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!"
Today I have something very special for you! This is the Scalyfeathered Finch, Sporopipes squamifrons. Its scientific name means, sort of, 'seed-peeper with a scaly forehead'. While the scaly part might apply to its small, scale-like forehead feathers, it is also appropriate for its prominently white-edged wing feathers. In Afrikaans we call it by a name I find more appropriate: 'Baardmannetjie' or 'Little Bearded Man', for the black, beard-like feathers going down from the base of its bill. These beard-stripes, contrasting with the pink bill and white throat, indeed are a very strong visual feature to the 'face' of this little bird! Another bird called 'Baardmannetjie' but found in Europe rather than in Africa is the Bearded Reedling, which is absolutely no close relation. Scalyfeathered finches are indeed very closely related to sparrows, and a bit more distantly to weavers . In some regions of South Africa, they are amazingly abundant. I include here for you a couple of photos showing flocks of them in my garden, and one of a juvenile in my father's hand so you can see just how tiny it is! It's one of the smallest members of the weaver-and-sparrow group of seed-eaters.
Scalyfeathered finches prefer open, dry countryside, with some trees and/or bushes as well as grass. They occur throughout almost all of Southern Africa: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, extending just barely into southern Angola. A similar, closely-related species, the Speckle-fronted Weaver, occurs in similar dry countryside north of the equator and south of the Sahara, being pretty much its ecological counterpart in those regions. These small finches eat mostly grass-seeds, and nest in thorny trees or bushes. Instead of picking the seeds right off the grass stalks as for instance Bronze Mannikins do, they feed by hopping around on the ground and picking up fallen seeds they find there. Amazingly, they seem to be able to satisfy virtually all their needs for water, from eating such dry-looking seeds! They occasionally eat termites, these being much juicier than seeds and so might supply some of their moisture needs. They occur even in semi-desert regions like the Karroo and the Kalahari Desert. Not only do they rarely drink, they also rarely bathe in open water – but they do like dust-bathing!
This is another species that has adapted well to humans. Today, scalyfeathered finches are found in abundance in gardens throughout their range, as well as on farms, where they pick up small scraps and titbits. They are very social, often occurring in large flocks. They are also naturally confiding, becoming tame and easy to approach where not persecuted. We used to put out feed for them and other seed-eaters in my garden, but unfortunately there are now feral cats in the neighbourhood who prey on them and other ground-feeders … especially in my garden, which is quite densely vegetated giving lots of places for cats to hide and ambush them in, it's perhaps best not to attract them with food. They still flourish in the parks and patches of wild land in and around the town.
It is not yet clear if these finches are more closely related to sparrows or to weavers. Being rather dull in colour, they outwardly resemble sparrows more, but this is not necessarily decisive. They don't weave intricate nests as most weavers do: their nest is a big and rather untidy-looking ball of grass … but in this, they are similar to Sparrow-weavers. They can breed any time of the year, but mostly focus on the time when the grass seed ripens. The female lays three to six green, brown-blotched eggs. The chicks hatch after about eleven days, and fledge after about sixteen more days.
In their voice, they also resemble sparrows, their constantly-uttered contact call being a brief chirp. They also sing a short, harsh-sounding song, while bobbing their heads. They don't have the 'swizzling' calls and displays of typical weavers.
Despite this tiny bird being so numerous, we can probably learn much more about it. Specifically it would be illuminating to know which metabolic adaptations it has that make it able to survive in dry regions independent of access to open drinking water. For now, this delightful, almost ubiquitous little bird gives much pleasure to birdwatchers and other nature lovers throughout the country.