Duncan Butchart writes about the extraordinary mating dance of the Jackson's Widowbird and compares it to the traditional jumping dance of the young Maasai warriors
For most of the year, the Jackson’s Widowbird would hardly warrant a second glance – even from a birdwatcher. But when the seasonal rains turn the East African savannas green, these small, finch-like birds undergo a most dramatic transformation. The males moult from their drab ochre-brown plumage into a lustrous pitch-black, and they grow an elaborate tail of long pendulous feathers. So dressed, the males assemble at communal ‘lek’ sites where they strive to outperform one another in sessions of bizarre bobs and bounces. As if on a tiny, hidden trampoline, each male projects itself above the grass, raising its tail feathers in an elegant arc over its stiff, ball-shaped body. Seen from afar, without any knowledge of the participants, it is one of the strangest things anyone might encounter on safari in Kenya’s Maasai Mara.
Small flocks of females gather at these display grounds to judge the performers and although no scorecards are held up, you can almost see them swoon when one of the dark dancers gets into his stride. The males that impress them the most are rewarded with a passionate flutter although this hardly seems enough reward for all their efforts. Once fertilized in this fashion, the females set about the business of raising a brood – their offspring carrying the genes of the fittest males who play no further part in the breeding cycle as they recuperate for tomorrow’s show.
Sharing the rather restricted East African range of the Jackson’s Widowbird are the Maasai people and it is difficult not to draw comparisons between the extraordinary jumping dance of the young male warriors and these bobbing birds! At some point in the past, did the Maasai watch the displays of the widowbirds in awe and decide to mimic their dance? Although dressed in red shukas rather than black feathers, some might say that the motivation, performance and outcome are very much the same.