Common Myna by Michael Klotz
ABOVE: Say what you will about mynas, but you can’t deny that they are stunningly beautiful birds. If you ever get the chance to see one up close, take a minute to appreciate their gorgeous blue, ‘glittering’ eyes. Picture by Michael Klotz (

Clambering about on rickety wooden beams in a dark, cramped, dusty, rat-infested attic, I though to myself “the things I do for birds”. This was during the recent, and ongoing, heat wave that has gripped northern South Africa, and the air was so hot that the sweat was dripping down my nose, leaving little impact craters in the dust as they fell. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was investigating a mystery that actually started many years earlier, when I started noticing bits of plastic and other rubbish lying on our lawn. I assumed that this junk must have blown there by the wind. However, the debris was always in the same spot, and eventually I eyeballed the culprits in the act. A pair of Common Mynas Acridotheres tristis were carrying nesting material into a small space between the waterproofing, but below the roof tiles in our roof. I could hear them scuttling about up there, and they would raucously alarm call and divebomb our cat when their chicks were about to fledge. This continued for several years, until I had the impromptu idea of getting a ladder and checking it out first hand. What I found was amazing!

I know that I will get berated by conservationists and shunned by birders for saying so, but…I like mynas. I think I’ve always had a soft spot for them; to the extent that I actually spent an entire year studying them for my zoology honours thesis. The two papers below will give some idea of our findings. The 2007 article is a documentation of mynas’ spread before SABAP2 commenced. The other paper is about changes in species richness and avian communities as habitats get more and more modified.

Like I said, I respect mynas for their ingenuity, intelligence, adaptability to new challenges and ability to thrive in association with humans. I mean, they can even talk! Sure they are aggressive and may chase some indigenous birds away. But at the end of the day, they are infinitely less damaging to natural ecosystems than humans are. We transform nature into gardens, buildings and agriculture with a 90% loss of biodiversity; and then we have the audacity to “blame” alien species, introduced by us. In the long run, what does it matter if mynas fight with sparrows, bulbuls, fiscals, barbets and other abundant generalists that can adapt to our altered habitats? These are not threatened species, nor habitat specialists. If you really want to do something for conservation, stop shooting mynas, and stop developing the little remaining natural habitats. Or have fewer children. Mynas and other aliens are simply a symptom of human spread. If we want to blame someone, perhaps we should blame the persons who originally introduced mynas to South Africa around 1900 and again in 1938. On the other hand, perhaps mynas eventually colonizing Africa was inevitable. They now occur on all the continents except Antarctica, as well as on many oceanic islands, and are fast becoming one of the most widespread birds in the world.

Enough ranting. This article is not meant to decide whether mynas are good or bad. It is the long-overdue answer to the mystery of the random rubbish lying on my lawn. Where were we? Oh yes, I was sweating up in the roof. With my headlamp starting to run out of battery power, I frantically swung my head from side to side, peering into the dark corners. Its beam swept across a mass of untidy material. I scrambled closer and collected as much as I could reach – three plastic shopping bags’ worth. There was a lot more that I couldn’t reach. Also, this was not the actual myna nest, but just the spillage that somehow fell through the cracks to end up in a heap below the nest. In total, I would guess that my sample represented only about 30% of the total myna-ferried material in the roof.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the nesting material consisted of small sticks, with a healthy smattering of leaves and feathers (32) thrown in. The feathers were mostly quite large tail feathers and wing feathers of Red-eyed Doves, which roost in abundance in our garden. There were some smaller passerine primaries, one chicken feather, and what appears to be the tail feather of an African Hoopoe. Most of the feathers were in a bad state of decay. They were probably already quite worn to start with, but I’m not sure why their tough shafts would be withered away. Museum specimens can last for several hundred years, and I doubt that these feathers were more than 4-5 years old. So, sticks, leaves and feathers. So far, probably not worth my Chilean mineresque mission.


Plant material used in nest
ABOVE: It appears that the nest was built mainly with natural materials, and particularly short sticks (left) and leaves (right). Many of the leaves were still quite fresh, and are perhaps added continuously by the birds in an attempt to reduce nest parasites.
ABOVE: A close-up of the tangled mass of sticks found below the nest site. These were generally robust, stiff and coarse; mynas are rather heavy birds overall, with males reaching 144 grams.
ABOVE: A close-up of the assorted leaves found below the nest. These seemed to be a random mix of trees found in the vicinity of the nest. There are also some tufts of Kikuyu lawn grass.

However, even by the beam of my dying headlamp, I could see the glint of plastic. A lot of plastic. In fact, the heap of myna nest material seemed to glitter in the light. I knew I had solved the mystery – here was all the evidence. Firstly, I separated all the paper and plastic. I also separated out foil things, that had a more metallic glint. Then I carefully examined each piece for forensic clues as to its age and origins. This was actually quite fun. A lot of the clear plastic (and the majority of the plastic was clear), was unidentifiable (x85 pieces). Perhaps sandwich bags or shredded wrapping material. However, there was a lot of cigarette packet wrappers (x22), with their diagnostic dimensions and boxy shape. More direct evidence was an actual cigarette butt (Lucky Strike, in case you were wondering), as well as the shiny foil part inside the box, and then the box itself (in this case, Peter Stuyvesant). The inclusion of cigarette butts might be more significant than just something the birds happened to pick up. New studies suggest that the chemicals in tobacco leaves can repel parasites. Read more in this punny-titled piece: City birds use cigarette butts to smoke out parasites. 

