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!"
This is a watercolour painting of one of South Africa's most abundant and well-known bird species, the Blackeyed Bulbul, Pycnonotus (barbatus) tricolor. The reference to its eye is actually only meaningful when comparing it to the other two common bulbuls found in South Africa, the Redeyed Bulbul and the Cape or White-eyed Bulbul. In those two the eye is surrounded by a respectively red and white wattle; the blackeyed bulbul only has a thin, dark ring around its dark brown eye.
A Host of Names
The name 'blackeyed bulbul' is not particularly descriptive, especially outside South Africa where a great many other bulbul species occur, many of which also have dark or black eyes. So, this species also has the name 'Dark-capped Bulbul'. It is also sometimes considered to be just a subspecies of the Common Bulbul; and since it is one of the most conspicuous species in urban areas, the Common Garden Bulbul. Meanwhile in Afrikaans it is called a Toppie, Tiptol or Pietkluitjiekorrel – all of these onomatopoeic names referencing its calls. Another Afrikaans name is 'Bottergat', or 'Butter-butt', referring to its yellow undertail feathers. The name 'bulbul' itself comes from Persian through Arabic, and means 'nightingale' – although bulbuls and nightingales are quite different kinds of birds.
A Confusing Family
So what are bulbuls? They are a group of about 130 presently-recognized species of songbirds that live in Africa and Asia. They may be related to babblers and warblers. They're mostly small to medium-sized, ranging in body length from 5"/13cm to 11.5"/29 cm; none of them have particularly short or long tails, although their tails are usually somewhat long compared to their bodies. Species in more open habitats can have conspicuous markings or patches of bright colour: apart from this one a few other species also have yellow undertail coverts, while others have orange or red under their tails; a few species have bold black-and-white markings on their heads; and several have red, yellow, orange or brown patches on their heads or throats. But especially in Africa there are an enormous lot of bulbul species that are plain brownish or greenish with pretty much no distinctive visual features. These are called 'brownbuls' or 'greenbuls' and live in dense, dark forests where they tend to keep to thick tangles of vegetation and can be almost impossible to see, let alone identify by visual features. But this doesn't mean they cannot be identified … they have distinctive calls, which are calculated to resound through the forests … if you know these well enough, you can be sure what the bulbul is that you're seeing, or not seeing as the case may be.
The Blackeyed Bulbul is the most common bulbul species in South Africa, indeed in most of Africa, but somehow not as well-known as that would seem to imply. They are in just about everybody's garden but often they are taken for granted, they're just 'there'. I remember when I started watching birds, in 1985 to 1986, I was very excited just to be identifying the ordinaries … I spotted a blackeyed bulbul sitting in a tree at school and I ran around manically and breathlessly told a friend I had seen a bulbul and he was very unimpressed, since he saw them every day in his garden. Since then of course I've seen thousands of bulbuls … but in actuality I am still excited to see them!
They are very engaging birds after all. They are bold and cheerful with loud calls … rendered 'Piet-kluitjie-korrel' in Afrikaans, and in English it has been given as 'come back to Calcutta', 'sweet-sweet-sweet potato' or 'doctor-quick doctor-quick be-quick be-quick'. These of course highlight the fact that you can't really put a bird's call in a written human language … if you merely look at the syllable count you might wonder how they all could conceivably correspond to the same call. Well, this bulbul can extend the number of 'syllables' in its call, the Afrikaans being the more condensed version, and the English ones being longer versions. But as it is, the call is very easy to recognize once you've heard it a few times. Apart from this liquid 'signature' call, the bulbul also has a short, harsh alarm call.
The alarm call is often given while mobbing predators. The purpose of this mobbing behaviour is to make it clear that a predator has been spotted; it can no longer sneak up on its intended victim, its cover being blown. Also, often a whole gang of birds will join in the mobbing so as to put the predator at a numerical disadvantage. Sometimes individuals will even launch themselves and peck at the predator! In the bush, for a wildlife watcher mobbing calls are very useful: they indicate that first of all you'll find a group – likely a mixed flock – of birds that are deliberately making themselves conspicuous, and also at the focus of this group you might find an owl, a hawk, a mongoose, a snake or another kind of predator – but whatever it is, in the African bush it is bound to be something interesting. But once, in an urban area, a small flock of bulbuls have been noted to scold at a tennis racket someone had thrown into a tree to try and get out a ball!
Bulbuls are fairly omnivorous. They eat fruit, catch insects, and in gardens will often visit flowers with copious nectar such as those of aloes. They are too big to hover like hummingbirds, but will perch on the stout aloe inflorescences to drink the nectar. Their faces and breast can get stained by the yellow, orange or sometimes brownish nectar and pollen. They sometimes make nuisances of themselves in fruit orchards.
Where there is a distinct dry season, blackeyed bulbuls will mate and lay their eggs at the onset of the rainy season; in forest regions receiving year-round rains they can breed at any time. Their nests are well-constructed cups of grass and leaves bound with spider webs and lined with down and other soft, fine material. The female lays two or three eggs; like most songbirds the chicks are naked, blind and helpless on hatching. The eggs hatch in thirteen days, and the chicks fledge in twelve. Sometimes the bulbuls raise a chick not their own, but in fact a Jacobin Cuckoo! Bulbuls in the wild have an average lifespan of a bit over two years, but under ideal circumstances can live to the age of ten.
Despite their abundance there is much that we still don't know about these bulbuls. Mostly it would be nice to know the secret of their success. The vast majority of African bulbuls are rare, restricted and reclusive. What makes this one the exception? Is it because it is so bold, willing to take risks, willing to test out new environments? Studying and understanding this bulbul could help us to save and appreciate its rarer cousins as well.