21 March 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Orientation by bird power

Should you find yourself without a watch in the desert, keep an eye on the birds.

Many of them have rigid timetables.  You’ll find the double-banded sandgrouse at waterholes just before dawn (or after dusk). Next to come to water is the Namaqua sandgrouse. It arrives between 8 and 10am in the morning. The Burchell’s sandgrouse comes in at about 11am.

No one has any idea why they’ve worked out this timetable. But we do know why they’re there.

I remember seeing a male Burchell’s sandgrouse standing with a dreamy look on his face halfway in the water at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. The feathers of his breast are especially fine, and soak up plenty of water. Once he felt he’d absorbed enough, off he flew.

This is their way of taking water to their chicks. The babies suck on the feathers for moisture, because their diet of grass seeds is so dry.

You can also orientate yourself thanks to birds. In the Kalahari you’ll often come across a tree with multiple nests on the tips of the branches. They are the work of the white-browed sparrow weaver.

Some say the bird makes multiple nests to fool hungry snakes. But the nests are almost always on the western side of the tree, the leeward side. A pilot once told me the prevailing winds made it easier for them to come in and land.

Until then, I’d always thought they just liked the last light of the day on their homes.

Category: Wildlife

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