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 teeny-tiny little charmer is a Neddicky, Cisticola fulvicapilla. It reaches a max stretched-out length, tip of bill to tip of tail, of 10 cm/4". Neddickies inhabit shrubland, grassy savannah and open woodland in Southern to South-Central Africa. In the southern parts of the Western and Eastern Cape Provinces of South Africa, they sometimes enter gardens. Even here, where they are quite abundant, many people don't even know about them.
The Little Brown Jobs
The neddicky is a consummate 'little brown job'. This is the name given by bird-watchers to a large number of small birds with no distinctive markings, being a dull brown colour in general, making them very hard to identify. People over there in Europe and America may think of big, spectacular animals and colourful birds when thinking of Africa, but we also have a vast, vast diversity of things that are small and on the face of it, not particularly showy. The continent is especially fruitful of small, nondescript, brownish, greenish and greyish birds that skulk about the grasslands, woodlands and forests. They number in the hundreds of species, and belong to several different families – in spite of their overall outward similarity, they constitute a great diversity of different types.
'LBJ's may be seen as a nightmare for the bird-watcher. If you get a glimpse of one, you rapidly have to catalogue details such as eye colour, bill colour, foot colour, body proportions, shape of the wings and tail, even the slightest traces of markings, to have any chance of ID-ing it. That is to say, if you only go on visual cues. But the wonderful thing about LBJ's is that they teach you to not depend on merely the outward appearance of the bird! What happens when you start paying attention to other things – the kind of habitat it lives in and also which part of that habitat it frequents most; whether it is found singly or in small groups; its body posture and the way it moves; small mannerisms like flicking the wings or cocking the tail; and finally, its call? Once you factor those in, suddenly a previously completely uncategorizable little bird leaps into distinctiveness.
And exactly so it is with the neddicky. Outwardly, its dull brown colour is only relieved by a reddish brown cap on its head, from which it receives its scientific species name. It belongs to a huge genus of birds called the cisticolas, which are notorious for all looking almost exactly alike. The neddicky distinguishes itself among these by even lacking the markings on the back, wings and tails that most of the others have. But that is actually a plus. If you see a small, short-tailed, cisticola-like bird in the kind of habitat neddickies frequent, it's already likely to be one. Neddickies are not particularly shy or furtive, so it is often possible to get a good look at one in all its plainness. So if you can see that it lacks any trace of bold markings, and has a reddish cap, you're pretty much there in your ID. Last but not least is noting the neddicky's call. Especially in the spring and summer, but at other times of the year as well, the male of this species makes himself known to the world. He perches on a big bush or a low tree, right at the very top, and sings: a very simple song, just a single, ringing note, "tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi…" repeated over and over, sometimes for hours. It has a somewhat ventriloquial quality – you can't quite pinpoint where it's coming from, but a bit of patient scanning of the nearby trees and bushes should reveal the tiny caller. In fact, this sound is one that I consider to be quite characteristic of the region where I live, where neddickies are very common. This simple little call differs greatly from the complex, varied calls given by most other cisticola species. So you note: tiny; short tail; plain brownish or greyish plumage with only some reddish on the head; shrubland, savannah or woodland habitat; perching on a bush or tree and going "tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-…" et voilà! You have a neddicky.
When not calling, neddickies are encountered either alone or as couples. They're territorial, and in suitable habitat pairs can be found spaced a couple of hundred yards apart. As for their basic lifestyle, neddickies are insect eaters, as you might conclude from their thin bills. This is so for the majority of the huge number of warblers and warbler-like birds of Africa. In any particular habitat, you'll find several different species, able to co-exist with little competition because each species has its own particular kind of insect foods that it seeks out in a particular part of the habitat and in its own particular way. Neddickies take small insects and their grubs, often from the ground or from amidst the grasses, but also in trees and bushes. They're quite versatile in this, and can therefore overlap in any particular habitat with species that have a more narrow niche such as only taking insects from the ground or only hunting amidst grass stalks or only gleaning for insects in trees and bushes. Their versatility also allow neddickies to flourish year-round, not needing to migrate like many other birds. Even in the dry season they can find enough to eat. They time their breeding season for when food is super-abundant, such as in spring when the woodland erupts into fresh new leaves which are attended by legions of freshly-hatched leaf-eating caterpillars.
Neddicky nests are small balls of bunched-together grass blades, lined with soft vegetable down and fluff. The nest is usually placed not high above ground level, well-concealed in a shrub or clump of grass. An entrance in the side leads to the central chamber where the female lays two to five eggs. The chicks are born blind, naked and helpless; both the male and female feed them on small insects, and remove their droppings, which are encased in thin, membranous 'bags', from the nest. The chicks of this and other cisticola species have distinctive spots on their tongues. They grow fast and fledge at the age of twelve to fourteen days. Their parents probably help them with finding food and teaching them the ropes for a while longer. I can't find out how long neddickies live, but like other small birds they probably have fairly short lifespans, even though tropical birds in general seem to live longer than similar-sized bird species of temperate lands.
At present, neddickies are abundant throughout a variety of habitats and over a large range, and thus not considered endangered. They do need however some attention to the quality of the environment, which keeps deteriorating in many places as human populations keep growing and more wild land is sacrificed to agriculture and human settlements.