Invasive Species Compendium

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Datasheet

Quelea quelea
(weaver bird)

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Datasheet

Quelea quelea (weaver bird)

Summary

  • Last modified
  • 16 November 2018
  • Datasheet Type(s)
  • Invasive Species
  • Pest
  • Host Animal
  • Preferred Scientific Name
  • Quelea quelea
  • Preferred Common Name
  • weaver bird
  • Taxonomic Tree
  • Domain: Eukaryota
  •   Kingdom: Metazoa
  •     Phylum: Chordata
  •       Subphylum: Vertebrata
  •         Class: Aves
  • Summary of Invasiveness
  • The red-billed quelea is a small weaver bird native to sub-Saharan Africa and renowned for its attacks on small-grain crops within Africa. It is the most numerous bird species in the world, with peak post-breeding pop...

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Pictures

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PictureTitleCaptionCopyright
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult male, in breeding plumage. Botswana. February, 2008.
TitleAdult male
CaptionQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult male, in breeding plumage. Botswana. February, 2008.
Copyright©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult male, in breeding plumage. Botswana. February, 2008.
Adult maleQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult male, in breeding plumage. Botswana. February, 2008.©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult female. Botswana. February, 2008.
TitleAdult female
CaptionQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult female. Botswana. February, 2008.
Copyright©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult female. Botswana. February, 2008.
Adult femaleQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult female. Botswana. February, 2008.©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); a pair, in breeding plumage. Botswana. February, 2008.
TitlePair
CaptionQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); a pair, in breeding plumage. Botswana. February, 2008.
Copyright©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); a pair, in breeding plumage. Botswana. February, 2008.
PairQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); a pair, in breeding plumage. Botswana. February, 2008.©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea aethiopica (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult male, in breeding plumage. Tanzania. March, 2008.
TitleAdult male
CaptionQuelea quelea aethiopica (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult male, in breeding plumage. Tanzania. March, 2008.
Copyright©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea aethiopica (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult male, in breeding plumage. Tanzania. March, 2008.
Adult maleQuelea quelea aethiopica (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); adult male, in breeding plumage. Tanzania. March, 2008.©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); nest. Botswana. January, 2008.
TitleNest
CaptionQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); nest. Botswana. January, 2008.
Copyright©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); nest. Botswana. January, 2008.
NestQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); nest. Botswana. January, 2008.©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); eggs in nest. Botswana. February, 2008.
TitleEggs in nest
CaptionQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); eggs in nest. Botswana. February, 2008.
Copyright©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); eggs in nest. Botswana. February, 2008.
Eggs in nestQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); eggs in nest. Botswana. February, 2008.©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); chicks in nest. Botswana. February, 2008.
TitleChicks in nest
CaptionQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); chicks in nest. Botswana. February, 2008.
Copyright©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); chicks in nest. Botswana. February, 2008.
Chicks in nestQuelea quelea lathamii (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); chicks in nest. Botswana. February, 2008.©Robert. A. Cheke-2008
Quelea quelea (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); flock coming to drink at a pool. Botswana. March, 2005.
TitleFlock coming to drink
CaptionQuelea quelea (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); flock coming to drink at a pool. Botswana. March, 2005.
Copyright©Robert. A. Cheke-2005
Quelea quelea (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); flock coming to drink at a pool. Botswana. March, 2005.
Flock coming to drinkQuelea quelea (weaver bird, red-billed quelea); flock coming to drink at a pool. Botswana. March, 2005.©Robert. A. Cheke-2005

Identity

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Preferred Scientific Name

  • Quelea quelea

Preferred Common Name

  • weaver bird

International Common Names

  • English: red-billed quelea
  • Spanish: quelea comun
  • French: travailleur a bec rouge

Local Common Names

  • : black-faced dioch
  • Germany: Blutschnabelweber; Weber, Blutschnabel-; Webervogel

EPPO code

  • QUELQU (Quelea quelea)

Summary of Invasiveness

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The red-billed quelea is a small weaver bird native to sub-Saharan Africa and renowned for its attacks on small-grain crops within Africa. It is the most numerous bird species in the world, with peak post-breeding population estimated at 1,500,000,000. The red-billed quelea is mainly granivorous, except when feeding its chicks insects or when eating insects prior to migration or breeding, and it relies on a supply of grass seeds to survive. When unable to find grass seeds or when opportunities arise, quelea will attack crops. It is a major pest throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa and can cause significant economical losses.

