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!"
Nothing spectacular this time, but something cute, I hope! It is a Blackthroated Canary, Serinus atrogularis or Crithagra atrogulara, according to the recent re-classification of the canaries. This is the smallest commonly encountered canary in South Africa, rivalled in smallness by the Lemonbreasted Canary, which only occurs marginally in the country. The blackthroated canary is a modest little thing, giving the impression of a small, finch-like bird, streaky and dull in plumage other than for a bright yellow rump, mainly glimpsed as it flies away. Still, these are sweet little canaries with cheerful voices, and I enjoy encountering them.
The black throats aren't really very noticeable; it's more like a mottled dark-grey throat. In the field it's hardly a distinctive feature. Still, it's not difficult to identify these little birds, since they're smaller than the otherwise similar weaver and bishop species, and duller than the majority of the waxbill species. Their streaky plumage and bright yellow rump, if seen, give them away. They often occur in small flocks, perching on grass stems so lightly as to barely make them bend. They also hop around on the ground, picking up fallen seeds. Their stout little bills enable them to crack seeds easily, although they pick out mainly the smaller ones. Other than seeds, they also eat small berries, buds, gum exuded by trees, and insects they conveniently find on the ground amidst the seeds, like the ubiquitous harvester termites of the savannahs. Blackthroated canaries occur in the drier, more open savannah, grassland and woodland regions of the subcontinent, even extending into semi-desert areas. From South Africa their distribution stretches northward into central Africa, with an extension into eastern Africa as far as Uganda.
So long as they feed mainly on dry seeds, these canaries need to drink, and so are rarely found away from open water. But when they can get juicy seeds and fruits, insects and other things, they are less dependent on water. They have a habit of migrating around, seeking out plentiful food depending on where it has recently rained well. In dry regions they often come together into flocks of up to 60 birds at water holes.
Despite having cheerful, chirpy voices, blackthroated canaries don't distinguish themselves in song quite as well as pet canaries (descendants of the Wild Canary of the Canary Islands) do. Their song is a series of high-pitched whistles, trills, squeaks and warbles; more typically they utter a sweet, rising 'tweee' as a contact call.
Blackthroated canaries need trees or large shrubs to nest in. Breeding mostly happens in summer months, when lots of food is available. The male and female build the nest together, typically in a fork made by branches, well-hidden behind leaves. The nest is cup-shaped and woven of grasses, rootlets and fine plant fibres; these are often bound together with spider-webs, and the cup is lined with fine grass, hairs or fur, and feathers. The female lays two to five eggs, which are greenish-white, sometimes finely speckled. Only the female incubates, but both parents feed the chicks. They fledge after about 16 days.
As I've already written in this column, canaries are rather typically African birds. About forty different species occur on the continent, of which the blackthroated is one of the smallest. It is also quite common and easily seen where it occurs; blackthroated canaries often enter gardens, and in Polokwane are frequently seen in the grassy strips along the sides of many of the roads. They can be quite confiding, allowing themselves to be closely approached before finally flying up with a tinkle and a flash of the yellow rump. They're sometimes caught for the cage bird trade, especially in Botswana, but are not as sought-after as the more colourful waxbills. At present, they're not at all endangered.