The Wildebeest's guide to South Africa

Weavers are a fascinating and diverse family of birds

Lees in Afrikaans

Male Masked Weaver building its nest

Male Masked Weaver building its nest

Photo © Steven Herbert

Weavers are common in many parts of the world, and in particular Africa, yet they are a fascinating family of birds.

I once read an article about a teacher who gave his students a lesson where they each were given a dismantled weaver nest and had to re-assemble it, with one hand behind their backs. I can imagine the fun and frustration that this must have caused! The lesson must have instilled an admiration for birds amongst the students. These small birds are remarkable in the way that they construct their nests. Weavers are such a well-known group of birds in Africa and are particularly well-known as garden birds in many of the towns and cities around South Africa. They are tolerant of humans and will gladly nest and feed in their gardens.

Most "true" weavers tend to be bright yellow during the breeding season and yellowish-brown outside of that. There are some exceptions such as the Dark-backed and Spectacled Weavers who keep their bright colours all year round. Species such as the Sociable and Thick-billed Weavers fall outside the group of true weavers, yet they make similar nests.

Weavers get their family name from the remarkable nests that they build. Most weavers breed communally, in trees or reedbeds, but others, like the Spectacled and Dark-backed Weavers tend to be solitary. The nest is typically made by the male and can comprise of a variety of natural and man-made materials. I have seen them use grass, twigs, strips of vines or palms, plastic and other materials. Some species of weavers are polygamous with the male breeding with two or more females at the same time. He not only has to make each female her own nest she reserves the right to reject it and may even pull it out the tree!

Male Thick-billed Weaver

Male Thick-billed Weaver

Photo © Steven Herbert

The nests vary in shape and you can generally identify which species the nest belongs to. Some obvious examples are the Dark-backed and Spectacled Weaver. Both build their nests in trees and they feature a long downward hanging entrance but those made by Dark-backed Weavers are untidy while those of the Spectacled Weaver are extremely neat. Most of the other species make ball shaped nests either amongst reeds or in trees. The nest of the Thick-billed Weaver is always made between two tall reeds. Others make nests with either no entrance tunnel or a short one. No matter how they make their nests one can only admire their workmanship.

Unfortunately for weavers they tend to be unwitting hosts for some species of cuckoo such as the Diderik Cuckoo and Klaas’s Cuckoo. Where you find a nesting colony of weavers is where you will often see, or hear, one of the cuckoos.

Male Spectacled Weaver

Male Spectacled Weaver

Photo © Steven Herbert

Weavers tend to lay 2 to 3 eggs with 3 being the most common number. Obviously, this varies from one species to another but overall, this is true. The eggs vary quite widely in colour. Most often the eggs are white are a pale blue, green or pink. Some species have darker eggs while some have speckles on their eggs. The females incubate the eggs for about two weeks. The chicks are ready to leave the nest in a further 2 to 3 weeks time. Female weavers seem to be the regular ones to feed the chicks, but males do assist in some species. This make sense with them being polygamous, so the male must tend to more than one female at the same time.

As mentioned above most male weavers only exhibit their breeding plumage during the breeding season which tends to be during spring and summer. Outside of that they resemble the females and juveniles, and they can be quite hard to identify. Sometimes one may see a "female" weaver attempting to build a nest, but this will most likely be a juvenile male practising. He may think that he will find a mate but that won’t happen until he is old enough to take on his breeding colouration.

Weavers feed on a wide variety of foods. As mentioned above many species will readily take seeds from bird feeders. Seeds make up a greater or lesser portion of the diets of all species. Other foods eaten include insects, spiders, fruit and nectar. I have often seen weavers feeding on the nectar of aloes, especially during winter which is the main flowering time for many aloes. If you see a weaver with bright yellow near its bill, then it has probably been feeding on aloe nectar.

Many species of weaver tend to be found nesting near water in the summer months. Outside of the breeding season they are commonly seen in small flocks and will tend to wander away from their preferred water habitats. As spring approaches the males start getting their breeding plumage and may even attempt to nest before winter has finished. In most of these cases the next cold spell proves fatal for the eggs or chicks. But they don’t give up! They try again with the same or better results.

So, if you get weavers in your garden, take a few minutes to appreciate these brightly coloured and cheerful birds.

Here are some of the species of weavers found in South Africa.

