Home » Christmas Birds In South Africa

Christmas Birds In South Africa

It’s strange to pair the usual commercial Christmas characters with a summertime holiday. Polar bears, reindeer, and a jolly old man in a heavy, woolen red suit just doesn’t feel right.

We’ve seen our share of Santa Clause as adapted for warmer climates before. In California it’s popular to put Santa in swim trunks and have him riding a surfboard. But even in California, December is winter, with its milder weather reminding everyone that just a day’s drive into the mountains could find them in snow. Jingle bells rock the retail stores’ sound systems. Buildings are decorated from basement to penthouse, and if you want a white Christmas without the road trip, there’s always some crazy local with a snow machine who finds pleasure or passion in bringing a mini nor’easter to the crazy town of Venice, California.Here, we find no snow machines. The stores that play holiday music are few, although more and more seem to decorate each year. We hang solar lights, and put solar Christmas-themed stakes in the yard, and prepare the braai (South Africa’s outdoor barbecue pit or grill) for a hot Christmas, filled with swimming pool parties. It feels as though it really is too hot to think of our traditional Christmas, let alone Santa, in this heat.

Our roses are in full bloom: yellow; pink; red; white. Bushes and long stem. Heavy-bodied jasmine scent fills my office window each morning, mingled with the fading fragrance of Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow flowers as they reach the end of their season.

Summer brings migratory birds down from Europe and across Africa to these southern landscapes. Mingling with local year-round species, December marks the early stages of bird watching in South Africa, while January and February are peak.

Summertime in South Africa means birds, braais, and Christmas. My emotions are a mixture of nostalgia for the wintry holidays of our home, and bliss, for the warm, indulgent sunshine of holidays in the southern hemisphere.

I’ve never replayed Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” in my head as frequently as I do here. But even in the states, most northerners only want snow for the holidays, and are quickly ready for it to melt, and Spring to arrive. We will see the snow again when this expat assignment is up, so in the meantime, I focus on what I love most about Christmas in South Africa: the birds.

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Male, Southern Masked Weavers, small, finch-like birds the color of sunshine, wrap presents for each of their mates-to-be: a fresh, green nest. Communal birds, they are polygamous, keeping the gene pool varied by attracting females from other colonies and mating multiple times per season, each time with a different mate. And for each potential mate, the brightly adorned male tirelessly, carefully, gathers material to weave a hanging nest to offer the female. When he’s finished, he puffs, preens, and displays his feathers to attract a female he hopes will choose him and his well-built nest.

Rejection occurs frequently. A female attracted to his displays will inspect his nest. If approved, she immediately lines it with soft material and moves in to lay eggs. If she rejects it, he tears the nest apart completely and begins building again. Each female will lay her eggs and raise chicks only in a fresh, new nest.

On safari game drives, guides frequently point out weavers by illustrating this home-wrecking as an ideal analogy for human males and females. “Isn’t it just like a woman?” They chuckle, before they’ve even delivered the punchline, “He works hard day in and day out, and she comes along and tells him he’s not good enough.” Some guests chuckle. Others sit silently. I discretely tuck my tip money back in my purse, and we continue on the drive.

I am disappointed that they choose this story to repeat instead of using the opportunity to show how beautifully the species understands and interacts with the nature around it in order to survive. Last year, I watched a weaver’s nest in a wicked hailstorm. From my dry, comfortable house I watched as our female weaver, who had only approved the nest on the second try, was able to ride out the winds whipping her small home side to side, then in frantic circles. It seemed impossible for the small, woven nest to stay attached to the tree, and impossible to keep from ripping apart in the wind.
But it held. Hail tried pelting it, but bounced through the top layers of our fever tree branches, never quite reaching the careful placement of the weaver house, beneath a cluster of strong limbs.

The little ball of palm and grass whipped and twisted, but held. It’s doubtful his first nest, rejected by that “home-wrecking” female, would have survived. If she chose his first offering, accepted a hastily or shoddily built nest, she and her eggs may not have ridden out that storm. Because of the combination of his persistence, and her high standards, they will contribute healthy, stronger offspring to the community. His strong, second nest was her perfect Christmas gift last year.

My holiday gift is to watch the new season of birds start the summer. I watch the weavers, and I watch the other birds in our neighborhood. Vibrant and striking, flocks of Southern Red Bishops decorate neighborhood lawns and trees. Cut-throat finches and tiny Cape white-eyes peep and squeak at me from the rosebushes and shrubs in the yard. Egyptian Geese parade to the lake, leading a fresh brood of goslings.

I take a trip to Kruger, just to see the newly arriving European bee-eaters and rollers, and to listen to the call of Woodland Kingfishers, filling the nearby trees. They sing from dawn to dusk, an exuberant trill so disarming that their tails shake when delivering the melody.

Driving home, I’m treated to South Africa’s version of a white Christmas. My early morning drive, through the Panorama Route, sees a cloud inversion filling everything around me with a heavy, white, mist. Bing Crosby is stuck in my head again.

Back in Pretoria, it’s sunny. I prepare for a bright Christmas, and start replacing the sacred words of Crosby’s dreamy song. My lyrics are filled with colorful birds and palm trees. My vision now has a swimming pool instead of a fireplace, and as for Santa..? Well, maybe jolly St. Nick will have to make his way down the chimney of the braai, where he’ll be greeted with a plate of cookies, a pair of swim trunks, and an invitation to cool off in the pool.

An American Expat in South Africa, Marla is a freelance writer and global explorer. She creates travel adventures for herself following in the footsteps of her favorite authors. An American expat, she currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa, where she blogs her adventures on travelingmarla.com and is revising her first manuscript.

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