Posted Sunday morning, July 2, 2017.
“A male Pin-tailed Whydah at Londolozi Private Game Reserve, Limpopo, South Africa.” Photo courtesy of New Jersey Birds, via Wikipedia.
Considered as parasites with the potential to become the avian equivalents of kudzu and zebra mussels, Pin-tail Wydahs, although interesting, are no more interesting than cowbirds. The males look more interesting. During the breeding season, their black tail feathers grow twice as long as the bird’s body, and show off those feathers in an in-air mating dance that's quite a spectacle.. Female whydahs look like house sparrows, but their great evolutionary achievement is laying their eggs in other birds’ nests and leaving those unsuspecting hosts to raise the chicks at the expense of their own. Apparently some of wydahs’ favorite victims have figured out how to recognize the intruders, but when they do, the whydahs just move on to try the same trick on another species. Trouble’s brewing because the whydah and its wised-up marks are native to sub-Saharan Africa, where they’ve achieved a kind of Dawinian stand-off, but whydahs have expanded their range or, to put it more accurately, they’ve had their range expanded for them by the pet-trade. People in other parts of the world have been buying whydahs and then releasing them into the wild when they discover whydah pairs aren’t exactly love birds. Whydahs have found a home in California and are threatening to spread out across North America where there are plenty of species who won’t know their tricks, and some won’t catch on fast enough. According to the New York Times, cowbirds take the blame for the decline of the Kirtland’s warbler in the Midwest. There’s no reason to think pin-tailed whydahs will be any less ruthless.
That’s me doing some anthropomorphizing. Whydahs are just carrying out a biological imperative. Probably. Who knows? Maybe they do have malicious intentions. But I try to be careful not to attribute human motives to other animals. And I try not to attribute animal instincts to all human behavior. Birds are fascinating in themselves just for how they look and what they do. Whatever there is to be learned from them is about how the natural world works and how they fit into it. Looking at animals for clues to how human beings work is looking to write fables. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But as it happens whydahs do provide a fable for our times:
People buy pin-tailed whydahs as pets. But males and females paired together make poor feathered companions. When not breeding the male loses his elaborate tail feathers. And when his displays are not well received, he will pick on the female.
That’s a pretty good metaphor for human males and their sense of entitlement to women’s attention and affections, don’t you think?
Make sure you read Joanna Klein’s whole article at the New York Times. Pin-tailed whydahs really are interesting, plus there’s video. Follow the link to This Beautiful Parasitic Bird Could Soon Turn Up in Your Yard.