Ornamentation among birds is a very common occurrence. Males of many species develop some beautiful physical traits at the onset of their breeding season. The main drive behind this being to attract the female of the species. One of the more beautiful ornamentations I have come across is in a bird known as the Long-tailed widowbird.
Long-tailed widowbirds (Euplectes progne) are passerine birds of the weaver family, ‘Ploceidae‘. They belong to the genus ‘Euplectes‘ which includes widowbirds and bishops. They are native to Africa and are found in isolated pockets namely parts of Kenya, parts of the Angola-Zambia-Congo region and in South Africa.
First thing that will strike you ( as it did to me ) is the strange name, ‘widowbird’. It is believed to be called so owing to their black plumage. More ironic is the fact that it is only the male which gets this plumage and that too only during the breeding season. Not sure what deeper logic ( if at all there is one ) lies behind this naming! The long-tailed widowbirds are also known as Sakabula, a derivative of their Zulu name.
Long-tailed widowbirds are found in small flocks around swampy grassland areas. This is where the male widowbirds make their territories. The non-breeding males look very similar to the females, only slightly larger than them. As the breeding season approaches is when the magic happens. The Long-tailed widowbird male develops a completely black coloration save for the orange/white shoulder patch. He also develops an unusually long tail with twelve tail feathers out of which 6-8 of them reach around 20 inches in length. Such a transformation!
The breeding males chart out their territories in the grassland and prepare what is known as a proto-nest (a prototype) – a small shell of dry grass that the female can later elaborate into a proper nest. All set and now it is time for them to attract prospective females. Their courtship behaviour is indeed a beautiful sight.
When Long-tailed widowbird males are in display, from afar, it looks like black flakes of ash drifting along in the wind. On getting closer is when one realises that they are birds. Every now and then they settle down on the reeds or the grass patch below before taking to flight again.
The male has a very peculiar flying pattern. Instead of a straight, streamlined fashion of flight, he seems to do his best to encumber himself and looks as if he is struggling. He extends his long tail vertically down, spreading the individual tail feathers into a fan. He beats his wings infrequently and erratically. It seems as though he is not making any progress, hovering against the wind, cruising back and forth over the grass tops.
This extravagant ornamentation seems to wear the male down. Still, why this evolution ? Seems to be a case of sexual preference here. Widowbird females seem to prefer males with the most impressive tails. The long, dark coloured tails and the display also makes the males very clearly visible to the females over the vast grassland habitats.
Once a female chooses the male, she enters his proto-nest and builds it up into a proper one. She then mates with him and lays the eggs. A very popular male can attract many females. All of them in-turn breed individually in his territory, making neatly spaced out nests.
What amazing creations of nature! Wonderful it was to watch these birds in action. Hope you enjoyed the post. As always, do let me know your thoughts in the comments below.