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 you see a pair of Wattled Starlings, Creatophora cinerea. The male is on the right, in breeding plumage; the female on the left. The breeding male has a bald, yellow head with enormous black face wattles! He also is darker and glossier black on the wings and tails, while the female is browner. She only has a small patch of bare skin around the eye and at the corner of the bill. Outside the breeding season, the male looks like the female, just keeping the darker wings and tail. He completely resorbs the facial wattles, and regrows them every season.
Wattled starlings are very unlike the majority of African starlings. Typical African starlings are the glossy starlings of which there are a great diversity. They lack facial wattles, but have beautiful glossy plumage – though appearing black in poor light, good light reveals a wonderful array of iridescent colours: blues, purples, greens and bronzes. In contrast to these glossy starlings, the wattled starling has a dull, greyish plumage, black only on the flight feathers, and without the shimmering rainbow colours. Also, most African starlings are not sexually dimorphic the way the wattled starlings are: males and females look the same all year long. (A striking exception is the Amethyst Starling, which I will feature here soon, I hope.)
It would appear that the Wattled Starling is indeed not closely related to the glossy starlings of Africa. Instead, its closest relatives appear to be starlings from Asia, particularly those of the genus Sturnus – to which the single European species of starling, Sturnus vulgaris, also belongs. I personally think there must be a relationship to the Asian starlings called mynahs as well, since many of them have bare yellow skink around their eyes like the female and non-breeding male wattled starlings have, and some species also have conspicuous wattles on the head and face.
So perhaps the wattled starling is descended from some species originally from Asia. Today, it is well-established in Africa, occurring from Ethiopia in the northeast down to South Africa and Namibia in the south and southwest. It is absent from the rainforest block and for some reason also from northwest sub-Saharan Africa, even though there's lots of suitable habitat for them there. They live in savannah, grassland, semi-desert scrub and dry, open woodland.
Like European starlings, wattled starlings often form huge flocks. These move around, perpetually seeking good rains and abundant feeding. They breed whenever and wherever circumstances are just right. They often turn up in Polokwane, but I've never seen them in breeding plumage here. For long, they used to roost in a big tree in my neighbour's back yard, their thin, squeaky whistles giving them away. Sometimes several years go by without them putting in an appearance. So it goes all over the wattled starlings' range. They may vanish from a certain area for many years, even decades, and then suddenly return some day.
The one thing that wattled starlings are constantly seeking, is large swarms of locusts! They even time their breeding season to coincide with locust eruptions. They seem to know or are able to spot when locusts lay their eggs; thirty days later the locust eggs hatch and the land is covered by the small, flightless nymphs or 'hoppers'. These are easy pickings for starlings or other insectivorous birds. And these birds probably play a major role in keeping the locust populations in check. If the hoppers survive to adulthood, they metamorphose into the next stage, the flying grasshoppers that in some years can form huge swarms of crop-destroying locusts. The worst locust swarms happen at times when there's a population explosion of the locusts and not enough food. The swarms consist of million to billions of insects that are ravenously hungry and will devour whatever they can get.
But eruptions of locusts, too, are difficult to predict. They lay their eggs also only when and where they find favourable weather and food.
Other kinds of insects the wattled starlings feed on, include beetle grubs, caterpillars, and bugs. They also eat fruit, if they can find it. They will often poke about in dung, or walk in farm fields, sometimes right behind the plough seeking freshly-unearthed critters.
Wattled starlings also nest communally, picking the typically sparse-looking, thorny trees to be found in their dry habitat. They sometimes use telephone poles, and will nests in introduced alien trees in habitats such as the Cape Fynbos where no large native trees occur. They build large, untidy nests from sticks and thorns, with one to three nest chambers amidst the mass, in each of which a female might breed. They tend to keep adding sticks to the nest so that it becomes larger and larger as the season progresses. Adjacent nests can even coalesce into a single, huge mass, almost like the nests of the sociable weavers. The nesting chambers are lined with fine grass and feathers. Each nesting female lays two to five eggs, that are pale, greenish-blue. These hatch after about 11 days. Male and female bring the little chicks tasty, juicy locust hoppers and other titbits, and they grow fast, fledging in about twenty days. Typically, the starlings move on again as soon as the young ones can join the flock.