ABOVE: A ‘thumbnail’ image from my book Chamberlain’s LBJs, showing a female Southern Masked Weaver inspecting a newly built nest, with the male architect hanging below the nest, with his wings partly spread and vibrating, while delivering his extremely complex ‘swizzling’ medley. The male at the top is just starting a new nest: the first step is to get the main supporting ring in place.
Weavers of the genus Ploceus are probably some of Africa’s most remarkable but most under-appreciated birds. This is largely because they are so common, noisy and conspicuous, including in urban environments, that people take them for granted. Nevertheless the breeding males are stunningly attractive, with bright yellow or orange plumage, often adorned with black or chestnut-brown masks. Females and non-breeding males, on the other hand, can be very challenging to identify. Weavers have remarkably complex display songs (called ‘swizzling’) that accompanies energetic visual displays that the males perform while hanging under their nests. Indeed, a weaver’s nest is the very epicentre of its entire life. Nests are much more than just a shell to protect the eggs and young. They are arenas for males to strut their stuff in order to outcompete rivals and impress potential mates, and they are bold visual advertisements that reflect their builder’s skill and health. Most weavers fall into one of two categories. Monogamous weavers (i.e. one male, one female) are mostly sedentary in wooded habitats, and are mainly insectivorous. Conversely, polygamous weavers (i.e. one male, many females) are more nomadic and are partly granivorous. In the polygamous species, such as Southern Masked Weaver, the competition for females can be intense. In the latter species, particularly successful males may attract 2-3 females simultaneously up to 12 females successively throughout a summer breeding season. But this also comes at a price, namely investing a huge amount of energy (and in fact spending most of your waking hours) doing what weavers do best: weaving!