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!"
Today I share with you a portrait of an African bird that is well-known all over the world. This is the Egyptian Goose, Alopochen aegyptiaca. Its Afrikaans name is 'Kolgans' or 'Spot-goose', referring not to the dark eyepatch but to a dark spot on the lower breast, which is actually not often easy to see. The scientific name means 'Egyptian fox-goose' and refers to the foxy reddish-brown colour of much of this goose's plumage. This is not a true goose but actually a large shelduck, closely related to the European, Asian and Australian shelducks of the genus Tadorna. It is the only living member of its genus, but other prehistoric and recently-extinct species of Alopochen are known. It occurs over most of Africa, apart from the deserts and the densest rainforests, and because of being impressive and very easy to keep in captivity, is now present in waterfowl collections throughout the world. Some of them escaped and now roam wild in parts of Europe and the USA.
Egyptian geese can easily be recognized by their warm brown coloration and the dark reddish-brown eyepatch. Their strong legs and feet are pinkish, and their flight feathers are black, white and metallic green, each colour forming a striking panel that is visible when they fly. Their flight, while strong, appears more heavy and laborious than that of the smaller ducks. They reach 73 cm/29" in overall length, and males (ganders) can weigh over 2.5 kg/5.5 lbs.
Admired by the Ancients
This goose gets its name because of the reverence with which it was regarded by the Ancient Egyptians. They started the practice of keeping it in captivity, and depicted it realistically on the walls of their tombs. Sad to say, the intensive cultivation and high human population around the Nile Valley has resulted in the species now being extinct as a wild bird from most of Egypt; it persists in the wilder and more swampy parts of the upper Nile of southern Egypt, though.
In South Africa, this is one of the most frequently seen species of waterfowl. Pretty much every lake, pond or river will have at least one or two of them, and sometimes they occur in large flocks, especially outside of the breeding season. At such times, they sometimes wander far away from their main haunts. They are seen as much on land as in the water, and sometimes perch in trees. They are vegetarians, eating the lush growth of grasses, sedges and other plants on the riverbanks and lake shores. Today they also feed on farmland on wheat, alfalfa and other crops. They eat a small amount of animal food, usually insects or worms. They're not considered a serious pest and they've actually extended their range in South Africa by taking advantage of irrigation and agriculture.
When breeding, they pair up and defend territories. They can breed any time of the year, so long as there's water and vegetation. The male utters a hoarse hissing sound, while the female honks, brays and cackles. They display by facing each other, stretching out their wings and calling. After mating, the male stretches one wing upward. They build their nests in reedbeds, on cliff ledges, in large tree cavities, or use large, abandoned nests of Hamerkops, raptors, crows, storks and herons. The female lays typically five to eleven eggs. She incubates alone. Even before the ducklings hatch, they start cheeping and the mother 'speaks' to them. This way they're already bonded with her when they hatch. They 'imprint' on her, and stays close to her from then on. If the nest is in a high tree – or as happened once, in a high tower in a busy town – the ducklings fearlessly jump to the ground. Because of their small size and fluffy bodies, they suffer no damage even if they land on hard ground or pavement. They will follow their mother from there to the nearest water. They are very prettily marked, dark brown above and whitish below. Because they're not strong enough to eat grass and hard seeds yet, they start out eating small aquatic animals, algae and pond weed. Both parents teach them to find food and take care of themselves. They fledge at the age of about seventy days.
This goose is rather interesting in its historical fluctuations. Long ago it bred not just in Africa, but also in parts of the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. Human population growth then pressured it out of much of this region. But as I mentioned, because of being kept by people, it colonized much of western Europe, and is now fairly common as a breeding bird in Britain. It is also present in parts of the southern USA. In Africa, it has adapted to humans and as I've said extended its range in some places. It is currently abundant and by no means threatened. It is hunted only on a very small scale as apparently its meat isn't very tasty.