This year in my city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and surrounding places, we have had an feathered guest, Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) ˈkwiliə. The Quelea is a tiny passerine that makes up for its size with its numbers. Put simply, the Red-billed Quelea is the most numerous flocking bird on the planet!
This species presents a dilemma for birders and ornithologists because while it is a wonder of nature, it is also one of the worst pests you’ll ever know of. Queleas are nomadic birds that travel around the African continent with changes in seasons to places where they can find food. They travel in flocks of millions and wreck havoc where they go. They have a massive appetite and are practically a swarm of feathered locusts. Their habitat preference is open savanna grasslands where they can find a good supply of seeds and water, unfortunately, these are conditions found in most East and Southern African commercial farms. Nomadic flocks of millions can grow in a very short space of time and reek havoc on farms with their voracious appetite. Farmers in most of these countries which are undeveloped countries are usually at the mercy of the birds and they are a threat to food security to a point the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is involved in controlling them.
In Zimbabwe, the hardest hit regions are the Western dry provinces and the South East Lowveld. These regions are arid and have mostly subsistence farmers growing grains like Sorghum and Millet which are the only ones that grow well in these dry Kalahari sand soils. The grains also happen to be the Quelea’s favorite, as they are exposed and easy to pick out. This is unfortunate for the farmer, who is hoping to produce enough grain to feed his family for the whole year and hopefully a bucket or two extra to trade with produce traders for school fees, who sell the grains in the the city. To think that one flock can be done with a whole field within half a day and shutter the hopes of families is just sad. A friend of mine told me that he was in Tsholotsho (his rural home) over Easter and most of what he did was help his grandmother shoo away the birds from her fields. It was a funny story, but sad though, how old women are in their fields by 5 am chasing off the relentless birds daily, to ensure food security for their families. Although many methods have been tried to control them, none have really been very effective. In the case of Quelea, traditional manual methods of waving hands and making noises seem to work more effectively in saving the crops than mass control methods.
Quelea also have a taste for wheat and barley in large commercial farms. They can ravage a whole farm in less than a day causing millions to be lost not only by the farmer but also the country. This has prompted governments to act against them with different methods of mass control. However, though it is a problem animal, the mass control of Quelea is also a touchy topic as far as ethics go. You need to consider that these are grassland birds and they have always been in the continent feeding on seeds till we the humans ventured into agriculture probably creating the monster they are. It should also be considered, in our management policies, how ethical our control measures are. In the past pesticides such as Queletox have been used, Queletox, is an organophosphate pesticide which has detrimental effects to non-target species and the environment. Other methods of mass control include the use of dynamite under the colonial roosts of the birds, and mass capture for food and sale by local communities, which I think is the best and helpful control. A Zimbabwean innovator has recently come up with a new way of Quelea control which I hope will be much more effective and will improve the productivity of rural communities.
I hope that one day we can find a way to co-exist with these beautiful birds that are a wonder of nature, that we can develop technology to detect and predict their movements, research into and learn more of their ecology so as to manage them in a sustainable and good way. I hope that one day the developing world can harness the power and glory of such natural phenomena and not suffer under it to a point of fighting against its beauty. I hope they’ll come a day that Red-billed Quelea too will fly freely as nature intended. What do you think?