tanzania and a bit of the DRC. In Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia, two other species replace it: the Bare-faced Go-Away Bird, Corythaixoides personatus, and the White-Bellied Go-Away Bird, Corythaixoides leucogaster. The latter species is sometimes separated into a different genus, Criniferoides. Within the turaco group, the go-away birds are related to two other grey species called plantain-eaters, constituting the genus Crinifer. These five species differ from all other turacos in being drably coloured, mostly grey, with some black and white and brownish, but never bright green, blue, red or purple as in the other species.

But in spite of this, the Go-Away birds do indeed possess one of the two unique feather colour pigments that characterize turacos. They have the green pigment called turacoverdin in their feathers … it is not very noticeable, being present only as traces, but sometimes, in good light, can be seen as a green wash or gloss to the grey feathers on the breast. A dark pigment which is found in most birds, melanin, obscures the turacoverdin, and is responsible for the overall grayish colour.

Grey Go-Away birds are much less shy than the forest-dwelling turacos. They occur in savannah, bushland and dry, open woodland regions, mostly preferring thorny Acacia trees. They are also adjusting well to suburban gardens, in some regions even extending their range into what used to be open grassland before people started planting trees there. In my home town of Polokwane they are relative newcomers to the gardens, having lived in the open veld which still exists in good swathes outside and around town. But they've been in the local neighbourhood since a few years ago, and I hear them calling every now and then. In the veld, they usually live in small groups. Their typical 'gwaah!' call can be heard from a good distance away. The sound is usually drawn out, descending the scale and ending in a croak. They also make various other cawing, gurgling, clucking, cackling and wailing sounds. They are very vocal. Their noise helps keep the flock members aware of where the others are, and can also be a warning signal of predators or other kinds of danger.

Not just other go-away birds, but also animals like antelopes take heed of these warning calls. In the movie 'The Gods Must be Crazy' there is a particularly funny scene. A man, one of the San people, also called Bushmen, of the Kalahari, is stalking some game with his bow and poison arrows. Every time he gets close to his quarry, there's a loud 'g'waayyy!' sound and the antelopes scatter! Again and again he tries, again and again the bird warns the animals and they flee. Finally he looks up angrily at the bird sitting in the tree. Sudden scene cut: he's sitting by a fire, and roasting a scrawny bird on a stick.

To be honest about this, the bird the man can be seen roasting is not a go-away bird; I think it is actually a small partridge or some other ground-dwelling bird, but the audience is not supposed to know that and with it being plucked and partially scorched, the vast majority of viewers wouldn't be able to tell! The maker of the film, Jamie Uys, tended to take creative liberties … for instance these birds actually don't even exist in most of the dry Kalahari, since they need access to drinking water. The hunter featured in the film probably at some point killed a small ground bird for his daily sustenance and this was worked into the story juxtaposed with clips of go-away birds and animals from a variety of different places and occasions.

In real life these birds are rather funny in and of themselves, their calls most of all, but also their general appearance and behaviour. They seem rather clumsy, clambering and flopping around in trees like big balls of feathers. Actually they are quite nimble climbers, preferring using their feet to their wings. They will run along branches, jump to higher ones or drop to lower ones, spreading their wings and tails for stabilisation. For display they will perch on the highest branches, raising and lowering their shaggy crests, and flicking their tails up and down as well, as they call. To move from one tree to another one that is a distance away, they will first climb high and then fly out, using only a few lazy beats of their large wings and gliding down most of the way. Go-away birds are mostly herbivorous. Their multi-purpose, strong and stubby bills can be used to pick and eat a variety of fruits, or snip off leaves, buds and flowers. They will sometimes drink nectar from flowers such as those of Aloes. They have been seen eating termites as well. They will descend to the ground for these, and also sometimes will come down to eat garden vegetables like cabbages or crops like alfalfa. They are not generally considered a pest by humans, but can be bothersome in orchards, gardens and markets in some regions.

As I said, go-away birds need access to drinking water. They will gather in small parties at ponds or other water sources, lifting their heads and tails to swallow. They will take some water back to their chicks also. In very hot weather they will bathe in the water as well. When it is cooler they will sunbathe, stretching out their legs and wings. Sentries will keep watch while the others are relaxing; they will switch sentry duty so everyone has a turn.

There are indications that Grey Go-Away Birds breed cooperatively. A male and female pair up monogamously, and start out by raising their first brood alone, but if they are successful, their grown-up kids may help them to raise the next broods. Up to four of these 'helpers' may ultimately attend the nest. This is built in a tree, usually a thorny one. Sometimes it will be concealed in a clump of mistletoe or a tangle of creepers. The nest is made of twigs and is rather flimsy, the eggs being sometimes visible from below. Clutches range from one to four eggs, most of the time three. The newly hatched chicks are helpless and downy. The adults bring food and water to them in their crops, regurgitating it for the chicks. These usually leave the nest at the age of three weeks, but typically need another week or two before they can properly fly. The adults will still feed and help them until they're about a month and a half in age.

Their natural enemies include eagles and hawks. They can live for at least nine years in captivity. Generally they are still abundant throughout their range, and can be considered safe as a species.

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