The majority of the other identifiable plastics were food-associated. Possibly one of my neighbours had, sometime in the last few years, had a particular craving for Beacon Smoothies sweets which were present as follows: 18x blue flavour; 5 green; 2 purple; and 1 pink. There were also many other similar sucking sweets, such as Endearmints, Halls (4 black, 1 blue), Sparkles, Freegells, Eclairs, and 14 other little wrappers. There was a red Chappie paper, with “Did you know” trivia on the back concerning Mona Lisa’s eyebrows. There was one Ice Lolly wrapper, a section of a Nosh chocolate bar wrapper and a random purple chocolate bar wrapper with ingredientes en Espanol. It wasn’t all sweet, and savoury was represented by a ketchup packet possibly from McDonald’s, a Simba potato chips wrapper, plastic cover of buns from Pick & Pay, some scraps from Nando’s and for seasoning a Salt packet. Conveniently, there was also a toothpick wrapper from Ocean Basket. Incidentally, all of these shops (Pick & Pay, Ocean Basket etc.) are situated about 800 m from me. I doubt whether the birds flew that far to collect the material, as they would have had to pass through the territories of several other myna pairs in the process. Also, there isn’t a Nando’s for several kilometres, which suggests that the junk was found from some secondary source. Probably dustbins left out for the garbage collectors or the like.

Assorted plastics
ABOVE: Left to right, top to bottom. Beacon Smoothies were much in prominence, particularly the blue flavour. Clover dairy product wrapper. Gold tear strip and box of Stuyvie blues. Small Ziplock bag (still seals, sweet!). Fresh Pick & Pay wrapper. Another Pick & Pay invention – the notorious Stikeez. Toothpick from Ocean Basket. A piece of ‘black bag’. A green piece of unidentified plastic. Some more sweets. Tape (brown) and sliver of Nando’s wrapper below it. Cigarette box covers. Something with a barcode and the name Coca Cola (never heard of them).
Assorted plastics
ABOVE: Close-up of some of the above. In 2015 Stikeez caused endless fights between toddlers and their parents, and between rival supermarkets. A Clover wrapper (possibly one of my son’s beloved cheddar cheese cubes). Ocean Basket’s individually wrapped toothpick. Possibly a drink from Coca Cola – I see the mynas took their advice to ‘Please Recycle’. Incidentally, it looks like the company that printed this last item, also printed my LBJs book (CTP).

Several items provided useful clues as to their age. There was a yogurt top with an expiration date of 19 August 2014, and a piece of foil with the date 26 February 2012. So clearly the material was from nesting attemps spanning several years. There was more recent things as well though, such as several packets of Stikeez, the collectible toys that Pick & Pay bribed children with in 2015. I also found what looks like a pencil drawing by a child, a piece of paper with text about designs of farm buildings for cows, a 20 cm piece of pink ribbon, 8 pieces of blue and black felt, a piece of black thread about 40 cm in length, tape, a label of something called Lil’ Lizzie, made in China (a doll perhaps?), a piece of newspaper, 2 sealable Ziplock bags and much more. Many prominent brands were represented: Beacon, Cadbury, Clover, Coca Cola, Lucky Strike, McDonald’s, Nando’s, Ocean Basket, Peter Stuvesant, Pick & Pay, Sellotape, Simba…the list goes on. Essentially the only natural decoration I found was a set of beelte wings, with a nice purple sheen (possibly a fruit chafer of some sort).

Assorted foils
ABOVE: Some foil-based decorative items, and other materials. From left to right, top to bottom: Salt. Cigarette. Halls outside, and inside. Nosh chocolate bar. Red corner may be from tea packet. More cigarette wrapping. A piece of newspaper (R!). Pencil drawing. Shiny sweets wrappers. Chappies (watermelon flavour). Yogurt roll. Shiny foil. Random blue thingamajig. Pink ribbon (probably added by the female myna). Sticker with text. Dark blue scrap. Book text. Blue-black felt. Padded packaging material. Thread. More shiny foil. Beetle wings. Chocolate bar.
Assorted foils and paper
ABOVE: The yogurt wrapper’s expiry date gives an idea of its age. Colourful items may be particularly attractive to the birds. In this case Simba chips, a chocolate wrapper, a packet of salt and Halls. Xtra Strong.
Assorted items
ABOVE: This piece of paper is quite thick (thicker than a magazine or newspaper), and is probably from a book. It seems to be talking about cows and farm buildings? A length of black thread. Lucky Strike cigarette butt. What appears to be a pencil drawing by a chlid. The blackish things are beetle wings – with a striking purple gloss at certain angles. The mysterious Lil’ Lizzie sticker – I wonder if this could be doll? It’s all man made, that we know.

In conclusion? I would estimate that my sample represented about 30% of the total nesting material collected by the mynas, and that it was collected over at least 5 nesting seasons based on the expiration dates I found. In total, the sample included 46 pieces of foil or paper, and 170 pieces of plastic. So, 216 pieces of rubbish. If extrapolated to the remaning 70%, we’re talking about 720 individual pieces of rubbish, the majority of which is notoriously environmentally unfriendly plastic. The way I see it, the mynas raising their family in our roof and generally minding their own business, has recycled more than 700 pieces of rubbish that would have been blowing about in the street, or littering the sidewalk. How about that! Mynas are good for something after all!

Plastc, foils and feathers
ABOVE: In total my pair of mynas has collected an estimated 720 pieces of rubbish, of which the vast majority is plastic (left).