The bird is inherently nomadic, following rain fronts, and this nomadism accounts for its invasions into areas where it was previously absent.

Taxonomic Tree

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  • Domain: Eukaryota
  •     Kingdom: Metazoa
  •         Phylum: Chordata
  •             Subphylum: Vertebrata
  •                 Class: Aves
  •                     Order: Passeriformes
  •                         Family: Ploceidae
  •                             Genus: Quelea
  •                                 Species: Quelea quelea

Notes on Taxonomy and Nomenclature

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The red-billed quelea was originally described by Linnaeus in 1758 as Emberiza quelea, with type locality erroneously given as India. In 1760 Brisson painted a specimen of the red-billed quelea, probably from Senegal, and in 1766 Linnaeus corrected the type locality to Africa, which was later restricted to Senegal by Sclater. The generic name Quelea was first used by Reichenbach in 1850.

There are three recognized subspecies: the nominate West African form Q. quelea quelea (Linnaeus, 1758), which occurs from Senegal to Chad and the Central African Republic; the east African subspecies Q. quelea aethiopica (Sundevall, 1850), found from Sudan to Somalia, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to Kenya, Tanzania and northeast Zambia; and the southern African subspecies Q. quelea lathamii (Smith, 1836), which occurs in Angola, southern Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and from Mozambique to South Africa. A fourth subspecies Q. quelea spoliator Clancy 1960 is now treated as synonymous with Q. quelea lathamii (Jones et al., 2002) and the form known as Q. queleaintermedia is considered to be included within the nominate.

Hybridisation with red-headed quelea Q. erythrops is only known in captivity (Craig, 2010).

Description

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The following descriptions are adapted from Craig (2004, 2010):

Adults

Red-billed quelea are small, short-tailed, sexually dimorphic weaver birds about 12 cm long and weighing 15 to 26 g. The sexes differ in appearance according to season. In their breeding plumage males are polymorphic, with different amounts of black, yellow, pink, purplish or white in the head and neck region and different amounts of colouration on the belly (Ward, 1966). The colour patterns of the males’ plumage are not signals of quality (Dale, 2000) but are thought to be involved in individual recognition processes (Dale et al., 2001). However, the redness of the males’ bills is an indicator of condition and quality (Dale, 2000) and social dominance (Shawcross and Slater, 1984). Males of the nominate race typically have a black face ‘mask’, consisting of a black forehead, lores, cheeks and upper throat surrounded by varying amounts of pink, yellow, purple or black. Sometimes the mask is white. The surrounding colour may end on the lower throat or stretch as far as the belly, with the remainder of the underparts being light brown or white with some dark striations. The upperparts are light brown with dark longitudinal stripes, particularly centrally, with those on the rump paler. Tail and upper wing dark brown; flight feathers edged greenish yellow. Eye has narrow red orbital ring and brown iris. Legs orange. Bill bright red. The non-breeding plumage of males lacks any bright colour, with much of mask, forehead and crown becoming grey-brown with dark streaks, chin, throat and faint supercilium white; bill becomes pink and legs flesh-coloured. Females in breeding plumage resemble non-breeding males but have yellow bill and eye-ring. Non-breeding female has a pinkish bill.

Eggs

Eggs are laid in clutches of 1-5, usually 3, measure 18 x 13 mm and are bluish or greenish, occasionally with some dark spots. Clutches of 6 have been noted but these may be the result of egg-dumping by females that are not the nest-owners. Nestlings are born naked with wisps of down on shoulders and crown, with white bills. Eyes open and feathers appear on day 4.

Juveniles

Within 2-3 months of hatching, juvenile birds complete a post-juvenile moult to resemble non-breeding adults, but with grey head, whitish cheeks and buff edges to flight feathers and wing coverts, followed 1-2 months later by a pre-nuptial contour moult, when they begin to assume the adult breeding plumages. Nestlings have a lavender-tinged horn-coloured bill that turns orangey purple before the post-juvenile moult, then pinkish-purple and finally red (Jones et al., 2002).

Subspecies

The different subspecies are primarily distinguished by the colours of the adult male breeding plumages. Adult breeding Q. quelea quelea have a buff crown, nape and underparts and a broad band on the forehead. Adult breeding males of Q. quelea aethiopica generally lack the black band across the forehead and the buff wash on their underparts, which may be replaced with a pink wash. Adult breeding males of Q. quelea lathamii have a broad band on the forehead and mainly white underparts. However, there is much variation and some individuals cannot be ascribed to a subspecies based on morphology alone. Some interbreeding between subspecies may occur at transition zones.

