Colours of Wildlife: Orangebreasted Waxbill

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Orangebreasted Waxbill

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!"

Orangebreasted Waxbill by Willem

Yet another waxbill for y'all! This one is an Orangebreasted Waxbill, Amandava subflava (sometimes called the Zebra waxbill, and also known under the scientific name Sporaeginthus subflavus). It is one of South Africa's smallest waxbills (and birds), reaching only 10 cm/4" in total length. It also occurs over most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, being absent only from dense rainforests and dry deserts or semi-deserts. Even so, it has a specialized habitat requirement: tall, rank grass or weedy growth. Fortunately this is found in much of the wetter savannah regions of Africa, and also in the drier regions where there are rivers, ponds, lakes or marshes. In South Africa, this waxbill is associated with wetlands and moist, tall grasslands. Most of South Africa is very dry, and well-developed grasslands are associated mainly with the high central-to-eastern plateau, and the 'midlands' of Kwazulu-Natal closer to the coast. They have adapted to rank growth in and around farm fields as well.

In my own region, this waxbill is largely tied to wetlands, and occurs in the Polokwane Bird Sanctuary. Because of the rank grass, sedges and reeds in which they live, they're very difficult to spot. In addition, they feed down low, eating seeds directly off grass seed heads, or picking them up from the ground surface. They eat small numbers of insects as well – marshy regions often have plentiful midges on offer, and rainy season in the savannah sees mass emergences of the flying reproductive termites, or alates, which are beloved by these and many other bird species. They mostly live in small flocks, but in the non-breeding season may come together in gatherings of more than fifty birds. Placidly feeding in the marshes, they keep contact with each other with soft, tinking notes. When disturbed they fly out over the grass with a dipping-and-rising flight, diving into dense vegetation a short distance away. They're rather shy of humans, not allowing a close approach. They are also pretty hyper-active, constantly in motion, hopping and flitting from one grass stem to another, constantly flicking their tails. It is thus a real challenge to see them well, even with good, strong binoculars, and equally challenging to photograph them.

But when seen well, this is a most pretty and charming little bird. The male, pictured here, is a bit more colourful than the female, with a red bill, bold red eye-stripe, red rump and undertail feathers, yellow and olive striping to the sides, a bright yellow belly and a suffusion of orange on the breast. The female lacks the eye stripe and is duller yellow below, lacking the orange breast. But she's a very pretty bird as well.

Orangebreasted waxbills have found a way to save on overall living costs. Instead of making their own nests, they frequently use those of others. The same rank, grassy or reedy regions where they live, are also favoured nesting habitats for somewhat larger (but still fairly small) seed-eating birds called red bishops. They weave compact, round nests supported by reed stems. Orangebreasted waxbills, which occur in far lesser numbers than the bishops, will take over old, abandoned bishop nests, or nests of the closely related (to the bishops) widows. They've also been known to use the nests of weavers, queleas, prinias and cisticolas. Only when they can find no suitable nests, they will build their own, making a dome of grass about 1.5 m/5' above the ground supported by reeds or grasses. They breed after good rains, which over here means late Summer, sometimes into early Winter. They line the nest with soft feathers, sometimes also using soft seed-heads of grasses. The female lays four to six (exceptionally up to nine) eggs per clutch. Both sexes incubate, the male by day and the female by night. The chicks have prominent spots in their mouths, and conspicuous knobs at the edges of their gapes, which may help their parents see just where to put the food in the gloom inside the nest. They're fed on regurgitated grass seeds and insects.

While overall the orangebreasted waxbill is widespread and not endangered, they are somewhat rare in South Africa and should be monitored for declines. Along with the destruction of grasslands and wetlands, they also suffer from being captured for the cage bird trade. Their very prettiness works against them. Please, people of the world, stop this, come to Africa and see our wondrous little feathered marvels wild and free!

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