During the hot summer months the reed beds around Windhoek are spotted with small bright red birds with black masks and black bellies that buzz around looking like giant bumblebees, calling in a sizzling “zik-zik-zik”. Making no attempt to hide themselves as they puff their feathers out in a display designed to impress the more numerous females, these are the beautiful male Southern red bishops.
Seemingly proud of their colourful plumage, perhaps celebrating the wonderful transformation from their drab eclipse plumage of winter, the males flaunt themselves over their small territories; as small as 3 square metres in the dense reed beds and up to a hundred times larger than this in the more open grasslands.
This small, short-tailed weaver, just about 12 cms long when fully grown, is common through most of Africa south of the equator. The females are slightly smaller than the males and do not adopt the colourful plumage of the males during the breeding season, remaining rather drab and hard to identify little brown jobs.
The bishops are polygynous and the more successful males can attract up to eight females, and in consequence are kept quite busy building nests. The oval, woven nests are often built over water; the males being responsible for the basic structure, while the lining of the nest is contributed by the female, who will lay 1 to 5 eggs. The bishops are parasitised by the Diderick cuckoo (Chrysococcyx caprius)
Bishops feed mainly on seeds, for which they are well equipped with short heavy bills, but will also take insects and nectar. Gregarious throughout the year, non-breeding flocks can number hundreds of birds, and they are no friends of the farming community when they cause heavy losses to grain crops.
The scientific name for the Southern red bishop is a rather pointless Euplectes orix – Euplectes is from the Greek, meaning “well woven”, presumably referring to their nests, and orix from the Greek meaning “rice”, perhaps referring to the birds diet, which is mainly seeds. Not really descriptive, is it? Especially as the nests are not really well woven when compared to some of the other weavers, and they certainly don’t eat rice in Namibia. Why wasn’t that gorgeous male just called Rufus episcopus – the Red Bishop? Now that would have made sense!