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Bush-crow diaries: Up close and personal with the qaqa

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Helped by the excellent staff of the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society my stay in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, was relatively brief whilst formalising research visas. The city, home to a number of UN offices and the base of the African Union, is vibrant and thronging with people and I quickly got to grips with Ethiopia’s culinary specialities of coffee and Injera.

Travelling was not over yet, however, and after an 11 hour car journey south, hindered only by the gradually deteriorating road quality and herds of nonchalantly wandering cattle, I arrived in the town of Yabello, perhaps the most pseudo well-known location for the bush-crow. To mark my arrival, as with any true cliché, an East African sunset of childhood fantasy met me. The evening light cast a campfire glow onto a landscape studded with Acacia trees and brick-red termite mounds as we trundled southwards, narrowly missing pothole after pothole.

Yabello is a dusty transition town about 200km north of the Kenya border but unsurprisingly, as I have learned in my brief stay in this lively country, bursting with life. The town is only seldom visited by foreigners, (or ‘faranges’ as we are called locally) leading to a lot of curious but always friendly locals.

Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary

Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary

Covering the northern part of the Ethiopian Bush-crows range and encompassing Yabello is Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary. Initially set-up to protect the endangered and disjunct race of ‘Swaynes’ Hartebeest Alcelaphus buselaphus swaynei, the Bush-crow now takes a flagship role in the current transition of the sanctuary to National Park status. Yabello is the base for the park office and its excellent scouts will be working with us as guides throughout our fieldwork.

A first for science

Bush-crow in the hand

Bush-crow in the hand

Day one, up bright and early after a nominal period of sleep but itching to get into the field, we headed north of the town and I quickly locked eyes on my first Bush-crow as it emerged from its huge and inconspicuous nest, a thick tangled ball of spiny sticks sitting at the top of an Acacia tree. It promptly emitted a harsh cackle, the sound that has earnt it the local name by the Borana people of qaqa (pronounced kaka) and flew past me within metres, the low morning sun highlighting the bright cobalt blue mask around its eyes.

Within a few hours I had the privilege of getting up close and personal with that blue mask and hosting the colours of Red, Yellow, Yellow, Yellow (duly nicknamed number 1) the first Bush-crow captured and ringed in the species history was in the bag. A fit and healthy adult bird that was processed and promptly released. Marking individuals in this manner allows for significantly more meaningful data to be gathered during observations due to its individually identifiable nature in the field.

Number 1 now individually identifiable in the field

Number 1 now individually identifiable in the field

Unsurprisingly, the area is heaving with natural life, some more cryptic than others and few more so than Nightjars. Well known by the birding fraternity for their highly vocal nocturnal habits but being virtually invisible during daylight hours, you can probably imagine my surprise when a female Sombre Nightjar Caprimulgus fraenatus erupted from a nest at my feet later in the day. The bird then gave the ‘broken wing’ display, a fascinating technique widely used by many cryptic ground-nesting birds in order to divert the attention of a predator away from its vulnerable chicks and towards the injury-feigning parent bird.

Sombre Nightjar in flight

Sombre Nightjar in flight

As I backed off to minimise the disturbance I had unwittingly caused, the bird wheeled around me, flopping to the ground and weakly flapping its right wing. Due to their habits, flight photographs of Nightjars are rare at the best of times so I was fortunate to see the beautiful mix of golden and caramel browns in full daylight. The following might just be one of the first (at least publicly shared) in-flight photos of the species.

On reflection after the first full day in the field, it’s not every day you get to contribute a first for science, however small- not such a bad day in a very good office indeed!

Images: copyright by the author

Previously in this series:

Bush-crow diaries: The mystery of the Abyssinian Pie

Samuel Jones About the Author: Samuel Jones is an early-career ornithologist and conservation scientist. An avid naturalist and field ornithologist since childhood, he has been involved in a wide variety of work worldwide, particularly in expedition environments throughout the new and old world tropics. He is currently completing postgraduate study at Imperial College London. Follow on Twitter @samuel_ei_jones.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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