That dropped ball’Sardines of the sky’

Quelea finches are regarded as pests, but our ignorant attempts at eradication have turned them into a super plague, writes Abré J Steyn.
Issue date : 03 July 2009

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THE SOUND OF ELEPHANTS trumpeting and snapping trees mingled with the drone of the big 4×4 tractor as it towed us in a large open trailer through the trackless bush. When it went down a bank and entered a river, we clung to the rails and held our breath, as it was full of hippos and crocodiles and we didn’t know how deep the water was. This wasn’t a new kind of game drive – we were there to observe small birds, so we had to get to the other side where wave after wave of twisting and swirling quelea finches were arriving from all directions. Emerging on the other side, we cleared the thick riverine bush and masses of eagles and storks perched in the trees all around us, started to take to the sky. We were greeted by a scene so unbelievable, I can hardly describe it.

The vegetation unfolding before us was low knobthorn scrub, interspersed with many large trees from which the eagles were taking off. The scrub was festooned with thousands upon thousands of quelea nests and the bush was alive with millions of fluttering fledgling and adult finches. The noise they made was deafening.
Among them were herons, hornbills, coucals, crows, shrikes, hawks and falcons preying on them. Slithering through the thorny branches, we spotted monitor lizards and snakes. Earlier the eagles had forced their way through the thorns to tear open the nests. Now all airborne,

I estimated them to number at least 400. Most noticeable were the steppe and tawny eagles. Patrolling the ground were hundreds of marabou storks, ground hornbills, baboons, mongooses, jackals, hyenas and even some lions. I’d never seen anything like this, but this was no ordinary place – we were deep inside a wild and trackless part of the Kruger National Park to shoot a documentary on queleas for the TV programme 50/50. A ranger had reported an unusually large quelea breeding colony, which was attracting thousands of predators. However, it was in a place so remote, no ordinary 4×4 could get there, only a 4×4 tractor. We’d hoped to record scenes of natural predation as it used to be before humans started to interfere. What we got was much more than we bargained for. It was a scene of total mayhem and savage interaction between predator and prey.

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The poor cameraman was so overwhelmed and excited that he missed most of the action as he kept changing lenses and hardly ever got a shot. Fortunately the day was saved by Veruschka, my trained tawny eagle – she provided the flight and predation close-ups we required. Apart from all I’d seen and the thrill of being interviewed by legendary sports commentator, the late Gerhard Viviers, what really made the day memorable was the insight I got into the role of quelea finches in the wild. As I watched these small birds flying in to roost, like waves of the ocean, it struck me that what I was seeing were “sardines of the sky”.

Just as sardines are primary consumers in the ocean, turning phytoplankton into protein to feed dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and predatory fish, quelea turns grass seeds into protein to feed the predatory speedsters of the sky and many others. The feeding frenzy that takes place around massive shoals of sardines along our coasts was being replicated in front of me on land and around a breeding colony of quelea finches.

It’s not without reason that queleas are the most abundant birds on earth – they’re actually ecological marvels. Through the ages they’ve learnt to survive in arid inhospitable habitats and have become the source of life for many other species in these harsh environments. Virtually all carnivores prey on queleas, which are the basis of many food pyramids, all woven together in the intricate web of life of the African bush. Despite this, they’re perhaps the most hated birds on earth. Up to now, humans have regarded them as pests to be eliminated. Like locusts, mosquitoes and jackals, we’ve spent countless millions on eradicating queleas, but have pitifully lost the battle against them and achieved nothing.

It’s high time we learn that despite our technology, we’re no match for the powers of nature. With our one-sided approach of poisoning queleas, we’ve only managed to annihilate almost all their natural enemies and turn them into a super plague.
Records indicate that at the beginning of the previous century, queleas were regarded as a tropical species only occurring in small flocks, foraging and wandering over the central plateau during the winter months, disappearing again towards the north in early summer to breed.

Decades later, they were still regarded as a species which didn’t breed south of the Vaal River, but since then, they’ve invaded the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and the northern parts of the Eastern Cape. Why have queleas, despite our most determined efforts to destroy them, vastly increased in numbers and greatly expanded their range across the country? I’ll answer this in a future article.I’d always wondered how long it would take them to successfully cross the Karoo in sufficient numbers and adapt to the reversed Mediterranean weather conditions down south. Now it’s happened.
A recent report in this magazine (12 June) confirmed that, for the first time ever, queleas have bred in large numbers in the bread basket of the Western Cape. This is catastrophic and will require infinitely more wisdom to deal with than what we’ve displayed in the past. Contact Abré J Steyn on 082 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected]. |fw