Sociable Weaver - Afrikaans name: Versamelvoël - Philetairus socius

Sociable Weaver in flight

Photo © wolfavni -

The Sociable Weaver is found in the drier regions of South Africa. They are also found in Botswana and Namibia.

The enormous nests of the Sociable Weaver are their claim to fame. These nests are actually made by colonies of birds and are re-used. They are found in trees as well as man-made structures.

Unlike many of the Weavers this one eats insects more than seeds and other plant material. The diet of insects helps give them a supply of water in the arid environment that they call home.

Sociable Weaver nest

Photo © wolfavni -

The nests of the Sociable Weaver are often visited by snakes, particularly Cape Cobras. The snakes eat both eggs and chicks. Despite the high level of predation by snakes it is believed that the population of the Sociable Weaver is increasing as pylons have provided new nest sites for them.

Lesser Masked Weaver - Afrikaans name: Kleingeelvink - Ploceus intermedius

Male Lesser Masked Weaver

Male Lesser Masked Weaver at its nest

Photo © Steven Herbert

The Lesser Masked-Weaver is not as widely distributed in South Africa as the Village and Southern Masked-Weaver. It is found in a band up the eastern parts of the country from KwaZulu-Natal, through Kruger National Park to the northern sections of Limpopo and North West.

Although the Lesser Masked-Weaver prefers drier areas they are normally found near water. They can be found in drier areas with savanna, woodland or bushveld.

The Lesser Masked-Weaver feeds on pollen, insects and seeds.

These weavers are not as gregarious as some of their relatives. Outside of breeding season they stay in small flocks numering less than 10. During the breeding season they nest in small colonies with a maximum of around 10 nests. They lay 2 to 3 eggs and are cared for by both parents.

Spectacled Weaver - Brilwewer - Ploceus ocularis

The Spectacled Weaver is an attractive weaver that is normally seen in pairs. It has a melodic whistle for its call.

Both sexes have the black line through the eye which account for its common name but only the male has the black bib on the throat.

The Spectacled Weaver is widely distributed in Africa south of Ethiopia. In South Africa it is found in the eastern regions of the country.

This weaver eats a wide variety of foods including insects, spiders, fruit, nectar and seed.

The nest of the Spectacled Weaver is interesting. It is a typical weaver-like enclosed structure but it has a long entrance tunnel hanging down. Up to 4 eggs are laid.

Southern Masked Weaver - Swartkeelgeelvink - Ploceus velatus

Southern Masked-Weaver male

Photo © Steven Herbert

The Southern Masked-Weaver is a common and well-known bird in South Africa. It is found in suitable habitat over most of South Africa except for the coastal region from Port Elizabeth to the KwaZulu-Natal south coast. Beyond South Africa they occur over large parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

The male Southern Masked-Weavers have a bright yellow and black plumage during the breeding season. Females and non-breeding males have a far drabber plumage.

They breed during an extended period from late winter through to Autumn although the peak breeding season is in summer. They tend to nest in colonies with a suitable tree being used year after year. Males are polygamous and will make a number of nests during the breeding season. Normally either 2 or 3 eggs are laid and the female does most of the work raising the chicks.

Southern Masked-Weavers are very common garden birds in some areas and will often be seen on bird feeders.

Seeds and insects form the main part of their diet. They also eat nectar.

Village Weaver - Afrikaans name: Bontrugwewer - Ploceus cucullatus

Village Weaver

Photo © Steven Herbert

This commonly encountered weaver is often referred to as Spotted-backed Weaver. The Village Weaver is a very common species over the eastern regions of South Africa.

In summer the males are very handsome with their yellow plumage and their black masks. Females are more of a brownish-yellow and lack the black mask.

In South Africa there are two other species of weaver where the males may be confused with the Village Weaver. They are the Southern Masked Weaver and Lesser Masked Weaver.

Weavers are well known for the nests that they weave. Village Weavers nest in colonies in trees or in reeds. Female Village Weavers lay 2 to 3 eggs.

They feed on seeds and grain. They are common visitors to bird feeders along the eastern coast of South Africa.

Male Village Weaver

Photo © Steven Herbert

Above - A male Village Weaver in breeding plumage

Below - A female Village Weaver

Female Village Weaver

Photo © Steven Herbert

Female Village Weaver going for a splash

Photo © Steven Herbert

Above - A female Village Weaver takes a vigorous bath in my bird bath. Village Weavers are common in gardens in many areas and will always be visitors to feeders.

