Sociable weavers are cute, gregarious birds, renowned for the massive nests they build. But just how far would they go for the right nesting material? This nature photographer’s discovery could ruffle quite a few feathers. 

Jaco Powell, the photographer and co-author of Kgalagadi Self-Drive, didn’t suspect much when he noticed a flock of of sociable weavers amassing on a road in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. But since the activity had caught his eye, he decided to take some pictures from a distance.

“As I drove closer, the weavers took flight and left something on the ground. On closer inspection I found a dead scaly-feathered finch, probably killed by a car. I was still unsure why the weavers had piled onto the finch’s body and why they were all trying to get to it.”

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It was late morning some 4km south of Kamqua Picnic Site and Jaco drove back to camp. “When I looked through the pictures, I was surprised to see a sociable weaver flying up with a feather in its beak. In the last picture, it was clear that the finch had been robbed of many of its prime feathers.”

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A baffled Jaco couldn’t believe his eyes and says he’s never witnessed anything like this. “The sociable weavers descended on the corpse of the scaly-feathered finch to recover feathers for nesting material as it is the start of the nesting season for the weavers. Even stranger: the weavers only took primary feathers and didn’t bother at all with any of the finch’s down feathers. Incredible!”

Can it be?

Wild reached out to Dr Robert Thomson from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology to get some answers.

“It seems reasonable to assume that the finch is road-kill. However, sociable weavers can be aggressive to scaly-feathered finches – they are one of the species that regularly use sociable weaver colonies for roosting on colder nights. Sociable weavers often attempt to keep other bird species out of the chambers that they have built. Despite this, it seems unlikely to me that the weavers killed the finch, although not impossible.

“Within each chamber, a nest cup is lined with material, and a favourite component of this lining, as for many bird species, are feathers. I strongly suspect that the flock of sociable weavers were collecting feathers from the dead finch for this purpose. September nights in the Kalahari can still be icy and the feather lining could also be for thermo-regulatory reasons.”