Red-billed Quelea: A rational look at Kenya’s most hated bird species

Quelea birds

Quelea birds invade a farm. The birds have invaded rice fields in Kisumu County

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

 Small and weighing between 15 and 26 grams, the quelea bird may appear cute to the rest of the world, but to farmers in Kisumu County, it is a pest that has wiped out their crops and robbed them of their livelihoods.

The Kisumu government on Thursday announced plans to eradicate 5.8 million quelea birds after they invaded rice farms in the county, leaving farmers counting huge losses.

“More than 300 acres have been destroyed by the birds, with an additional 2,000 acres under threat,” said Kisumu County Executive Member for Agriculture, Ken Onyango.

Farmers liken the quelea bird invasion to the Biblical Plagues, as the birds descend on farms in huge numbers, and can wipe out entire fields of wheat or rice.

The quelea, which is just 12cm long and has a bright red beak, is a migratory, sparrow-like bird of the weaver family that is mainly found in African countries including Botswana, Ethiopia, Ken-ya, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

Mr Paul Gacheru, the programme manager at Nature Kenya, says the bird is classified as a pest as it wreaks havoc especially in the irrigation schemes where vegetation is grown.

“In any place where there is an abundance of wheat, rice, sorghum or millet, this species of bird can quickly increase in number and quickly become a menace,” he says.

Because of its small stature, one might think this red-billed quelea has a small appetite. However, this adorable bird eats about ten grams of plant seeds per day. This might not sound like much, but considering the fact that they descend upon a farm in their millions, the destruction caused can be quite huge.

It is estimated that a flock of two million birds can eat as much as 20 tonnes of grain in a single day. Sometimes referred to as Africa’s feathered locust, the harm that this species brings upon grain crops in Sub-Saharan Africa is so severe that some nations have gone as far as setting fire bombs off in their colonies.

According to the Natural Resources Institute, a UK-based development group, some 170 control operations are executed in South Africa each year, killing 50 million birds on average.

In Kenya, eight million birds were killed in Mwea, Kirinyaga county in 2019, while an additional 1.8 million were put down last year.

The county government of Kisumu has announced plans to eliminate an additional 5.8 million quelea birds in the coming days.

The government mainly uses avicides – bird-killing chemicals – to try and control the wild bird. Mr Gacheru says the birds are killed through aerial spraying, just like the army of locusts was sprayed when the insects ravaged the country in 2021.

He however notes that spraying these chemicals is simply a quick fix, which could lead to long-term effects on the environment and have a negative impact on the health of human beings.

“Aerial spraying is hazardous because other species get killed in the process yet they were not the target,” he says.

He notes that the chemicals cause environmental pollution and contamination and also lead to secondary poisoning of other species.

“If another animal feeds on birds that have been killed using the chemicals, they could also die from ingesting the substances, meaning that the spraying ends up eliminating so many more spe-cies, which is not good for the environment,” he adds.

But, this bird is very robust and despite millions of birds being killed each year, their numbers have continued to increase.

The main reason why human beings have been unable to get rid of this bird despite employing various tactics and using all manner of weapons is because the quelea breeds extremely fast. Ac-cording to National Geographic, one bird breeds three times per year with an average of three eggs per hatch, meaning that one pair of quelea birds can produce up to nine offspring annually, while other birds nest only once per year.

Another reason is that the migratory nature of the birds makes them highly mobile, and it is often difficult to predict where they may attack next. They also execute attacks in huge numbers, which quickly overwhelms farmers.

In 2021, the birds destroyed more than 720 acres of rice farms, forcing farmers to incur addition-al costs of hiring guards to scare them at the Bura Irrigation Scheme in Tana River County.

“One person can protect an acre of the farm but it is very hard work because the crops are vulner-able from dawn until dusk, and could need protection for a whole month,” said Peter Mburu, a farmer at the scheme.

Mr Mburu had to hire five guards, each earning Sh300 daily to look after his farm.

“I have to position one person in each corner of the farm and another at the centre. Without do-ing that, I will have nothing to harvest,” he added.

But Mr Gacheru says there are other non-lethal methods to control the bird.

“Studies show that there are alternatives such as trapping the birds and practising controlled eradication that can be used instead of spraying the birds with chemicals,” he said.

Trapping the birds can be done using nets and in countries such as Tanzania, the trapped birds have become a delicacy to locals.

On controlled eradication, Mr Gacheru suggests that the birds should be sprayed only when they go to roost or breed.

“The birds roost at one common area and therefore instead of spraying the chemicals everywhere, they can be sprayed in one controlled area.”

This method would allow for the dead birds to be collected and disposed of without causing much harm to other species.