Distribution

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The red-billed quelea is found in sub-Saharan Africa. Its known distribution was described by Magor and Ward (1972). Grid squares in which the southern African subspecies Q. quelea lathamii has been recorded have been mapped by Mundy and Herremans (1997) and Cheke et al. (2007, Fig. 1) and the known breeding sites of this subspecies were mapped by Cheke et al. (2007, Fig. 3).

Distribution Table

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The distribution in this summary table is based on all the information available. When several references are cited, they may give conflicting information on the status. Further details may be available for individual references in the Distribution Table Details section which can be selected by going to Generate Report.

Continent/Country/RegionDistributionLast ReportedOriginFirst ReportedInvasiveReferenceNotes

Africa

AngolaWidespreadNative Invasive Dean, 2000Common in dry woodlands, floodplain grasslands and cultivated areas. Also present Cabinda.
BeninLocalisedNative Invasive Green and Sayer, 1979Not uncommon in far north
BotswanaWidespreadNative Invasive Craig, 2004Abundant except in SW and central Kalahari
Burkina FasoWidespreadNative Invasive Craig, 2004Mostly in northern half, but south to Lou and Oursi and rarely Ouagadougou
BurundiPresent, few occurrencesNative Invasive Craig, 2004Irregular vagrant
CameroonWidespreadNative Invasive Louette, 1981Abundant, often in huge flocks, in the north. Also reaches Benue Plain and Adamawa plateau
Central African RepublicWidespreadNative Invasive Craig, 2004Occurs Manovo-Gounda-Saint Floris National Park
ChadWidespreadNative Invasive Manikowski et al., 1989Throughout southern zones, especially near L. Chad
CongoPresent, few occurrencesNative Invasive Craig, 2004Occasional long R. Congo in south
Congo Democratic RepublicWidespreadNative Invasive Craig, 2004In east from L. Albert to north end of L. Tangangyika. In west at coast along R. Congo. In south in Katanga and Marungu plateau
Côte d'IvoirePresent, few occurrencesNative Invasive Thiollay, 1985Dry season visitor to Ferkessedougou area
DjiboutiPresent, few occurrencesNative Invasive Craig, 2004Vagrant
EritreaWidespreadNative Invasive Ash et al., 2009Abundant, breeding in east along border with Sudan and occurs as far west as 40 degrees East
EthiopiaWidespreadNative Invasive Ash et al., 2009Abundant up to 2650m. Breeds mainly in southwest in Rift Valley mid-May to mid-July, and central lowland from L. Zwai and along R. Awash, Aug-Sept
GabonLocalisedNative Invasive Craig, 2004Irregular in southern coastal zone
GambiaPresent, few occurrencesNative Invasive Craig, 2004Dry season visitor, Oct-May. Does not breed
GhanaLocalisedNative Invasive Grimes, 1987Uncommon dry season visitor to north, Dec-Apr, particularly at Tono river irrigation scheme
KenyaWidespreadNative Invasive Lewis and Pomeroy, 1989Present throughout, except dry eastern coastal zone. Breeding concentrated in south and central portion of north
MalawiWidespreadNative Invasive Dowsett-Lemaire and Dowsett, 2006Widespread, usually below 1350m but vagrant to Nyika plateau. Not yet a serious pest but increasing, so status changing. First confirmed breeding May 1994, when colony of tens of thousands of nests, Lengwe. Also bred there Feb-Mar in later years
MaliWidespreadNative Invasive Craig, 2004Occurs from 17 degrees N south to 12 degrees N. Principally in Niger valley where breeds. Also Boucle de Baoule, Mopti and Sahel zone
MauritaniaWidespreadNative Invasive Lamarche, 1988Up to 1975 occurred in millions, particularly along R. Senegal and sites such as L. Rkiz. Numbers reduced by droughts but still common in Sahel up to 18 degrees N.
MozambiqueWidespreadNative Invasive Craig, 2004Occurs in Zambezi valley, Mt Gorongosa, Beira, R. Save and R. Limpopo southwards
NamibiaWidespreadNative Invasive Craig, 2004Most common in central plateau but occurs throughout except desert along coastal zone
NigerWidespreadNative Invasive Manikowski et al., 1989Occurs, principally in sahelian habitats, south of 16 degrees N
NigeriaWidespreadNative Invasive Elgood et al., 1994Abundant in northeast, less common elsewhere in suitable habitat
RéunionLocalisedIntroducedFirst breeding records 2001 Invasive Safford, 2013Firmly established on west coast between St-Paul and St-Pierre, where probaby increasing
RwandaPresent, few occurrencesNative Invasive Craig, 2004Irregular vagrant
Sao Tome and PrincipeAbsent, unreliable recordJones and Tye, 2006Records at Ferreiro Governo, Sao Tome Jun-Jul 1990, unreliable
SenegalWidespreadNative Invasive Morel and Morel, 1990Occurs throughout northern third of country, western areas and extreme east but most common along valley of R. Senegal. Nests in sugar cane, Richard Toll
SomaliaWidespreadNative Invasive Craig, 2004Non-breeding migrants from Ethiopia occur in northwest, but most common in south, west of 46 degrees E. Breeds south of 5 degrees N
South AfricaPresentNativeCraig, 2004; Oschadleus, 2015Central and northern regions. Winter rainfall region.
SudanWidespreadNative Invasive Craig, 2004Occurs from Kassala and Khartoum south to border with Uganda, mainly in valley of R. Nile. Uncommon in Darfur
SwazilandWidespreadNative Invasive Mundy and Herremans, 1997Occurs throughout but most common in east near border with Mozambique
TanzaniaWidespreadNative Invasive Craig, 2004Abundant throughout except coastal strip, southeast and far west. Avoids Miombo woodland.
TogoPresent, few occurrencesNative Invasive Dowsett-Lemaire and Dowsett, 2011First confirmed records, flocks drinking from R. Keran northern Togo, Jan 2010
UgandaWidespreadNative Invasive Carswell et al., 2005Occurs in bush, tall grassland and farmland, particularly in the southwest and in rice paddies at Kibimba
ZambiaWidespreadNative Invasive Dowsett et al., 2008Abundant throughout below 1700m. Main breeding areas below 1000m in Middle Zambezi and Luangwa valleys
ZimbabweWidespreadNative Invasive Mundy and Herremans, 1997Present throughout, vagrant only to eastern highlands. Breeds in river valleys and drier southern lowlands

