I swung my head around – what was that sound? I was in complete darkness, in a hot, cramped and dusty space. I had clambered into the crawl space in my roof, and was balancing dangerously on the roof beams. I had been hearing strange noises up here and decided to check it out. I feared maybe it was an alien invasion – and in a way, I was right.
The noises came from a pair of Common Mynas. I found their nest and the beam of my headlamp sparked off hundreds of pieces of plastic. These mynas clearly loved plastic – they had “recycled” 560 pieces of debris that would have been blowing around in the streets. How about that? Mynas are good for something after all!
But birders also use the terms plastic and alien when they talk about birds that are not indigenous. Birds that have escaped from cages, or have been deliberately set free by humans. Just like people cross the globe and sometimes live in other countries, birds do too. Some birds are such good colonists that they have become global residents that live everywhere where there are humans. Common Mynas originally come from Asia, but can now be seen on lawns throughout the world. The same with the Common (or European) Starling.
The best invader alien of all is the little House Sparrow. Those guys hopping around under your restaurant table, or singing from the rafters in your local Pick & Pay. House Sparrows are now the world’s most widespread bird species. They got this record in three ways. Firstly, as we change the landscape by farming, buildings and water, the sparrows can naturally expand their distributions. Secondly, people have released these sparrows in many countries and on many islands. And thirdly, sparrows sometimes hide on ships and hitch a ride to a new home. In SA, these sparrows were first introduced to Durban in the late 1800s, and later also to East London and Maputo. It took about 50 years for them to build up their numbers. After that there was no stopping them. The pretty Rose-ringed Parakeet also seems to have “exploded” in the last ten years or so.
At least 77 “alien” birds have been seen in South Africa. This excludes true vagrants, such as rare sandpipers (and other listed on p. 478 of the book). Vagrants arrived here on their own and are definitely tickable. On the list of the 77 aliens you’ll find lots of parrots and ducks, as these are such popular pets. But you might also bump into foreign turacos, starlings or waxbills.
Alien species, whether bird, fish, frog or fungus, are really bad for the environment. They can also pose risks to human health and economy. This is especially true on islands. Most of the birds that have gone extinct on islands were because of alien species that were introduced by humans. Especially rats, mice, cats and pigs. But fortunately only a few of the 77 alien birds have survived in South Africa (see box below).
Another weird story is the Peacock – my namesake! In 1968 Peacocks, or Peafowl, were introducted to Robben Island in the Western Cape. This small island, where former president Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Because Peacocks are such bad flyers, they cannot cross the sea. So, officially, you can add this species to your lifelist if you see it on the island. It’s a bit silly really. The same applies to the Chukar Partridge. The partridges on Robben Island are the great-great-grandkids of six birds that were confiscated by customs officials and released on the island in 1964.
The most interesting case is that of the Common Chaffinch. These pretty little finches have a beautiful song that you can hear all over Europe. When European people first settled in Africa, they missed their own birds and their songs. So Cecil John Rhodes made a plan: he shipped a lot of birds from the English countryside to Cape Town! These included Rooks (a kind of crow), Blackbirds (a thrush), Song Thrushes, Nightingales and Chaffinches. Alien bird species can be terrible for indigenous birds, but luckily all of these colonists died out. The only one that still survives today is the Common Chaffinch. Fortunately they have not spread far, and can still only be seen in pine trees and parks in Cape Town.