Each day at Safari West a small army of keepers and groundskeepers crisscross the property. Their activities go largely unnoticed as they trim grass, prune trees, and shear hedges. What looks like and is, in fact, groundskeeping also serves as a helpful bit of conservation. You see, almost everything that grows at Safari West gets eaten here. The lawn clippings wind up as treats for the sulcata tortoises and watusi cows. The slender branches and broad leaves of the cottonwoods turn into browse for the giraffes. While we work to make sure nothing goes to waste, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything winds up as food.
Every day at some point, a keeper crosses property with a hefty handful of long grasses or reeds. Upon arriving at the cylindrical aviary nestled against the front office, the keeper enters and places the plants carefully around the habitat. An observer would notice a small flock of sparrow-sized birds perched patiently overhead, waiting for the keeper to complete his or her task. The patient yellow songbirds wait eagerly for the keeper to leave because once they get their beaks on those blades of vegetation, that’s when the magic happens.
We call these songbirds Taveta golden weavers. Golden weavers make up but one branch of the extensive weaver family, a family known for crafting some of the most elaborate nests in the world. Weaver nests tend to be round or oval-shaped and made of fine grasses or reeds. Like a basket, these carefully-crafted nests require a tremendous degree of skill to produce, a fact not lost on female members of the weaver flock.
Once our keeper moves on to the next habitat, the male weavers dive down to collect the long strands of fibrous vegetation. Using particularly strong and dextrous beaks and talons, the industrious little birds get to work. Relying on complex knots and careful interweaving they build their nests. Suspending them—at Safari West at least—from the wire mesh top of the aviary.
As the males work, the females keep a careful eye on the boys. Just as the female peacock selects the mate with the most impressive tail, the female weaver looks for the most skillful builder. For a female weaver, a strongly-built nest signifies a choice mating partner.
Life in the Wild
In the woodlands and savannas of Kenya and northern Tanzania, golden weavers suspend their nests from reeds or slim branches. These dangling basket-nests almost always hang over water. A pond, a stream, any water source will do, like a moat around a castle, the water provides some protection from predators.
Water also provides a reliable drinking supply and a source of food. Weavers eat mostly seeds, particularly grass seeds. An abundant crop near rivers and streams. Although seeds make up the bulk of the weaver’s diet, they do tend to be a bit omnivorous. Known to eat insects, weavers seem particularly fond of ants, and almost assuredly airborne termites as well. For little weaver hatchlings, in fact, insects often make up the majority of their diet for the first several weeks of life.
Beautiful and Busy
The Taveta golden weaver carries the scientific name of Ploceus castaniceps. That second part, castaniceps, translates roughly as “chestnut headed”. These startling yellow birds—the males at least—do in fact present with reddish-chestnut crowns. Females tend to appear a bit more olive green. Spend some time at the weaver habitat next time you visit Safari West and enjoy trying to tell the boys from the girls.
Although Taveta golden weavers occupy a very small range (centered on the town of Taveta, Kenya incidentally) they appear to be a healthy species. While no firm numbers exist, the population appears healthy and stable and there are no imminent threats to long-term survivability.
Though technically songbirds, don’t expect much music at the weaver habitat. Some biologists have described golden weaver singing as tuneless, simple, and harsh. I can’t say I disagree. Come to Safari West and start your stay with a visit to the Taveta golden weavers. Musicality aside, these gorgeous songbirds will wow you with their incredible beauty and impressive craftsmanship.