History of Introduction and Spread

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The only suspected case of red-billed quelea having been introduced is the self-perpetuating population on Réunion. The birds have been present since 2001, but how they reached the island is unknown, although the cage-bird trade is suspected. Quelea have recently invaded the Western Cape of South Africa (Oschadleus, 2009) and bred there (Anonymous, 2013).

Introductions

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Introduced toIntroduced fromYearReasonIntroduced byEstablished in wild throughReferencesNotes
Natural reproductionContinuous restocking
Réunion <2001 Yes Safford (2013) Probably pet trade. Firmly established on west coast between St-Paul and St-Pierre, where probably increasing.

Risk of Introduction

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Red-billed quelea can only survive in semi-arid areas and already occur throughout most such habitats in Africa, but there are a few remaining places on the African continent to which they could be introduced.

If strict quarantine measures or restrictions on cage-bird imports are circumvented then the red-billed quelea could be introduced to islands other than Réunion, or even to suitably dry habitats on other continents, perhaps in South or Central America.

Habitat

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Avoids forest, including miombo woodland. The red-billed quelea is principally found in semi-arid areas of dry thornbush grassland such as the Sahel. It is also present in farmland, where it attacks crops. As it needs to drink every day, the red-billed quelea is always within about 30km of water. It is occasionally found in wet habitats and may congregate in huge flocks at edges of water-bodies, such as Lake Ngami, Botswana, when the lake floods. It requires bushes, reeds or trees in which to nest or roost. The red-billed quelea can be found up to 3000m above sea level but usually only occurs up to 1500m.

