Friday, 2 March 2012

The Kalahari Social Life


When a group of individuals find themselves in a remote area miles from any pub or casino, their natural instinct will take over and they will immediately organise a social event or barbeque. I have seen this in the time I have been here as many rangers and other staff congregate at the fireside with a cold beer and a funny story or two while we gaze at the sirloin or barbeque sausage sizzling and spitting away over the fire. But it's only those smelly bipedal hooligans who run around the bush and drive old Land Rovers who do that. Which other animal would you think suitable for this behaviour?

Baboons may spring to mind, but lately there have been insanely raucous internal fights in the local troop so no possibility of a barbeque there. The Gosa gang? No, Gandalf is too busy watching over Cleopatra and cleaning out their burrow. The zebras? Giraffe? Warthogs? Springbok? No No No No. There is one animal who is far more social than any other Kalahari critter and whose very name even denotes this fact: The Sociable Weaver. These birds are only found in Southern Africa (as are the crazy kalahari rangers!) and are gregarious; which is a scientific way of saying that these guys NEVER miss a chance to party! The birds build huge communal thatched nests in trees which can house over 100 breeding pairs and can last for over 150 years! Now that my fellow readers is a kalahari party! The nests are constantly being maintained and improved and newcomers simply add on to the existing structure. Communal nesting such as this is related to the age old nature documentary narrative concerning safety in numbers; If there are many of you, your chances of being eaten are less. As a further safety feature, the entrance to each individual nest faces downwards which prevents any other 'party crashers' from entering, such as snakes or hawks.

However I remember a story told to me by a kalahari ranger some years ago about how a honey badger had launched a raid on one of these gargantuan structures only 130km from where I sit now. It was late afternoon, and a honey badger had been pacing up and down below a large sociable weaver colony. Suddenly, as if a light bulb went on, the badger started to climb the tree. Higher and higher he clawed his way up, until he was able to climb on top of the colony. What happened from here onwards is an extremely rare event. The badger began to dig downwards into the nest, and in a few minutes had disappeared into the depths of the straw structure. The weavers went ballistic and birds started flying out of the colony like fighter jets launching off an aircraft carrier on high alert. And still no sign of the honey badger. The colony structure shook violently for around 10 minutes, and suddenly our little mammalian pac-man appeared out the bottom of the nest...he had dug his way down through the entire colony!! With an almighty crash followed by a ton of broken straw and twigs, our badger exited the colony and hit the ground with a solid THUD! Above, the weavers continued to fly about furiously in a flat panic. Slowly a little black head appeared out of the scrap heap that had fell from the nest above, and our badger crawled out like a contented puppy from his blanket. After a quick shake, the badger took one last look at the colony and trundled off into the bush. A curious incident, but at the same time one with a very good explanation. The colony is full of bird nests. Bird nests have eggs. Honey badgers like eggs. And seeing as you can't get to the eggs from the bottom, the honey badger climbed to the top and dug his way down, munching on eggs as he made his way through the weaver nests. I wish I was there to witness this event for myself, but I'm sure I will have many of my own encounters to recount one day.

And so in many ways the life of the Sociable Weaver is much like the our social life in the city; living on top of each other, constant chatter ad banter, huge parties, and one odd looking character who always seems to invite himself to a the party which you tried so desperately to keep a secret. Ah we have much to learn from our little weaver friends!

Rob’s song for the day: Clocks – Coldplay featuring Beuna Vista Social Club

Keep in touch

Rob


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