The Shaft-tailed whydah is near-endemic to the southern African region, its range extending only slightly into Angola to the north. Within the region, however, its range is limited to the semi-arid and arid savanna.
The Shaft-tailed whydah is a small bird, with a length of approximately 11 cm, but that excludes the magnificent tail that the male grows during the breeding season, which adds a further 16 cm or more to its length. In breeding plumage the male has a black crown and upper parts, and golden under parts. Its bill is red; eyes are black and legs and feet are pinkish-red. The male’s long tail consists of just four feathers, each ending in a “flag” that is wider than the shaft. When the breeding season is over, the male sheds its glorious tail and swaps its distinctive plumage for the drab brown with rusty-brown streaks that the female sports all year round.
The Shaft-tailed whydah is a fairly common bird within its range and in the summertime the males are often seen in flight or perched on a tree at the side of the road, their tails making them easy to recognize. The females (and the males out of breeding plumage) are more difficult to identify as they resemble some of the other rather nondescript female whydahs. The call of the Shaft-tailed whydah is a series of warbling notes and whistles that may also include some mimicry of its host species.
The Shaft-tailed whydah feeds on the ground, on small grass seeds and is a fairly gregarious species. They are polygynous and in the breeding season the males are often seen together with several females. They are brood parasites and therefore do not make their own nests, the females most commonly parasitizing the Violet-eared waxbill (Granatina granatina) or, less often, the Black-faced waxbill (Estrilda erythronotos).
The scientific binomial for the Shaft-tailed whydah is Vidua regia, Vidua from the Latin for a “widow”, presumably being a reference to the black plumage; and regia from the Latin for “royal”. Thus the name describes a royal widow, or a regal bird dressed in black. I’m not sure why the Shaft-tailed whydah should be considered particularly royal, and only its back and head are black, but there you have it.