Habitat List

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CategoryHabitatPresenceStatus
Terrestrial-managed
Cultivated / agricultural land Principal habitat Harmful (pest or invasive)
Cultivated / agricultural land Principal habitat Natural
Disturbed areas Secondary/tolerated habitat Natural
Managed grasslands (grazing systems) Secondary/tolerated habitat Natural
Terrestrial-natural/semi-natural
Arid regions Principal habitat Natural
Natural grasslands Principal habitat Natural
Riverbanks Principal habitat Natural
Scrub / shrublands Principal habitat Natural
Wetlands Principal habitat Natural

Hosts/Species Affected

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Quelea have been recorded eating the following crops: barley (Hordeum vulgare), buckwheat (Phagopyrum esculentum), bulrush or pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), finger millet (Eleusine coracana), foxtail or italian millet (= manna Setaria italica), common or proso millet (Panicum miliaceum), oats (Avena), rice (Oryza sativa), sorghum (Sorghum bicolor and S. caffrorum), teff (Eragrostis tef), triticale (Triticum x Setale) and wheat (Triticum durum). Quelea do not attack maize on the plant as their bills are too small to cope with the large seeds, but they will eat crushed maize at feedlots. At the start of wet seasons, early maturing crops are in danger from adult birds on their early rains migrations and, later on in wet seasons, crops are particularly vulnerable to roaming flocks of juvenile birds that have recently left the nest. In dry seasons, irrigated crops are threatened by birds of all ages.

Biology and Ecology

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Genetics

Extra-pair fertilizations sometimes occur with quelea, with 31% of offspring being unrelated to at least one behavioural parent (Dallimer and Jones, 2007). All of the southern African populations of Q. quelea lathamii are a single inter-breeding population (Dallimer et al., 2003). Despite this lack of population structure, there is some sub-structure, with evidence for male-biased dispersal (Dallimer et al., 2002). The male colour patterns are inherited but the mask and breast colours are independently assorted (Dale, 2000). Genes coding for quelea carotenoid colours have been investigated by Walsh et al. (2012).

Reproductive Biology

The red-billed quelea is a communal breeder, building nests in colonies that are usually found in thorn trees such as Acacia tortilis, A. mellifera and Dicrostachys cinerea, but occasionally in reeds or sugar cane, or other plants listed by Jarvis and Vernon (1989). Some of these colonies are massive, stretching to up to 20 km in length and 1 km wide and involving millions of birds (such as at Malilangwe, Zimbabwe), with nests at densities of 30,000 nests per hectare. More than 6000 nests have been counted in one tree (Craig, 2010).

Nests are built over a 2-3 day period and only by males. The nests of Q. quelea lathamii are oval balls of interwoven grass, 20-130 mm tall, 100 mm wide and 89-06 mm deep. The nests are unlined. The entrance hole is 39-58 mm wide and 24-28 mm high with an overhanging porch of 22-26 mm (Jarvis and Vernon, 1989b). Males display at their nests to attract females. The clutch size varies from 1-5, usually 3, and is determined by the reserve protein levels of the females (Jones and Ward, 1976). Clutches of 6 have been noted but these may be the result of egg-dumping by females that are not the nest-owners. Colonies are synchronized and incubation takes 10-12 days. Nestlings are born naked with wisps of down on shoulders and crown, with white bills. Eyes open and feathers appear on day 4. Both parents feed the nestlings during a fledging period of 10-11 days and for a few days after they leave the nest.

Physiology and Phenology

Before migration, quelea build up their fat reserves by feeding on insects such as termites, with the amount of fat laid down linearly related to the distance to be travelled (Ward and Jones, 1977). Before breeding, protein-rich food such as termites and green grass seed is eaten, and reserve protein levels – the amount of labile stores in muscle sarcoplasm (Kendall et al., 1973) – reach a peak before declining, as they are used up by the efforts involved in reproduction (Jones and Ward, 1976).

The red colouration of the eye-ring, legs and bill of breeding males is carotenoid-based. The red in bills and feathers relies on the presence of enzymatically derived keto-carotenoids (Dale, 2000).

Longevity

Wild birds tend to live for 2-3 years (Bird Trader, 2013), although they can live longer. A captive bird lived for 18 years and 9 months (Butler, 1913).

Activity Patterns

Quelea are thought to exchange information on locations of food sources when gathered at roosts or colonies (Ward and Zahavi, 1973). Huge flocks of breeding birds leave colonies and roosts in undulating streams at or just before dawn, apparently in directions of food or water sources, making a distinct noise due to numerous wing-beats. Small flocks return to roosts via a drinking site from 30 minutes before dusk, with numbers of arriving birds increasing as dusk approaches, sometimes in attenuated streams. Stragglers may continue to arrive up to 15 minutes after dusk. The roosting birds move about within the roost and are noisy for a further 30 minutes or so before they settle down. Behaviour at roosts and preferred vegetation for roosting were described by La Grange (1989).

