Dear Bird Folks,
What do you think is the most abundant bird in the world? I’m talking about wild birds and not domestic birds, like chickens. I know we have a lot of those.
– Jim, Boston, MA
you spoiled my opening. When people ask me this question, I tell them there are more chickens in the world than any other bird. I think I’m being clever, but they think I’m annoying, which was my goal all along. While the chicken is indeed the world’s most common bird, the folks at Popeyes are trying to decrease its population. Popeyes is now making a chicken sandwich that has become so popular that it keeps selling out, and that’s a problem. Hmm. Am I the only one who finds it odd that Popeyes is making chicken sandwiches? Isn’t chicken KFC’s thing? Shouldn’t a restaurant named after Popeye be selling sandwiches filled with spinach? Plus, if Popeyes made spinach sandwiches, they wouldn’t have to worry about selling out, ever. Hey, I think I just solved their problem. You’re welcome, Popeyes.
Not too long ago the most abundant wild bird in the entire world lived right around here. Eastern North America was home to immense numbers of Passenger Pigeons, but you know how things go. We often don’t do the right thing until it’s too late. (How are those icecaps doing?) Today, the most abundant bird species lives in Africa. But unlike what happened to the Passenger Pigeon (and the icecaps), the changes humans are making to the landscape are actually causing this species to increase. At 1.5 billion birds and counting, the title of the most abundant bird belongs to the Red-billed Quelea. (FYI: Quelea is pronounced kwee-lee-uh. You’re welcome.)
The Red-billed Quelea is a small sparrow-ish songbird in the weaver family. In the winter, both sexes are drab brown, resembling a female House Sparrow. But in the breeding season, the male gains a black mask, some pink coloring and a bright red bill. Queleas are highly sociable, moving about the continent in huge flocks searching for food. The food these birds crave is grass seed, but not Scotts Turf Builder, or whatever that stuff is they advertise on TV. Queleas thrive on the various grasses found on Africa’s vast plains. A single flock of these gregarious birds may number in the millions, creating a spectacle that looks like smoke drifting over the countryside. Migrating Red-billed Queleas is a remarkable sight to see, but not everyone enjoys seeing it. In the last half-century, farmers have replaced some of Africa’s native grasslands with millet, wheat, barley and rice. Queleas were quick to take advantage of the new menu options. The abundance of food has led to an increase in the number of birds, and a huge increase in the number of farmer complaints. A single flock of queleas can quickly wipeout a year’s worth of crops. The farmers’ response to the grain thieves has been aggressive, deadly and largely unsuccessful.
As I mentioned earlier, queleas (pronounced kwee-lee-uh, in case you forgot) are weavers. During the breeding season they build elaborate, oriole-style hanging nests. Each tree may contain hundreds of these nests. This is when the farmers make their move. I’ll spare you the gory details, but it involves fire and ugliness. Larger farms try to control the birds by applying lethal spray. But, as you might imagine, the spray is also toxic to other things in the area, making a bad situation worse. Subsistence farmers keep the birds away by banging pots and pans or simply waving their arms, looking like some of my customers chasing squirrels. (You know who you are.) Surprisingly, this low-tech approach is the most effective and the most environmentally friendly way to deal with the birds, but it isn’t practical on large-scale farms. Each year, millions of queleas are lost to the lethal control methods, yet it has done little to curb their population. Why? Queleas are nomadic and don’t need to return to the same breeding grounds year after year. Often they breed in areas that are away from angry farmers, which gives their population a chance to regenerate in peace.
I know I say this a lot, but anyone with a computer, iPad or smartphone should punch up Red-billed Queleas and watch the videos. The massive flocks are both visually striking and a bit scary, giving us a taste of what it must have been like to experience the movement of three billion Passenger Pigeons (RIP). And while these flocks are clearly an agricultural problem, the birds are also an important part of the ecosystem. They supply food for a whole host of predators, while their droppings enrich the soil and provide vital seed distribution.
The most abundant wild bird in the world is the Red-billed Quelea, Jim. It’s an essential species, but it also generates its share of problems. Assorted methods have been tried to reduce their massive population with little success. Recently, some officials have proposed using the birds as a source of food. It’s the old, “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em” approach. Africa needs food, so instead of destroying the birds, some could be gathered for meat. I know it sounds barbaric, but it would at least save the crops and give the chickens a break. Hey Popeyes, forget the chicken or the spinach sandwiches. Qeulea pot pie could be your next big thing. You’re welcome.