The most abundant wild bird species on the planet, the red-billed quelea, has been swarming on Londolozi in their thousands. In fact, these tiny little birds have completely stolen the show.

red-billed queleas, Londolozi, Kruger, JT

A flock of red-billed quelea swarm around a small pool in the Sand River, landing for just a few seconds to drink and clean themselves. There are an estimated 1,5 billion red-billed quelea on the planet. Photograph by James Tyrrell

Over the last two to three months these birds have been seen gathering. Earlier in the season, we’d see small flocks of twenty to thirty birds, which have since merged, joining forces to form super flocks. When flying over they number in their thousands and make one swivel around at the unusual sound they produce, like that of a breaking wave.

red-billed queleas, Sand River, Londolozi

It is fascinating to watch how each tiny bird manages to land amongst thousands of others as they all move at once, yet managing to not bump into one another. It is a complete spectacle.

Such massive flocks have not been seen at Londolozi for many years and have blown us away. Get down to the river just before sunrise or at dusk and catch these clouds of weaver-like birds swarming down to drink and bathe. It’s mesmerizing to watch as hundreds upon thousands of flapping individuals pour over each other, seemingly in unison, to get to fresh foraging grounds or to the water’s edge. They appear as if it were one super-organism or the result of the most extraordinarily choreographed dance.

red-billed queleas, Londolozi, Sand River

These birds occur in a multitude of habitats including dry thornveld, bushed grassland and cultivated land but are most abundant in semi-arid regions.

Why they gather en mass has been explained, but why this year we have seen larger flocks than usual at Londolozi, we have a theory for. Let me explain…

These birds are nomadic, following the rains to areas where there is an abundance of food. Food, for them, primarily consists of the seed of annual grass species. Annual plant species germinate, flower and seed all in one season. These plants put all their energy into a quick burst of growth to produce seed, then die, leaving their seed to germinate come the next rains. When the grass stalks start to dry out and drop their seed, the quelea move in, working together as a flock they search for food and, in areas with an abundance of food, they will concentrate. Flocks of millions of individuals have been recorded and the red-billed quelea has an estimated population of around 1.5 billion post-breeding season.

red-billed queleas, Sand River, Londolozi

A view westwards down the Sand River as a flock of quelea take off to roost in the vegetation nearby for the evening. The flock is so dense that it hides the vehicle parked behind it.

One thing to know about annual grass species is that they are often the first species of grass, also known as pioneer species, to establish in an area that has been disturbed. They play a crucial role, germinating and growing quickly they stabilize the soils, covering and cooling the soils, and as they die they return precious organic matter to the top-soil. This disturbance I am referring to can be due to human interference (like bush clearing) or from a natural phenomenon like a fire or drought.

In the latter part of last year, we saw a serious dry spell hit Londolozi. Waterholes dried up and food became scarce for the herbivores, especially the large bulk grazers like buffalo. Hardly a blade of grass could be seen by the end of the dry season. The end eventually did come with the rains flooding the valley’s green, which was brilliantly documented in Amy Attenborough and James Tyrrell’s transformation video.

The Power of Transformation from Londolozi on Vimeo.

With the rains came a flush of annual grasses took advantage of the blank canvas of earth created by the drought. Without such a severe dry spell many other plant species may have survived, not giving these quick seeding species the chance to dominate as they did.

Being annual species, these grasses all dropped their seed at around the same time causing an abundance of food, and that is what is attracting the massive flocks of quelea we are seeing.

red-billed queleas, Londolozi, Sand River

A view of the queleas as they descend on the river after a day of feeding on seeding grasses throughout Londolozi. Flocks like this will fly in for about two hours around sunset.

A pearl spotted Owlet, although tiny itself, catches mice and other small rodents to feed on. It is likely that with the increase in the general mice population, we may also see an increase in owl species such as these that are reliant on them as a food source.

Recently we have also been seeing an unusual amount of field mice crossing the roads at night as we return to camp after game drive. This may also be explained by the same phenomenon. It would be interesting to know how this is affecting the predatory birds like the owls who hunt the mice or the raptors that prey on quelea.

There is a beautiful message unfolding here that we have the privilege of watching play out before us. A message of hope. The burst of vegetation after the rains last year and the resultant number of quelea flooding into Londolozi this year shows natures resilience. In a world where nature’s systems are being seriously tested by human activity, it is comforting to witness natures intelligence and self-regulating ability. Life is thriving again. It also shows us that everything is not always as it seems and that what seemed like a dire situation for some has benefited others.

Filed under Birds Wildlife

About the Author

Rob Jeffery

Field Guide

Rob joined the Londolozi team at the start of 2017. Having grown up on a farm in the Cape and spending many holidays traveling Southern Africa he developed a love for the outdoors and an appreciation for the natural world. After completing a ...

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7 Comments

on What Does A Hundred Thousand Birds Look Like?

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Marinda Drake

Interesting blog Rob. We have also noticed huge flocks of quelea. Interesting that you mention the field mice. We actually had more mice in years following a drought.

Lucie Easley

Isn’t nature amazing! It can certainly seem ugly and punishing at times (depending on perspective as in lion vs buffalo) then overwhelming with glory and abundance. Thanks for sharing this documentation of these changes at Londolozi.

Darlene Knott

We have seen the quelea ‘doing their thing’–it is amazing! Your explanation as to why the quelea showed up en masse this year because of the drought and resulting annual grasses was excellent. Thanks for explaining so well, Rob.

A B

It’s nice to see the red-billed Queleas any time. I’ve never been to Londolozi itself but saw these birds in Kruger in flocks aye. Those birds are so fascinating -could watch them for hours.
Interesting post!

Callum Evans

Definetely one of the best Londolozi videos I’ve ever see. Gut-renching and heart-warming at the same time. The perfect reminder that life can bounce back even after the worst times. The transformation looked amazing! Could really use some of that raind here in Cape Town!

Leonie De Young

What a great blog Rob. It was heartbreaking to watch the video of the drought, but heartwarming to see the transformation following the much needed rain. I think the formation of the quelea is called a murmuration. I have seen a video taken in Britain of the starlings doing what you have described. Thanks for the great explanations and to Amy and James for the video.

Eulalia Angédu

Very interesting blog there Rob.The simultaneous transformation has proved that nature has control over the ecosystems that depend on it for efficient survival.That video is magical.Awesome work.

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