A lot of things blow in on the winds of hurricanes. After tsunamis, the beaches are always covered with exotic sea animals that most people have never seen. Or even knew existed in some cases.
Sometimes after major windstorms, personal items are found hundreds of miles from where someone’s home was destroyed. It’s not uncommon to see photographs on Facebook saying “After the storms, I found this picture in my yard. Do you know who it is?”
It’s a little less common to find a living, breathing exotic animal that isn’t indigenous to the area. Even less common to find several of them.
Pintail Whydahs, a pretty little finch originating in Whydah, Nigeria began showing up in Florida recently.These tiny birds immediately put serious birders and ecologists on red alert.
It’s not known if the birds perhaps were blown in on the winds from Puerto Rico. It’s also possible they were pet birds that lost their home to the storm.
However they got there, the sight of these pretty little birds is terrifying to anyone who understands their traits.
Pintail Whydahs are also called “Widow Birds” due to the long tail the male has during the breeding season. During this time It is twice the length of his body and often black. They are often known as the Pintail Widowbird, King’s Whydah, King of Six, Bird of Six, and Pied Widowbird. The male is quite flashy, the female resembles a sparrow, but with a bright red beak.
Their mating habits aren’t the terrifying thing about them. In fact, most ornithologists find their mating habits intriguing and charming.
Not so intriguing or charming though, is the fact that these innocent looking little birds could mean death to many of our indigenous species of songbirds.
No, there won’t be gang wars between the species. Nobody will be awakened by the squawks of murderous hordes of whydahs storming our woods with assault rifles.
The death they bring with them is a lot more sly and frankly, sort of creepy. Like so many things in our world today, the flash and beauty of their feathers hide a heart that’s as dark as their jet black tails.
The species is a brood parasite. That means that they don’t build a nest and lay eggs like most birds. Instead, their females lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species. They fool the foster parents into raising the whydah chicks at the expense of their own babies.
Most parasite birds become masters at imitating the foster birds, so they don’t raise suspicion by hanging around until they’ve filled up a nest with their eggs. Sometimes they will dump the foster bird’s eggs on the ground to make room for their own.
When the babies hatch, the parasite bird babies are often programmed to kill the foster mother’s real children, to give them a better chance at survival.
The parasitic Cowbird is one of the biggest problems in the US at the moment. They lay their eggs primarily in the nests of Great-crested flycatcher, swallows, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and bluebirds.
As result, the numbers of these desirable birds are lessening as the numbers of cowbirds climb higher and higher. That’s what ornithologists fear will happen if whydahs get established in the US.
Even one mating pair can potentially become a major issue. Three different birders have spotted whydahs since Hurricane Irma. So, the threat is real!
The news isn’t all grim, however. The places where the birds might become a problem is the focus of a study published recently in The Condor: Ornithological Applications. Mark Hauber, an evolutionary ecologist at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and colleagues used computer modeling to pinpoint likely places for pin-tailed whydahs to show up.
The New York Times reports, “If enough birds are released, if the climate is right, and, more important if a proper host is around, the whydah can persist. But the Whydah is not a good flyer, does not migrate and may not be good at crossing bodies of water. Therefore, Dr. Hauber thinks any invasion will remain somewhat localized.”
Keep an eye out for these beautiful but potentially deadly little birds. Report their location to help ornithologists keep up with the problem, and hopefully find a way to eradicate it before it damages any more of our beautiful songbirds!
If you own a species of bird, like the whydah, that could become invasive if it was allowed to breed in the wild, ornithologists beg you to please keep its wings clipped. This will avoid it having a better chance of being returned to you if it escapes. It will also lessen the chance that it will be able to find a mate and become a problem bird.
One thing’s for certain, if it’s breeding season for them, there’s no way in the world you could miss seeing a male whydah in action.
Source: The Dodo