The Weaver Bird

THE WEAVER BIRD

THE weaver bird has, thanks to its marvel¬lous nest, a world-wide reputation. It is related to our ubiquitous friend the house sparrow, and is known to men of science as Ploceus baya.

Except at the breeding season, the weaver bird looks rather like an overgrown sparrow, and frequently passes as such. But the cock decks himself out in gay attire when he goes a-courting. The feathers of his head become golden, while his breast turns bright yellow if he be an elderly gentleman, or rusty red if he still possess the fire of youth.

Weaver birds are found all over India. In most parts they seem to shun the haunts of man, but in Burma they frequent gardens. Jerdon mentions a house in Rangoon which had at one time over one hundred weaver birds' nests suspended from the thatch of the roof! In India proper the favourite site for a nest is a tree that overhangs water. Toddy palms are most commonly chosen, but in Northern India, where palms are but rarely seen, a babul tree is usually utilised.

Weaver birds or bayas, as they are invariably called by Hindustani-speaking people, live almost exclusively on grain, hence they are easy birds to keep in captivity. Given a commodious aviary and plenty of grass, captive bayas amuse themselves by weaving their wonderful nests. They are, however, not very desirable as pets if they have to share a cage with other birds, for, as Colonel Cunningham remarks, "every weaver bird appears to be possessed by an innate desire to hammer in the head of his neighbour." To this the neighbour is apt to take exception, so that unpleasantness ensues.

Natives frequently train bayas to do all manner of tricks.

The man with performing birds is quite an institution in India. Parrots, bayas, and pigeons are most fre¬quently trained.

A very effective trick, which is performed alike by parrots and weaver birds, is the loading and firing of a miniature cannon. First the bird places some grains of powder in the muzzle of the cannon, then it rams these home with a ramrod. It next takes a lighted match from its master, which it applies to the touch-hole. The result is a report loud enough to scare every crow in the neighbourhood, but the little baya will remain perched on the gun, having apparently thoroughly enjoyed the performance.

The nest of the baya is one of the most wonderful things in nature. Description is unnecessary. Every one who has been in India has seen dozens of the hanging flask-shaped structures, while those who know not the Gorgeous East must be acquainted with the nest from pictures.

On account of its champagne-bottle shaped nest, the weaver is sometimes known as the bottle bird ; I have also heard it called the hedge sparrow.

It makes no attempt to conceal its exquisitely woven nest. It relies for protection on inaccessibility, not concealment. Every animal badmash can see the nest, but cannot get at it. It hangs sufficiently high to be out of reach of all four-footed creatures. The ends of the entrance passage are frayed out so as to baffle all attempts on the part of squirrels and lizards to reach the treasures hidden away in it.

Both cock and hen work at the nest, the cock being the more industrious. The fibres of which it is composed are not found ready-made. The birds manufacture them out of the tall elephant grass which is so common in India. The weaver alights on one of the nearly upright blades and seizes with its beak a neighbouring blade near the base and makes a notch in it; it next seizes the edge of the blade above the notch and jerks its head away. By this means it strips off a thin strand of the leaf; it then proceeds to tear off in a similar manner a second strand, retaining the first one in its beak ; in precisely the same way a third and perhaps a fourth strand are stripped off. The tearing process is not always continued to the extreme end of the blade; the various strands sometimes remain attached to the tip of the blade. The force with which the bird flies away usually suffices to complete the severance; sometimes, however, it is not effected so easily, and the bird is pulled back and swings in the air suspended by the strands it holds in its bill. Nothing daunted, the weaver makes a second attempt to fly away, and if this is not successful, continues until its efforts are crowned with success.

The grass which is used in nest construction is impregnated with silicon to such an extent that I experienced considerable difficulty in extricating from my pocket some of the fibres which, on one occasion, I took home with me. The material is thus eminently suitable for weaving purposes.

The fibres first collected are securely wound round the branch or leaf from which the nest will hang. The fibres added subsequently are plaited together until a stalk four or five inches long is formed; this is then expanded into a bell-shaped structure. The bell constitutes the roof of the nursery. When the roof is completed a loop is constructed across its base, so that the nest at this stage may be likened to an inverted basket with a handle.

