1Pin tailedWhydah

Breeding male Pin-tailed Whydah, Illustration by Dessi Sieburth

A Striking African Bird in Los Angeles County: The Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura)

By Dessi Sieburth

Los Angeles County is home to one of the greatest diversity of non-native species anywhere in the United States. This is largely due to the fact that it provides the ideal habitat for non-native species with its mild climate and abundance of exotic plants. The California Birds Records Committee includes 11 species of introduced birds that are considered to be “naturalized,” or common enough to sustain their populations, and nine of these species can be found breeding in Los Angeles County. Several additional introduced bird species are establishing populations here and are likely to become naturalized soon. Most of the non-native populations are thought to have started from small groups of released or escaped birds originally imported to Los Angeles through the pet trade. One species whose numbers have recently began increasing throughout Los Angeles is the Pin-tailed Whydah, a songbird that became introduced by the pet trade because of its spectacular tail feathers.

The adult male Pin-tailed Whydah in breeding plumage is unmistakable, with its bright red bill and tail nearly twice the length of its body. The cap is black, and the rest of the head is white. Its back is black, and its wings and underparts are white. The tail is so long that in flight, it simply flops around in a circular motion. The females and nonbreeding males have black streaks in the head and back, with white underparts and a red bill.

2Breeding male Pin tailedWhydah KirstenFrost TableBayNatureReserveWesternCapeSouthAfrica

Breeding male Pin-tailed Whydah, photographed by Kirsten Frost in its native range (Table Bay Nature Reserve, Western Cape, South Africa)

In its native range, the Pin-tailed Whydah can be found throughout Africa, except in the Sahara Desert region. It is especially common in swampy or reedy areas in Eastern Africa. In its introduced range in California, the species was introduced to Los Angeles and Orange Counties in the early 1990s, but only a small number of sightings were reported before 2005. In 2005 the population began to increase, and the bird can now be regularly found in the southeastern portion of Los Angeles County, as well as along the Santa Ana River in Orange County. In 2013, a flock of 83 whydahs were seen in La Mirada, and a flock of over 100 were observed in Santa Ana. In Los Angeles County, the species can be found along weedy areas of the San Gabriel River, Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia, and Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena. This sudden increase in numbers suggested that the whydahs had established a local breeding population.

3Breeding male Pin tailedWhydah PeckRoadWaterConservationParkArcadiaLos AngelesCounty 8August2013DerekSieburth

Breeding male Pin-tailed Whydah at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia, Los Angeles County, 8 August 2013, photo by Derek Sieburth

Nonbreeding adult Pin-tailed Whydah at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia, Los Angeles County, April 1st, 2018, photo by Dessi Sieburth

Nonbreeding adult Pin-tailed Whydah at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia, Los Angeles County, April 1st, 2018, photo by Dessi Sieburth

Pin-tailed Whydahs are brood parasites, meaning that they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. The host bird takes care of the eggs and feeds the young after they hatch, along with the young of their own species. However, taking care of the additional whydahs often means that some of the host’s young do not get enough food and often starve. In their native range in Africa, they only parasitize other related Estrildid finches, such as the Common Waxbill and Bronze Mannikin, which construct domed nests with an entrance at the side. Since these species do not breed here in Los Angeles in large numbers, ornithologists wondered which local species the Pin-tailed Whydah parasitized to raise their young.

5Adult Scaly breasted Munia by Derek Sieburth

Adult Scaly-breasted Munia, host species for Pin-tailed Whydah in California, photo was taken in Montrose, Los Angeles County, 6 December 2015 by Derek Sieburth

A research study by Garrett and Garrett in 2014 found that the whydahs parasitize the nests of Scaly-breasted Munias in Los Angeles County and Orange County. Like the whydahs, the munias are an introduced species, but their native range includes India and southeast Asia. This finding was perhaps not that surprising since whydahs have been known to parasitize Bronze Mannikins, a species very closely related to the Scaly-breasted Munia, in their native range. The Scaly-breasted Munia is the only species known to be parasitized by the whydah in Southern California.  The increase in the whydah population is consistent with the increase in the munia population, suggesting that the whydah’s existence in California is dependent on the population of Scaly-breasted Munias. The study found no evidence that the Pin-tailed Whydah parasitizes any of our native species. Additional research will show if the Pin-tailed Whydah has an impact on native species.

Despite its appeal to the pet trade, the Pin-tailed Whydah is common in its native range in Africa. However, illegal pet trade is a serious threat for many species of birds in their native range. For example, our Red-crowed Parrots, which likely came to Los Angeles through pet trade, are endangered in their Mexican native range. Introduced established bird populations could possibly be used to repopulate their native range if they are endangered or get extinct. If you like to learn about what you can do to help birds locally and globally please visit my website: http://protectingourbirds.my-free.website/.

Scaly-breasted Munia feeding two fledged Pin-tailed Whydahs at La Mirada Creek Park, Los Angeles County, California, 11 August 2014 photographed by John Garrett

Scaly-breasted Munia feeding two fledged Pin-tailed Whydahs at La Mirada Creek Park, Los Angeles County, California, 11 August 2014 photographed by John Garrett

References:
Garrett, J. F., and K. L. Garrett (2016). The Pin-tailed Whydah as a brood parasite of the Scaly-breasted Munia in southern California. Western Birds 47:314–320.
Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura). In Neotropical Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology Ithaca, New York, USA

TPL_LAAS_ADDITIONAL_INFORMATION