NDEGE WETU: A Tribute to the Birds of Kenya (Part 7 – Extreme Transformations)

Certain birds have an incredible annual cycle of transformation. Every year, they change from a relatively dull ‘boring’-looking appearance into a vivid, colourful and attractive look. This happens when they change from their non-breeding plumage to their breeding plumage. (Plumage means the colour and arrangement of a bird’s feathers). These transformations mainly happen during the rains, when most Kenyan birds breed, and then the birds revert back to their unimpressive looks when they go back into the non-breeding season. These changes are most pronounced in males. Females generally change only slightly or barely at all.

Today, let’s take a look at two groups of birds found in Kenya which undergo such dramatic transformations.

A classic example of birds that transform dramatically during the rains are the widowbirds and bishops (Euplectes). The photos above are of male Red-collared Widowbirds (Euplectes ardens). The one on the left is in non-breeding plumage while the one on the right is in breeding plumage. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were two different species! Female widowbirds are generally brownish with some streaks, similar to the non-breeding males.

Some other members of this group that you can see in Kenya include …

Jackson’s Widowbird (Euplectes jacksoni). In this photo, you can see a breeding male (top left) and a male just beginning its transformation into breeding plumage (bottom right).
White-winged Widowbird (Euplectes albonotatus) – breeding male.
Long-tailed Widowbird (Euplectes progne) – breeding male.
Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix) – breeding male
Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis) – breeding male
Yellow-crowned Bishop (Euplectes afer) – breeding male

Apart from widowbirds, another major group that undergoes this extreme seasonal change is the whydahs and indigobirds (Vidua). Some of the ones you can see in Kenya include:

Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura) . This is a breeding male and…
… these are a non-breeding male (right) and non-breeding females.
Straw-tailed Whydah (Vidua fischeri) – breeding male.
Eastern Paradise Whydah (Vidua paradisaea) – non-breeding male. I’m yet to get a photo of this species’ breeding male. They have a long and slightly curved black tail, orange chest and black face. Look out for them in areas of semi-arid savanna and bush.
Village Indigobird (Vidua chalybeata) – breeding male

As it rains throughout many parts of Kenya at the moment, keep an eye out for these striking birds in their beautiful breeding plumage. Their breeding displays are also entertaining to watch as they jump and dance amusingly attempting to attract the attention of the ladies 😉

If you need help getting an experienced bird-watching guide in Kenya who can help you find these brilliant birds, identify them and interpret what they are doing, feel free to get in touch with me for recommendations.

While out watching these birds, please submit your records to the Kenya Bird Map project to contribute to documenting their current distribution and status in Kenya.

If you enjoyed this post, look out for Part 8 of NDEGE WETU next Thursday!

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About Sidney Shema

Sidney is a Kenya-based ornithologist and photographer specializing in the birds of Africa, with an especially keen interest in the birds of prey (raptors) of Kenya.
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