Up to this point the cock and hen do the same kind of work, both fetch strips of grass or of palm leaves and weave these into the structure of the nest. But when once the loop or cross-bar is completed the hen takes up a position on it and makes the cock do all the bringing of material. She henceforth works from the interior of the nest and he from the exterior.

They push the fibres through the walls to one another. Thus the work progresses very rapidly. On one side of the loop the bell is closed up so as to form a chamber in which the eggs are laid, and the other half is prolonged into a neck, which becomes the entrance to the nest. This may be nearly a foot long ; six inches is, however, a more usual length.

The entrance to the nursery is thus from below. The way the owners shoot vertically upwards into it, with closed wings, without perceptibly shaking it is really marvellous.

Nest construction obviously gives the little builders great pleasure. They frequently build supernumerary nests, purely from the joy of building. Each time the cock bird approaches the nest with a beakful of material he cries out with delight. Every now and again in the midst of weaving material into the structure of the nest he bursts into song.

Weaver birds usually build in company; ten or a dozen different nests being found in the same tree. As each little craftsman is in a very excited state, fights between neighbouring cocks frequently ensue, but these are never of a serious nature. I was once the witness of an amusing piece of wickedness on the part of a cock baya. The bird in question flew to a branch near the nest belonging to another pair of weaver birds who were absent. After contemplating it for a little he flew to the nest, and having deliberately wrenched away a piece of it with his beak, made off with the stolen property and worked it into his own nest! Four times did he visit his neighbour's nest and commit larceny; two of the stolen strands he utilised and the remaining ones fell to the ground. I am inclined to think that the thief was actuated by motives of jealousy ; for he deliberately dropped some of the stolen material on to the ground and extracted it from the place at which the nest was attached to its branch, thus weakening its attachment. The victim of the outrage on his return did not appear to notice that anything was amiss.

Not the least interesting feature of the nest is the clay which is studded about it in lumps. In one nest Jerdon found no fewer than six of these lumps, weighing in all three ounces. The clay has, I think, three uses: it helps to balance the nest, it prevents it being blown about by every gust of wind, and keeps it steady while the bird is entering it.

A story is abroad, and is repeated in nearly every popular book on ornithology, to the effect that the weaver bird sticks fireflies on these lumps of clay, and thus illuminates the nursery, or renders it terrifying to predacious creatures. Jerdon scoffs at this firefly story, and I, too, am unable to accept it. Nevertheless it is so. universally believed by the natives of India that there must be some foundation for it.

Some time ago a correspondent living on the West Coast of India informed me that weaver birds are very abundant in that part of the country, that their nests are everywhere to be seen, and that he had noticed fireflies stuck into many of them. He asked if I could explain their presence. I suggested in reply that he had made a mistake and requested him to look carefully next nesting season, that is to say in August, and, if he came upon a single nest on to which a firefly was stuck, to take it down, fireflies and all, and send it to me at my expense. Since then August has come and gone thrice, and I have heard nothing from my correspondent ! Thus it is that I am still among those that disbelieve the firefly story.

My theory is that the bird brings the clay to the nest in its bill in a moist condition. Now wet clay retains moisture for some time and would shine quite brightly in the moonlight, so might easily be mistaken for a firefly. Unfortunately the weaver bird is not common where I am now stationed, so that I have not had an opportunity of putting this theory to the test. I have, however, noticed how the nests built by solitary wasps shine when the clay that composes them is wet.

The natives of Northern India attribute great medicinal value to the nest of the weaver bird. They assert that a baby will never suffer from boils if it be once washed in water in which a weaver bird's nest has been boiled!

A great many half-finished weaver birds' nests are seen in India. Most of these are the work of the cock, who thus amuses himself while his wife is incubating. A few are nests which have gone wrong, nests which do not balance nicely and so have not been completed.

Two eggs are usually laid ; they are pure white and without any gloss. On these the hen sits very closely. On one occasion Hume took home a very fine specimen of the nest and hung it from one of a pair of antlers on his dining-room wall. Three days later the inmates of the bungalow became aware of a very unpleasant odour, which was traced to the nest. On taking it down it was found to contain a female baya dead upon two dead half-hatched chicks.

BookTitle: 
Birds Of The Plains
Reference: 
Dewar, Douglas. Birds of the Plains, 1909.
Title in Book: 
The Weaver Bird
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Year: 
1909
Page No: 
183
Common name: 
Weaver Bird
id: 
12557

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Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith