As Christmas and the so-called ‘festive season’ approaches, we see Father Christmas, in his brightly coloured coat and white beard in most shopping malls and department stores. We also take great delight in seeing the Red Bishop in his scarlet and black breeding plumage, but he does not have a white beard. Is it not wonderful how that drab little LBJ saw during the winter months suddenly comes out in all his colourful glory in late spring and summer?

Red bishop is perhaps one of the best known and easily identified of our birds when he sports his breeding plumage from October to March. We first noticed him beginning to change on 29th October. He occurs throughout South Africa except in the drier regions. During the autumn and winter, red bishops lose their colouring and are difficult to distinguish from the inconspicuous drab females. He is very common around Clarens and adds colour to feeding trays placed in our gardens, together with the yellow Cape and masked weavers. We also see the smaller Golden Bishop {Yellow Crowned Bishop] with his spectacular yellow breeding plumage in the reeds alongside the Dam, but he is less common than the red.

Bishops are members of the Weaver family; they build nests using grass in amongst reeds with an opening at the side. Red Chested Cuckoos often parasitise Red Bishop nests. Bishops are gregarious, but each male will have several females and he builds a nest for each one. The female is entirely responsible for the hatching and raising of chicks, while the male puffs up his plumage to fly around his group of nests. Newman likens a breeding male flying to a large bumblebee. Bishops are not migrants but they do move away during the nonbreeding season. Ringed birds are found 200 km’s from the ringing site [Craig 1982] while Oatley [1986] reports that one ringed bird in KwaZulu/Natal was found 1200 km’s away in Cape Town. They do, however, return to their original breeding sites.

Weavers with their yellow breeding plumage also add pleasing colour to our garden feeding trays. Breeding season is mainly from September to February. In Clarens, we see the Masked Weaver and the Cape Weaver. The latter is easily distinguished from the former since in breeding plumage the Cape has brownish, yellowish colouring about his head. It is very difficult to identify Red Bishops and both masked and Cape weavers during the nonbreeding season since they all have rather a drab winter colouring very similar to the females and they often move together in large flocks. Males are responsible for several females and build a nest for each one. If the female does not like the look of her nest she will destroy it so that the male has to rebuild it to her satisfaction!. My impression is that in Clarens we see far more Cape Weavers than Masked Weavers. They are greedy little blokes and will flick their tails and wings to chase competitors away from feeding trays. One needs to ration the amount of food that is put out on feed tables as they have voracious appetites!

Author: Craig Walters

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