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Bush-crow diaries – Sights and sounds of the bush

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


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Two Bush-crows (top left) and other ground-foraging birds such as Superb Starlings (Lamprotornis superbus) and Grey-capped Social Weaver (Pseudonigrita arnaudi) join in on the mass alarm giving away the presence of a big female Puff Adder. Despite being Africas biggest killer in the snake world (although largely a case of being widespread across the continent and the lack of availability of anti-venom to rural people) they are often surprisingly docile. As the name suggests, Puff Adders ‘puff’ when threatened and offer, like the majority of snakes, very visual signs at their displeasure of your presence. Puff Adders are also well known for reproducing large numbers of young with litters of 50+ young not uncommon.

Two Bush-crows (top left) and other ground-foraging birds such as Superb Starlings (Lamprotornis superbus) and Grey-capped Social Weaver (Pseudonigrita arnaudi) join in on the mass alarm giving away the presence of a big female Puff Adder. Despite being Africas biggest killer in the snake world (although largely a case of being widespread across the continent and the lack of availability of anti-venom to rural people) they are often surprisingly docile. As the name suggests, Puff Adders ‘puff’ when threatened and offer, like the majority of snakes, very visual signs at their displeasure of your presence. Puff Adders are also well known for reproducing large numbers of young with litters of 50+ young not uncommon.

The African Bush is generally, at least in comparison to some of the world’s tropical forests that I have worked in, a slightly more visual environment than an audible environment. Large vistas dappled with a patchwork of Acacia trees, villages, toy-storyesque white puffy clouds and the general sun-baked bushes and grasslands of the open veld, all give you a unique sense of feeling very small in the landscape.

Often, with a relatively open landscape, one would think there are few places for wildlife to hide away. Needless to say, however, wildlife does so very successfully, and in an attempt to find more than initially meets the eye, sometimes other clues are better used to betray an animals presence.

Puff Adder adder staring me out!

Puff Adder adder staring me out!

As a lover of snakes, I perhaps look for them more than most. Never being easy to find however, without a hint of irony, the bush-crows and ‘friends’ have helped me out in finding probably one of my favourite African snakes, the Puff Adder (Bitis arietans).

Many of the ground-foraging birds of the bush have a highly attuned response to alarm calls and potential predators and readily elicit mass alarming at some of the (seemingly) most benign species. When one individual (bird) starts to persistently alarm, other species often join, creating a cacophony of very unhappy birds giving away the presence of snakes relatively easily.

Pugs in the sand

Hyaena sp. (either Spotted or Striped Hyanea)

Hyaena sp. (either Spotted or Striped Hyanea)

Many mammals are very good at not giving away their presence by sight, but one of the best ways of detecting their presence is of course by their footprints, or more commonly referred to as their ‘pug’. Here are some of my most-wanted that have managed to completely evade me!

Aardvark (Orycteropus afer) pug. Famously difficult to see due to their secretive and nocturnal habits are most likely to only be detected by their pugs.

Aardvark (Orycteropus afer) pug. Famously difficult to see due to their secretive and nocturnal habits are most likely to only be detected by their pugs.

It would be unfair however to suggest that this environment is purely visual, with so much competition for space birds must of course find other ways to announce their presence. Put in some headphones and be transported into the ambiance of the African bush here and here.

I am now very much on the road home, clutching a folder of hard-earned data and beginning to reflect on a remarkable couple of months.

Images: all copyright the author

Previously in this series:

Bush-crow diaries: The mystery of the Abyssinian Pie
Bush-crow diaries: Up close and personal with the qaqa
Bush-crow diaries: Settling in with the Borana
Bush-crow diaries: The African night

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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