Chapter 43 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The Weaver-Birds.

Now that the beasts of prey had been destroyed, or driven from about the camp, there was no longer any danger in that quarter, and the children could be left by themselves. Totty of course always stayed with them; while the four hunters went forth upon the chase of the elephant—each mounted upon his quagga.

They had done so many a time, and as no harm had happened to the children in their absence, such a course became habitual with them. Jan and Trüey were cautioned not to stray far from the nwana, and always to climb to the tree, should they perceive any animal that might be dangerous. Before the destruction of the hyenas and lions, they had been used to remain altogether in the tree, while the hunters were absent. But this had been quite an imprisonment to them; and now that the danger was not considered much, they were allowed to come down and play upon the grassy plain, or wander along the shore of the little lake.

On one occasion when the hunters were abroad, Trüey had strayed down to the edge of the water. She was alone, if we except the company of the gazelle, which followed at her heels wherever she went. This pretty creature had grown to full size, and had turned out a great beauty, with large round eyes that had a lovely melting expression, like the eyes of Trüey herself.

Well, as I have said, Trüey was alone. Jan was busy near the bottom of the tree, working a new rod into his bird-cage, and Totty was out upon the plain herding “old Graaf”—so Trüey and the pet springbok went strolling along by themselves.

Now Trüey had not gone down to the water without an object. She had one. She had gone to give her pet a drink, and collect some blue lilies for a bouquet. All this she had done, and still continued to walk along the shore.

On one side of the lake, and that the farthest from the nwana-tree, a low spit of land projected into the water. It had once been but a sand-bar, but grass had grown upon it, until a green turf was formed. There was not over a square perch of it altogether, but it was not square in shape. On the contrary, it was of oval form, and much narrower nearest the land, where it formed a neck, or isthmus, not more than three feet in width. It was, in short, a miniature peninsula, which by a very little work with the spade could have been converted into a miniature island—had that been desired.

Now there is nothing very remarkable about a little peninsula projecting into a lake. In nearly every lake such a thing may be seen. But about this one there was something remarkable.

Upon its extreme end grew a tree of singular form and foliage. It was not a large tree, and its branches drooped downwards until their tips almost touched the water. The pendulous boughs, and long lanceolate silvery leaves, rendered it easy to tell what sort of tree it was. It was the weeping or Babylonian willow—so-called, because it was upon trees of this species that the captive Jews hung their harps when they “sat and wept by the streams of Babel.” This beautiful tree casts its waving shadow over the streams of South Africa, as well as those of Assyria; and often is the eye of the traveller gladdened by the sight of its silvery leaves, as he beholds them,—sure indications of water—shining afar over the parched and thirsty desert. If a Christian, he fails not to remember that highly poetical passage of sacred writing, that speaks of the willow of Babylon.

Now the one which grew upon the little peninsula had all these points of interest for little Trüey—but it had others as well. Upon its branches that overhung the water a very singular appearance presented itself. Upon these was suspended—one upon the end of each branch—a number of odd-shaped objects, that hung drooping down until their lower ends nearly rested upon the surface of the water. These objects, as stated, were of a peculiar shape. At the upper ends—where they were attached to the branches—they were globe-shaped, but the lower part consisted of a long cylinder of much smaller diameter, and at the bottom of this cylinder was the entrance. They bore some resemblance to salad-oil bottles inverted, with their necks considerably lengthened; or they might be compared to the glass retorts seen in the laboratory of the chemist.

They were each twelve or fifteen inches in length, and of a greenish colour—nearly as green as the leaves of the tree itself. Were they its fruit?

No. The weeping-willow bears no fruit of that size. They were not fruit. They were nests of birds!

Yes; they were the nests of a colony of harmless finches of the genus Ploceus,—better known to you under the appellation of “weaver-birds.”

I am sure you have heard of weaver-birds before this; and you know that these creatures are so-called on account of the skill which they exhibit in the construction of their nests. They do not build nests, as other birds, but actually weave them, in a most ingenious manner.

You are not to suppose that there is but one species of weaver-bird—one kind alone that forms these curious nests. In Africa—which is the principal home of these birds—there are many different kinds, forming different genera, whose hard names I shall not trouble you with. Each of these different kinds builds a nest of peculiar shape, and each chooses a material different from the others. Some, as the Ploceus icterocephalus, make their nests of a kidney-shape, with the entrance upon the sides, and the latter not circular, but like an arched doorway. Others of the genus Plocepasser weave their nests in such a manner, that the thick ends of the stalks stick out all around the outside, giving them the appearance of suspended hedgehogs; while the birds of another genus closely allied to the latter, construct their nests of slender twigs, leaving the ends of these to project in a similar manner. The “social gros-beak” (Loxia socia) fabricates a republic of nests in one clump, and all under one roof. The entrances are in the under-surface of this mass, which, occupying the whole top of a tree, has the appearance of a haystack, or a dense piece of thatch.

All these weaver-birds, though of different genera, bear a considerable resemblance to each other in their habits. They are usually granivorous, though some are insectivorous; and one species, the red-billed weaver-bird, (Textor erythrorhynchus), is a parasite of the wild buffaloes.

It is a mistake to suppose that weaver-birds are only found in Africa and the Old World, as stated in the works of many naturalists. In tropical America, birds of this character are found in many species of the genera Cassicus and Icterus, who weave pensile nests of a similar kind upon the trees of the Amazon and Orinoco. But the true weaver-birds—that is to say, those which are considered the type of the class,—are those of the genus Ploceus; and it was a species of this genus that had hung their pendulous habitations upon the weeping-willow. They were of the species known as the “pensile weaver-bird” (Ploceus pensilis).

There were full twenty of their nests in all, shaped as already described, and of green colour—for the tough “Bushman’s grass,” out of which they had been woven, had not yet lost its verdant hue, nor would it for a long time. Being of this colour, they actually looked like something that grew upon the tree,—like great pear-shaped fruits. No doubt from this source have been derived the tales of ancient travellers, who represented that in Africa were trees with fruits upon them, which, upon being broken open, disclosed to view either living birds or their eggs!

Now the sight of the weaver-birds, and their nests, was nothing new to Trüey. It was some time since the colony had established itself upon the willow-tree, and she and they had grown well acquainted. She had often visited the birds, had collected seeds, and carried them down to the tree; and there was not one of the whole colony that would not have perched upon her wrist or her pretty white shoulders, or hopped about over her fair locks, without fear. It was nothing unusual to her to see the pretty creatures playing about the branches, or entering the long vertical tunnels that led upward to their nests—nothing unusual for Trüey to listen for hours to their sweet twittering, or watch their love-gambols around the borders of the vley.

She was not thinking of them at the moment, but of something else, perhaps of the blue water-lilies—perhaps of the springbok—but certainly not of them, as she tripped gaily along the edge of the lake.

Her attention, however, was suddenly attracted to the birds.

All at once, and without any apparent cause, they commenced screaming and fluttering around the tree, their cries and gestures betokening a high state of excitement or alarm.