Yellow Weaver - Afrikaans name: Geelwewer - Ploceus subaureus

A beautiful Yellow Weaver

Photo © Steven Herbert

The male Yellow Weaver, in the breeding season, is an attractive bird with a black bill, red eye and yellow body. Outside of the breeding season both sexes are duller and the bill is more grey than black.

These weavers reach a length of 16 cm and may be found breeding in reedbeds and trees near water. They may move a bit away from water, into the surrounding bush, when not breeding.

In South Africa it is found along the eastern regions from around Port Elizabeth through to northern KwaZulu-Natal.

The Yellow Weaver mainly eats seeds and termite alates when available.

The pair make their nest near water in small colonies that may include nests of other weavers such as the Thick-billed Weaver. 2 to 4 eggs are laid.

Thick-billed Weaver - Afrikaans name: Dikbekwewer - Amblyospiza albifrons

The Thick-billed Weaver is widely distributed across Africa.

They have a distinctively heavy bill which gives them their common name.

Males are a dark brown with a white forehead and a white patch on their wings. Females are more of a streaky brown and lack the white forehead and patches. The white patch on the forehead of the male is present only during the breeding season.

During the breeding season Thick-billed Weavers are found in reedbeds and riverside vegetation. During the non-breeding season they may be found in a variety of habitats.

They reach a length of 18 cm.

Male Thick-billed Weaver

Photo © Steven Herbert

Above - Male Thick-billed Weaver

Below - Female Thick-billed Weaver

Female Thick-billed Weaver

Photo © Steven Herbert

References and further reading

Wildlife of Southern Africa - Author: Martin Withers and David Hosking - Published: 2011 - Page: 180

The Birds of South Africa - 1st Edition - Author: Dr. Austin Roberts - Published: 1949 - Page: 343

Southern African Bird Names Explained - Author: Charles Clinning - Published: 1989 - Page: 6

Sasol Birds of Southern Africa - 4th Edition - Author: Ian Sinclair et al. - Published: 2011 - Page: 416

Sasol Birds of Southern Africa - 1st Edition - Author: Ian Sinclair et al. - Published: 1993 - Page: 382

Roberts Birds of Southern Africa - 6th Edition - Author: Gordon Lindsay Maclean - Published: 1993 - Page: 714

Roberts Birds of Southern Africa - 5th Edition - Author: Gordon Lindsay Maclean - Published: 1985 - Page: 715

Roberts Birds of South Africa - 4th Edition - Author: McLachlan and Liversidge - Published: 1981 - Page: 571

Roberts Birds of South Africa - 3rd Edition - Author: McLachlan and Liversidge - Published: 1975 - Page: 559

Roberts Birds of South Africa - 2nd edition - Author: McLachlan and Liversidge - Published: 1957 - Page: 433

Roberts Bird Guide - Author: Hugh Chittenden - Published: 2007 - Page: 326

Newmans Birds of Southern Africa - 7th Edition - Author: Ken Newman - Published: 2000 - Page: 410

LBJs - Author: Newman, Johnson, Solomon, Masterson - Published: 1998 - Page: 120

Newmans Birds of Southern Africa - 1st Edition - Author: Ken Newman - Published: 1984 - Page: 410

Ian Sinclairs Field Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa - 2nd Edition - Author: Ian Sinclair - Published: 1988 - Page: 302

Geoff Lockwoods Garden Birds of Southern Africa - Author: Geoff Lockwood - Published: 0 - Page: 97

Garden Birds in South Africa - Author: Duncan Butchart - Published: 2017 - Page: 141

Field Guide to the Birds of Kruger National Park - Author: Ian Sinclair and Ian Whyte - Published: 1991 - Page: 210

Collins Illustrated Checklist - Birds of Southern Africa - 1st edition - Author: Ber van Perlo - Published: 1999 - Page: 77

Birds of the Transvaal - Author: Tarboton, Kemp and Kemp - Published: 1987 - Page: 254

Birds of the Transkei - Author: C.D. Quickelberge - Published: 1989 - Page: 116

Birds of Southern Africa - Kruger National Park - Author: Kenneth Newman - Published: 1985 - Page: 210

Bird Atlas of Natal - Author: Digby Cyrus and Nigel Robson - Published: 1980 - Page: 274

A Field Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa - 2nd Edition - Author: O.P.M. Prozesky - Published: 1983 - Page: 301

BirdLife South Africa

Wikipedia: Weavers


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