After breeding, adults and juveniles form partially separated flocks, with most juveniles remaining in the natal area after parents have moved on. It is these flocks of juveniles that are responsible for most crop damage. In non-breeding season, birds roost communally in huge flocks, often at sites used in successive years. They also form ‘day roosts’ at the hottest time of day, when they congregate in vegetation near food or water.

Flocks feed on the ground in rolling motions, with trailing birds constantly leap-frogging leaders to exploit the next source of fallen seeds, behaviour which minimizes foraging in areas that have already been exploited. They also take seeds directly from plants.

Red-billed quelea drink daily and flocks will appear at water-holes, usually perching on surrounding vegetation before going down to the water.

Population Size and Structure

The red-billed quelea is considered to be the most abundant terrestrial bird on earth, with a peak post-breeding population estimated at 1,500,000,000 (Craig, 2010), and as many as 170,000,000 in southern Africa alone (Yeld, 1993). The population in Kruger National Park, South Africa, was estimated to be 33,000,000 (Craig, 2010).

The populations of Q. quelea lathamii in southern Africa comprise one inter-breeding population (Dallimer et al., 2003) and this is probably also true of Q. quelea quelea in West Africa and Q. quelea aethiopica in eastern Africa.

Nutrition

Quelea mainly eat grass and cereal seeds from the plant and from the ground, preferring grains 1 x 2 mm in size. For crops eaten, see Hosts/Species Affected.

When red-billed quelea need to build up protein, such as before migrations or breeding, quelea will feed on insects including Orthoptera, Hymenoptera, Coleoptera, Hemiptera, Dermaptera, Lepidoptera, Isoptera and Diptera, as well as spiders and snails. Up to half of the diet fed to nestlings consists of insects. Breeding females eat snail shells and calcareous grit, seemingly to enhance calcium levels for egg production (Jones, 1976).

A colony of more than 12,000 nests per hectare was estimated to have a monthly consumption of 1845 kg of seeds per hectare and 214 kg per hectare of insects (Craig, 2010).

Associations

When in small groups, quelea often associate with weavers Ploceus spp. and bishops such as the red bishop Euplectesorix, and in West Africa they may join flocks with the golden sparrow Passer luteus and various species of estrildids (Craig, 2004). Sometimes red-billed quelea form mixed roosts with weavers, estrildids and the barn swallow Hirundo rustica.

Environmental Requirements

The red-billed quelea is found in semi-arid vegetation in Africa, from sea level to 3000m, usually with thorn bushes and not far (up to about 30km) from water. It is frequently found on agricultural land. It usually nests and roosts in thorn bushes, but a variety of other plants may be used for communal gatherings including sugar-cane, reeds and eucalypts.

Natural Food Sources

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Food SourceLife StageContribution to Total Food Intake (%)Details
Cenchrus
Digitaria milanjiana
Digitaria velutina
Echinochloa colonum
Egragrostis papposa
Eriochloa macclounii
Eriochloa meyeriana
Hyparrhenia anthistirioides
Ischaemum brachyantherum
Panicum laevigatum
Paspalum commersonii
Paspalum orbiculare
Paspalum urvillei
Pennisetum ramosum
Pennisetum typhoides
Schoenfeldia gracilis
Setaria acromelaena
Setaria chevallieri
Setaria flabellate
Setaria nigrirostris
Setaria pallidifusca
Setaria purpureo-sericeum
Setaria spacelata
Setaria verticillata
Sorghum verticilliflorum
Sporolobus
Tetrapogon cenchriformis
Tetrapogon tenellus
Themeda triandra
Urochloa mosambicensis
Urochloa trichopus

Climate

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ClimateStatusDescriptionRemark
As - Tropical savanna climate with dry summer Preferred < 60mm precipitation driest month (in summer) and < (100 - [total annual precipitation{mm}/25])
Aw - Tropical wet and dry savanna climate Preferred < 60mm precipitation driest month (in winter) and < (100 - [total annual precipitation{mm}/25])
BS - Steppe climate Preferred > 430mm and < 860mm annual precipitation

