Stepping into Others’ Worlds

On a recent trip to Pretoria I stepped into several different worlds: Pretoria itself, beautiful with the Jacarandas in full bloom; a local primary school where I read an excerpt of my as-yet-unpublished children’s book to an English class; and a bird-ringing society where I observed the scientific process of ringing birds and capturing their data.

The day after my English ‘lesson’, I accompanied my son-in-law – a conservation biologist – and daughter to a bird-ringing session at the nearby botanical gardens. At 3.50am we were greeted by a crowd of friendly Afrikaans bird lovers. I could barely speak at that early hour, let alone return the hugs of strangers. I watched the group map out the areas, methodically set up the giant nets, and then set up camp together in one spot. I followed birders out to retrieve birds caught in the soft, hair-net-like-capture sites. The retrieval process was done with care, speed and logic. Each bird was then popped into a soft hanging bag and ferried to the people at the tables. Little twitching sacks hung loosely over chair ends while the men and women carefully extracted the birds, holding their heads firmly between the index and middle fingers. Heads, beaks, wings and legs were measured. The birds were sexed (if possible), a brood patch checked for (by blowing softly on the bird’s underbelly), and ringed. Everything was recorded on a form, including the time it took to ring each bird. The last measurement before the bird was released was the weighing. For this procedure the bird was placed head first into a small tube then put on a scale, its feet sticking up in an undignified fashion.

Cuckoos, blue waxbills, weavers, sparrows, thrushes, white eyes, mousebirds, a nightjar, a fruit bat, and many, many more were faithfully recorded. This data would then be sent to SAFRING, http://safring.adu.org.za/.

I marvelled at the dexterity and confidence of these citizen scientists. Many – my son-in-law included – were big men with big hands who handled the birds with such gentleness. I marvelled too to see the birds close up – the perfection of curved wings, little soft patches next to the beaks of young birds, different coloured eyes. I learnt how to begin identifying birds. I learnt that barbets have two forward-facing claws and two backward-facing claws on each foot. These, and a set of stiff tail feathers, help them balance on the trunks of trees they hollow out for their nests. I marvelled at the commitment and passion of the ringers. One man had been active in the society for 20 years and had ringed over 11,000 birds.

What a pleasure it was to step into this different world and see up close what I would have missed from afar, even with the best binoculars.

 

Appreciate Birds: Protect their Habitats

White-browed sparrow weaver nest

Pretoria/Tshwane is a big, busy city. On a recent visit there I stayed in a little apartment near TUKS (The University of Pretoria) and was delighted by the number of birds I saw. Right there in the heart of this bustling, lively place I saw white-browed sparrow weavers flitting busily in and out of a nest they shared with other sparrow weavers. The small commune they had built was perched right at the tip of a Leopard Tree which grew in the apartment gardens. On the same day I saw numerous other birds about their business. Bulbuls eyed out the resident cat, parakeets shrieked in the trees next door, sacred ibises hunched dourly by a water feature across the way, and red-knobbed coots pecked about on the bristly grass nearby. According to Sasol Birds of Southern Africa, the region’s bird list ‘currently stands at 962 species, of which 98 are endemic.’ What an astounding number. The reason for this high bird diversity, stated the book ‘is [the region’s] climatic and topographical diversity’.

White-browed sparrow weaver

Green parakeets hidden in the bushy trees, and beyond sacred ibis dotted in the foliage

But, of course, habitats are threatened by global warming, a sad thought when reflecting how privileged we are in Southern Africa to so easily enjoy this avian diversity. Just two days before my visit to Pretoria I had watched Al Gore’s latest film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. In it, Gore highlights how global warming is caused largely by man’s use of fossil fuels, and how renewables should be used instead for energy generation. Gore’s method of persuasion is political and moral. Science doesn’t form a major thrust of his rhetoric. This is a pity. Instead of being the story of Gore’s struggle to make the powerful accept the ‘truth’ about global warming, An Inconvenient Sequel could itself be much more powerful had it paired science with morals and politics.

Nevertheless, An Inconvenient Sequel does bring to the fore once again the topic of global warming and its destructive consequences. And this is good. Imperative. As I sat listening to the bird chatter above the traffic noise in Pretoria I hoped to be a part of a world that takes big, urgent steps to ensure that we still have a multiplicity of habitats and creatures to enjoy.