Personally, I love birds. When they ask me why, my stock response is that they fly, they sing and they dress well – what more do you want? And I am not alone. The venerable Laurens van der Post once asked his Kalahari tracker which animal he considered the most impressive and was rather surprised with the answer that it would have to be a bird of some kind.
And, with over 450 species recorded, the tracker would have a field day in the Okavango: how about the bateleur eagle that not only soars as high as any living organism but has the sharpness of vision to dive down hundreds of meters to grab its prey?
Or the self-sacrificing ostrich: did you know that, when confronted with a predator while in the company of their young, one parent limps off pretending to be wounded, and thus easier-to-catch, while the other quickly escorts the babies to safety?
Or even the obscure but theatrical blackbellied korhaan who serenades the female in a pitch that rises higher and higher until he finally reaches those high Cs, takes off and flies dramatically upwards like a Covent Garden diva?
Ah yes, I love birds, and there is no better place in the continent for birdwatching than the Okavango Delta. It was to Siân’s misfortune that I arrived at Xigera Camp (pronounced KHEE-jra) on the border of Botswana’s Moremi Reserve in the same Cessna six-seater as she and her husband, so we made up one single group. During our drives and boat cruises the sheer amount of birdlife, binocular stops and Masta’s attempts at identification slowed us down, making tracking larger game more challenging.
Of course, there is much enjoyment to be had from startling the rutting impalas, watching elephant family games and tracking leopards. But I take exception to the view that birds are not as beguiling.
Take these small birds at the feet of the buffalo that made Siân sigh. They were cattle egrets. They forage around grazing animals and cattle, waiting for them to disturb the ground and throw up edible insects or worms. Isn’t that intelligent? And what’s more, their emigration history is an enigma. For thousands of years, cattle egrets were historically confined to southern Africa and south-east Asia. Suddenly, in the mid-1800s they decided to conquer the world. They crossed the Atlantic to Brazil in the 1880s. They reached Australia and New Zealand in the 1940s, southern Europe in the 1950s and in 1981 they were first sighted in Alaska. They are now to be found everywhere, including some isolated island archipelagos. How come?
Or take another common denizen of the Okavango delta, the familiar black-and-white figure of a pied kingfisher that hovers in the air like an overgrown hummingbird. These kingfishers frantically flap their wings to stay absolutely still before they dive. When you take a picture of them, their beaks are totally in focus while their wings are a blur. But wait until you hear about their family life. Males outnumber females by almost two-to-one because more females die protecting their young from predators. So, these extra males try to make themselves useful by helping an alpha pair to feed their young. But in order for the alpha male to accept them, they have to prove themselves unable to fertilise the female. As a result, they lose testosterone, their testes shrivel and they effectively will themselves into eunuchs.
If birds do not interest you, it’s because you don’t know the whole story.