Natural enemies

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Natural enemyTypeLife stagesSpecificityReferencesBiological control inBiological control on
Acanthoplus discoidalis Predator Juveniles not specific Cheke et al., 2003
Cheloctonus jonesii Predator Juveniles not specific Vincent and Breitman, 2010
Crocodylus niloticus Predator Adults not specific Ash et al., 2009; Craig, 2004 N/A
Dendroaspis polylepis Predator Juveniles not specific
Haemoproteus Parasite Adults/Juveniles not specific Durrant et al., 2007; Sychra et al., 2010 N/A
Pelomedusidae Predator Adults not specific Craig, 2010 N/A
Plasmodium Parasite Adults/Juveniles not specific Durrant et al., 2007; Sychra et al., 2010

Notes on Natural Enemies

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Eighty-one species were listed by Thiollay (1989) as natural enemies, comprising birds, monkeys, galagos, squirrels, mongooses, foxes, jackals, hyaenas, cats, genets, civets, ratels, warthogs, lions and leopards, and there are numerous other publications reporting avian predation of quelea, such as Jarvis and Vernon (1989), Bernitz (2010) and Buij (2012). Most records refer to the predation of fledglings and adults, but some predators, including snakes, take eggs and nestlings. The Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus was seen attacking drinking quelea in Zambia (Craig, 2004) and one individual reported by Ash and Atkins (2009) in Ethiopia used its tail to force birds from vegetation on riverside banks into the water, where it would then eat them. The diederik cuckoo Chrysococcyx caprius is thought to be a brood parasite (Craig, 2010). Invertebrate predators include the armoured bush cricket Acanthoplus discoidalis Walker (Cheke et al., 2003) and the scorpion Cheloctonus jonesii Pocock (Vincent and Breitman, 2010).

Means of Movement and Dispersal

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Natural Dispersal

All three subspecies move in association with the rains. In West Africa the movements of Q. quelea quelea are generally south-north and then north-south, but the opposite strategy may also be adopted (Manikowski et al., 1989). For instance, Ward (1965; 1971) proposed that in Nigeria birds travel 300-600km southwards during their early-rains migration, at the start of the rains in June-July, when the rain causes their grass-seed food to germinate. Thus, they reach areas such as the Benoue River valley, where the encroaching rains have already caused grasses to set seed. Then, after six weeks, the birds set off northwards until they find a suitable breeding habitat, breed, and then repeat the process in progessive moves further north, as ‘itinerant breeders’. Others have pointed out that some populations travel northwards at the start of the rains to exploit remaining ungerminated seeds (Manikowski et al., 1989). The situation in Senegal and Gambia also differs but remains to be understood, although southeastwards moves followed by northwestward return movements seem likely.

In eastern Africa, the movements of Q. quelea aethiopica are more complicated, especially where there are bimodal rain patterns which may allow individual birds to breed up to four times in a year. It is thought that there are two sub-populations. The ‘intermedia’ group move from Tanzania in the early rains migrations to southern Somalia, from where they return to breed in central Tanzania in February-March, followed by itinerant breeding migrations to successively more northern sites, usually culminating in central Kenya in May. Meanwhile, the ‘aethiopica’ group moves from its dry season areas in its early rains migrations from northern and central parts of Sudan and Ethiopia in May-June, to then breed in the south of these countries and in South Sudan, returning north during August-October (Jaeger et al., 1989).

Although the southern African subspecies Q. quelea lathamii is not differentiated genetically (Dallimer et al., 2003), it has been shown to have a migratory divide (Dallimer and Jones, 2002; Dallimer et al., 2003). Birds in dry season quarters in Zimbabwe in October-November will move in their early rains migrations, either south towards South Africa or Mozambique or west-north-west towards Angola. Those reaching southern South Africa and Mozambique will have flown over the rains to where conditions will soon permit breeding, which will be followed by breeding migrations progressively further northeast. Those reaching Angola will perform similar movements in the opposite directions. Additional populations that spent the dry season in either southern South Africa or Angola will have been forced by the first rains to travel northwestwards or southeastwards, respectively, in September-October. That this description conforms with the birds’ known activities was confirmed by observation of breeding in areas predicted by a forecasting model based on the above scheme (Cheke et al., 2007).

Ringing studies have confirmed movement patterns from South Africa. The longest distance between ringing and recovery sites is 2545 km, for a bird ringed in South Africa and recovered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Oschadleus, 2000).

After fledging successfully, most juvenile birds are deserted by their parents, which move on generally in separate flocks, in which there is some evidence of sexual segregation and male-biased dispersal away from the natal group (Dallimer et al., 2002). There is also evidence that some birds return to the same dry season quarters in successive years (Borello and Cheke, 2011).

