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 time I have a pair of sweety-tweeties for you! These are Rosyfaced Lovebirds, Agapornis roseicollis. The scientific name is very close in meaning to the common name: 'Agapornis' comes from 'agapé' which means 'love', and 'ornis' meaning 'bird'. And they are indeed very loving little birds – and lovable too! The species name means 'rosy-collared' rather than faced … not really appropriate, but it's what they're stuck with. These are indeed the lovebirds commonly found in pet stores, although a few varieties have been bred that differ a bit from the natural colours which you see here. Few people realize that lovebirds are actually Southern African in origin! They naturally occur in northwest South Africa, almost the entirety of Namibia, and the southwestern corner of Angola.
Tiny Parrots of the Desert
What's more, these little birds are not, as many people might assume, denizens of lush savannahs or forests, but occur in the desert! Their typical range is dry semi-desert to quite harsh true desert … they're only absent in the most barren stretches of the Namib Desert. They favour rather rocky terrain with at least some trees. Luckily there are many species of extremely drought resistant trees in Namibia and northwestern South Africa. One example is the hardy quiver tree which is actually an aloe, a large succulent. Lovebirds love roosting in these, and also feed on the seeds of many trees of the semi-deserts and dry woodlands, particularly the thorn trees. They also eat what fruits are availabe, for instance those of the many species of Corkwood trees, Commiphora.
In these barren surroundings, the little lovebirds provide welcome splashes of colour. Aside from their pink faces and bright green bodies, which you can see here, they also have bright blue feathers on their rumps. Their rump feathers are dense and stiff and actually serve their nesting needs! Microscopic hooklets adorn the edges of the feathers, keeping them tightly together and also 'holding on' to other objects – particularly, pieces of grass, leaves or bark. These the female gathers when it's nesting time, first snipping them to the right length with her bill, and then tucking them into the feathers of her rump. This means she can gather much more than merely what she can hold in her bill. Grasses and other plants are quite sparse in these dry regions, so she might need to fly far to gather as much as she needs. She will carry some items in her bill or feet also. But being able to use her rump as a storage rack means it's less flying for her to gather what she needs and get it all to her nest. As it is, these little birds are well-adapted to fly large distances every day, their small wings whirring rapidly.
Lovebirds are unusual among parrots for actually making nests. Most parrots breed in unadorned cavities. Lovebirds mostly nest in holes in cliff faces or under rock overhangs. But inside these cavities they construct cozy, comfy nests with grasses and other bits of plants. They sometimes will use human features, nesting under bridges or the eaves of houses. From time to time, a couple of lovebirds will manage to occupy a spare chamber in the huge communal nests of the sociable weavers.
True to their name, lovebirds are monogamous and couples are very close. The male and female court each other by preening and chattering. Socially, female lovebirds are dominant over males, and the male doesn't dare to mate before the female shows signs of making herself deliberately submissive, which she does by fluffing her feathers. After mating she lays four to six eggs (but up to eight in captive birds). The female incubates the eggs while the male brings her food. The eggs hatch after about 23 days into the rather ugly chicks, covered in sparse, reddish down. Once they've grown a bit, the female starts leaving them alone while she sets out to collect food. They fledge at the age of 40 to 44 days. While still in juvenile plumage, at the age of about two months, young lovebirds already bond into couples.
Actually, lovebirds have not been studied that much in the wild, most of what we know coming from watching them breed in captivity. Wild lovebirds, on the other hand, are wary and nest in often inaccessible spots, mainly in steeply mountainous regions on the Namibian escarpment, or in sheer-walled river canyons, making them hard to observe when breeding.
Like many parrots, lovebirds are gregarious, forming sometimes large and always noisy flocks. They're especially numerous at the few-and-far-between spots of open drinking water. They need to drink regularly, unlike other desert creatures which can get by on only the juices of whatever they eat. In this respect, they have benefited from ponds, dams and reservoirs constructed by farmers, and at such a watering point it is easy to spot them. They're sometimes not quite as loving as their name suggests, quarrelling screechily with each other.
Despite being so prevalent as pets, rosyfaced lovebirds are rarely these days taken from the wild. They breed quite easily in captivity, so there's no problem with rearing new tame birds from the available captive stocks to meet the demand. They are still numerous in the wild, and occur over a very large range. An interesting feature is that nowadays they are sometimes spotted far away from their actual native habitat. Indeed, they're seen often here around Polokwane, especially in our game reserve. These are indeed escapees, which is quite evident in many of them not having the natural coloration but that of some of the pet breeds. Sometimes these are even successful at breeding, so far outside of their natural range and habitat, so that this species might indeed become established in some strange places.
The Lovebirds of Africa
Africa has an amazing bird diversity, but for some reason is not particularly blessed with parrots. In South America, Asia and Australia, numerous parrot species often with spectacular, gaudy plumage occur. In Africa we have to be satisfied with just a few small species, with mostly green, brown and grey feathers. Certainly the lovebirds must rank among the prettiest of Africa's native pollies. About eight lovebird species are currently recognized in Africa, and another one on the great island of Madagascar. Very occasionally, some of the other species are also kept in captivity. They range from deserts through savannahs and dry woodlands and a few species are found in lush forests. The rosy-faced lovebird, at slightly bigger than a sparrow, is actually the largest species! A few species, such as the Black-cheeked Lovebird, occur over small ranges and are vulnerable to decline and extinction.