We were sitting at Hippo Pools, on the banks of the Kunene River in the late afternoon when we were witness to huge flocks of Red-billed quelea moving overhead to settle for the night in the thick reeds that lined the river and that also covered an island that lay in the river ahead of us. They came in flocks of thousands, nay, tens of thousands, looking like plumes of smoke drifting across the water; the flocks perfectly coordinated as they wheeled over the water in unison. No sooner had one flock landed, sometimes half a dozen birds vying for the same spot on the same reed that bent precariously under their combined attentions, than the next appeared. Where they came from, we do not know. And soon after sunrise the following morning the process was reversed as the queleas left the reeds for destinations unknown to us. An amazing sight!
Red-billed queleas are very small birds, with a length of about 11 cm, and weighing not much more than 20 g. During the breeding season the males have a pink or yellowish head with a black facemask; their backs buff-coloured, streaked with brown; the lower body white. Females and non-breeding males do not have the facemasks, instead their heads are buff streaked with brown, as are their backs and upper parts. Diagnostic is the red bill, which all red-billed queleas have, save for the breeding females that have a yellow bill.
They are widespread throughout Africa south of the Sahara, being locally abundant in the grasslands, savannah and farmlands, as mentioned in the first paragraph. In fact they may be the most abundant wild bird species on earth. They feed on seed and grain and the vast flocks can cause significant damage to crops. For this reason they are considered serious pests and farmers trying to protect their crops kill millions each year. They are fairly nomadic and can cover great distances in search of a suitable feeding site.
When gathered together in their colony, queleas are noisy and there is constant chattering from the colony until they have settled. Their song is a mixture of chattering and tsssr reeee and chee-chee notes.
Red-billed queleas weave a small ball of a nest from strips of grass, making a large entrance on one side. They are colonial breeders and hundreds of nests may be made in a single tree. The female lays a clutch of 1 to 5 greenish-blue or bluish-white eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 12 days. The nestlings are usually fed on insects.
The scientific name for the Red-billed quaelea is Quelea quelea. Quelea from the Latin for a quail. Somewhat strange really, as I wouldn’t have thought that they look much like quails, but nevertheless repeated within the binomial for emphasis.