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!"
What I have for you today, is a little birdie that's very dear to my heart! This is a Bronze Mannikin, Spermestes cucullatus (or sometimes put in the genus Lonchura). Mannikins, strictly conceived, are endemic to Africa (four species being found here), but the Munias, those birds in the genus Lonchura with which they're sometimes grouped, also occur in Madagascar, Asia and Australia. Mannikins are members of the Waxbill family. They should not be confused with the Manakins, which are birds from South America, related to cotingas, and belonging to an entire different branch of the songbird order.
Modest but Charming
The waxbill family boasts some spectacularly beautiful little birds. They don't have intricate plumes, but many of them have wonderfully soft and delicate colours. The mannikins are among the dullest of the waxbills. Bronze mannikins are black, white and brown, only having a greenish gloss on their shoulder feathers, and a similar greenish to purplish gloss on their heads. But they are extremely cute and charming! They are tiny birds, only about 9 cm/3.5" in total length. They can perch on thin stalks of grass without causing them to bend down! They have a variety of soft, chirpy and buzzy calls, and they're constantly calling. Most of the time they occur in small groups, usually related, consisting of a male and female pair and their offspring. Sometimes more than one generation of offspring remain together forming an extended family. Youngsters are uniform brownish. Adults of both sexes look the same.
They are very social birds. They tend to roost crowded all together along a single twig or branch. Indeed, while perched, they squeeze themselves together, the outer birds all shuffling inward along the branch. In fact this goes on until the bird in the middle is being squeezed so hard from both sides, that it pops out! It will then flutter to the one or the other end of the line of mannikins, and they'll squeeze in together again until a new central bird pops out.
From their perch, the mannikins fly down to the ground to feed. They actually just 'drop', only using their wings to slow them down somewhat, so that they look like dry leaves fluttering down. If disturbed, they fly back up to the perch again. They bob up and down and flick their tails from side to side when alarmed. Mannikins are seed-eating birds, which you can see by their comparatively stout bills. They will feed on grass seeds, either directly from the stalks of the seed heads, or they'll pick the seeds up from the ground. They're quite partial to a variety of weed seeds in gardens. They will occasionally feed on cultivated rice, but they don't occur in such large numbers as to be considered an agricultural pest. They also eat insects, and like many other birds feast on the masses of winged termites that emerge in the rainy season.
A very charming habit of mannikins is the way the male courts the female. It is quite similar to the courtship of many other waxbill species. He treats her to a little dance. He fluffs up his feathers, and holds a grass stalk in his mouth. He sings a little song at the same time. He bobs up and down and hops towards the female, waving the grass stalk in front of her face. She may respond by biting at the grass. He then flies over and does the grass stalk dance from the opposite direction. When she feels impressed enough she will crouch down and quiver her tail, which is the signal for him to mate with her.
Other waxbill species wave a feather at the female. Whether a grass stalk or a feather, it is a symbolic gesture. Waxbills make their nests from grass and line them with feathers – so the offer of the grass stalk or the feather, is the male offering nesting material to the female! It shows his commitment towards her and helping raise their babies.
Like other waxbills, the bronze mannikin's nest is an untidy ball of grass with a central compartment and a small access tunnel. The clutch is typically three to six eggs, but sometimes as many as eight. An interesting habit of this and other waxbill species is to build their nests close to other nests – particularly, the nests of aggressive social wasps! We still don't know exactly why they do this, but it might be to dissuade predators from bothering their nests. These predators, in disturbing the waxbill nests, might disturb the wasps as well, with dire consequences to themselves!
Another feature of this and other waxbill species is that their chicks have distinctive, colourful knobs inside their mouths. In the gloom of the nests, these may help show the parents where to put the food. Also, waxbill nests are often parasitized by their close relatives, the whydahs and widowfinches. In the bronze mannikin, the parasite is the common whydah. The whydah chicks look very much the same as the waxbill chicks, even having the same configuration of bumps inside their mouths! But if there is just a little difference, the waxbills can recognize and reject the whydah chicks. There is therefore a sort of evolutionary arms race between waxbills and whydahs: waxbills keep evolving more elaborate mouth patterns, and if the whydahs can't keep up and evolve the same patterns in the mouths of their own chicks, they lose because then the waxbills can recognize and reject the intruding chicks. But so far it seems the whydahs are quite adequately keeping up! And it isn't harming the waxbills too much. Indeed, bronze mannikins are much more common than the pintailed whydahs.
Today, this species is still abundant. It occurs all over sub-Saharan Africa, except in open grasslands and dry deserts. Mannikins need trees for perching and nesting, and grass for feeding, and that's it! They have also adapted very well to gardens. Many people all over the world keep munias and mannikins as cage birds, but it is far better to have them wild and free in the garden! They often become tame, if not disturbed by people, and can be approached closely and watched. They are delightful as they go about their business, feeding, bathing in the sun or in a birdbath, huddling together, preening and uttering their little calls.