Colours of Wildlife: Cape White-Eye

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Cape White-Eye

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!"

Cape White-Eye by Willem.

A birdie again! This is a Cape White-Eye, Zosterops virens. (I'm indebted to Leonie Kellerman for the photo I painted this from.) This is an extremely common bird here in South Africa, and yet, it remains a high favourite of mine!

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beheld

It goes back to my early childhood. I was born in a small apartment in the city of Pretoria, but when I was about three years old, we moved to a house with a yard and garden in the suburbs. We had a fig tree and other fruit trees there, and that's where I saw and recognized my first white-eye. My dad pointed it out to me, and I was instantly enchanted! In Afrikaans we call this a 'glasogie' or 'little glass eye'. And it looked to me as if the bird really had big, glassy eyes! The white eye-ring (formed of small feathers rather than a wattle) from a distance makes the eye look very large, giving the bird an appearance of almost cartoon-cuteness. We didn't even mind them eating the fruit in our orchard! They never did very great damage, and it was a pleasure to have them around.

I still have them in my garden today! They're quite tame. And when I put up a sprinkler to water my garden, they come to bathe in it! They even bathe using drops of water on the leaves of trees and shrubs I've recently watered. They'll rub their bodies on the leaves so the drops moisten their feathers.

Just What is a White-Eye?

These tiny birds are actually rather enigmatic. We know they are songbirds, but they don't quite fit into any of the main groups of them. They have probable relationships to warblers, babblers, bulbuls and sunbirds. They're often placed in their own family, the Zosteropidae. But modern genetic analysis seem to place them closest to the babblers, and they might be better classified as a subfamily or a group inside the babbler family. They have brush-tipped tongues, which are usually found in birds that feed on nectar and pollen. White-eyes do that, but also eat fruit. They peck a small opening into the side of a fruit and then use their brush-tipped tongues to scoop and lap up soft pulp and nectar. They also feed on insects which they glean from leaves and stems. So while they damage some fruit, they're also quite valuable in keeping insect pests under control in the garden.

White-eyes are quite sociable birds. They can be found in pairs or small groups. They use their mournful 'cheereet-chee' calls as well as other little noises to keep in touch with each other as they move through the foliage. They make little sounds with every movement they make, like squeaky toys. Very common in gardens, they also occur in savannahs, woodlands, scrub and forests. They can become very tame, allowing a close approach and the opportunity to delight in their cuteness.

South Africa has three white-eye species: this one, the Orange River White-Eye (recently split from the Cape), and the Yellow White-Eye. Many other species occur in Africa, and there are also several species in Asia, Australia and the islands of the Pacific. White-eyes are not very diverse in appearance, most looking very much like this one. A few species lack the typical yellowish or greenish colour, being brown or grey instead, while some also lack the typical white eye-ring – indeed, some have black eye-rings. But some species, especially in East Africa, have extra-big white rings around their eyes, giving them a startled, wide-eyed appearance!

White-eyes are some of the best colonizers of remote oceanic islands, in tropical and subtropical regions. All the main islands around Africa have their own species. Some even have two – Mauritius and Réunion, both in the Indian Ocean, have two white-eye species each. A great variety of them are found in the islands of the Indonesian and Australasian region, as far as New Zealand and Samoa. They have even recently made it to Hawaii – with help from humans! Most of the time, a white-eye found on a specific island, will have evolved into a unique species or subspecies – meaning that the majority of the species in the family have localised distributions, some of them being entirely restricted to quite small islands or archipelagos. A few species are very rare, and two or three have even recently gone extinct. Fortunately, the Cape white-eye is still abundant.

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