Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Influx control is for the birds

Back in the bad old days of apartheid we had a system of “influx control”. The aim was to prevent urbanisation, or at least to preserve it for white people. Black people were forced to live in rural areas, and were allowed in the cities only on sufference, as long as they could provide useful labour for whites.

By 1990 the system was beginning to disintegrate, and more and more people flocked to the cities. But birds also flocked to the cities.

Two species in particular, which had previously mainly been seen in rural areas, started showing themselves in the cities in increasing numbers in the 1990s. They were hadedas and crowned plovers.

From being quite rare sights, that would get bird watchers twitching, they became extremely common.

I suspect that one of the things responsible for the increase in the urban, or, more specifically the suburban population of hadedas was the ubiquity of pet food in the form of pellets. We used to put out such food for our dogs, and the hadedas would pounce on it. Then, on the advice of the vet, we measured out an exact quantity of food for the dogs, and fed them twice a day. The result was that there was no food left for the hadedas.

But that didn’t faze them. They started right in on the crickets in the lawn, which was probably better for them, and certainly better for the lawn. The raucaus cawing of hadedas replaced the chirping of crickets. It stopped the lawn being full of bare patches.

In the 1980s one also used to hear horror stories from Johannesburg housewives about the “Parktown prawn”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in the flesh, or rather in the chitin, but apparently they are a large kind of cricket, or grasshopper or locust that gives housewives the screaming abdabs. But since the influx of hadedas, I have heard very little of Parktown prawns.

All this — influx control, Parktown prawns, and the rest, was satirised in the science fiction film District 9.

But I’ve noticed a change.

I can hear crickets again at night.

From seeing and hearing at least a dozen hadedas every day, we now only see one or two a week.

Blacksmith plover

Blacksmith plover

And this week there was a new visitor to our garden, one that I had not seen before – a blacksmith plover, or bontkiewietjie, as they call it in Afrikaans. It’s about the same size as the crowned plover, but has different colouring. One plover does not make a summer, but I wonder if we’ll see more of them this summer.

And, now that I come to think of it, I haven’t seen any swallows yet, even though the northern hemisphere seems to be having an early winter.

In some ways we will be glad to see fewer hadedas. For the past several years they have built theit nests in our mulberry tree, under which we park the cars. You wash the car, and within a couple of hours it’s covered in hadeda crap. But they don’t seem to have built a nest there this year.

Plovers don’t build nest in trees, they just scrape a place in the ground. But in an urban environment that isn’t really safe for the children of ground-nesting birds. Urban environments tend not to be safe, for human children, plover children , or prawn children.

And now an assassin bug has just flown in the window and landed on my computer, and is crawling across the keys towards me. Excuse me while I go and get some bug spray.




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