Intentional Introduction

The population in Réunion was probably due to intentional introduction.

Pathway Causes

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CauseNotesLong DistanceLocalReferences
Botanical gardens and zoosSome quelea birds have been transported to zoos in the past but the advent of restrictions related t Yes Yes
Pet tradeSome quelea birds have been transported for the pet trade in the past, but the advent of import rest Yes Yes Jaeger and Elliott, 1989
ResearchSome quelea birds have been transported for research in the past but were mostly bought from pet tra Yes Yes

Impact Summary

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CategoryImpact
Cultural/amenity Positive
Economic/livelihood Negative
Environment (generally) Positive and negative
Human health Positive

Economic Impact

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The red-billed quelea has a substantial economic impact as a result of crop damage throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The crop damage occasionally necessitates imports of food aid, such as the 5,081 tonnes imported into Tanzania in 1942 (Brooke, 1967), or leads to famine, such as in Ugogo-land, Dodoma, Tanzania in 1881 (Haylock, 1959; Brooke, 1967). A single quelea can consume and/or destroy up to about 10g of grain in a day (Elliott, 1989a). Thus, a flock of one million birds can ruin up to 10 tonnes of crop daily. When major invasions occur, crop damage can be as high as 50% of potential crop harvests and, locally, entire crops may be wiped out. The value of damage to small-grain crops was estimated as being equivalent to up to US$79.4 million per annum at 2011 prices throughout semi-arid zones (Elliott, 1989a, b). In the wet seasons of 2003-2007 in rice-growing areas of the River Senegal valley, annual quelea damage averaged 13% of the potential rice production, equivalent to an annual economic loss of 4.7 billion FCFA (€7.1 million) (de Mey et al., 2012). For lists of various loss estimates from different studies see de Mey et al. (2012) and Elliott (1989a).

Environmental Impact

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Impact on Habitats

Red-billed quelea may be influential in the destruction and creation of acacia bush, as their nitrogen-rich droppings promote grass growth but also raise fertility levels above those tolerated by trees, which then die or, if they survive, may be destroyed by subsequent fires, leading to a more open habitat (Vernon 1989).

Control actions against quelea, both spraying and the use of explosives, sometimes have deleterious environmental consequences (McWilliam and Cheke 2004; Cheke et al., 2012, 2013).

Trees may be destroyed if excessive numbers of red-billed quelea roost in them. Red-billed quelea can also foul waterholes (Elliott, 1989a).

Impact on Biodiversity

Red-billed quelea positively impact biodiversity by being food for a variety of mammalian, avian and reptilian predators, as seed distributors, and for their roles in nutrient re-cycling. However, breeding colonies usually force other birds to leave.

Control actions against quelea, both spraying and the use of explosives, sometimes have deleterious consequences to biodiversity (McWilliam and Cheke 2004; Cheke et al., 2012, 2013).

Social Impact

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Social impacts can be serious when crop losses are severe. A positive impact is when birds are taken for food, with opportunities for sale as kebabs or in stews.

Risk and Impact Factors

Top of page Invasiveness
  • Invasive in its native range
  • Proved invasive outside its native range
  • Has a broad native range
  • Abundant in its native range
  • Highly adaptable to different environments
  • Tolerates, or benefits from, cultivation, browsing pressure, mutilation, fire etc
  • Capable of securing and ingesting a wide range of food
  • Highly mobile locally
  • Benefits from human association (i.e. it is a human commensal)
  • Fast growing
  • Has high reproductive potential
  • Gregarious
  • Has high genetic variability
Impact outcomes
  • Negatively impacts agriculture
  • Negatively impacts livelihoods
Impact mechanisms
  • Competition - monopolizing resources
  • Predation
Likelihood of entry/control
  • Difficult/costly to control

Uses

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Economic Value

The economic value of red-billed quelea has not been adequately evaluated. Mullié (2000) estimated that trappers in Chad were selling up to 10,000,000 birds, valued at US $75,000 at 1994 prices. Birds caught at Kondoa, Tanzania, were sold for the equivalent of 0.75 – 2 GB pounds per 100 birds in 2009.

Social Benefit

Red-billed quelea can be beneficial as food. In Kondoa, Tanzania, communities use traps woven from star grass Cynodon nlemfuensis to catch hundreds of quelea a day (Cheke, 2011). The bird is also eaten in many other parts of Africa (Jaeger and Elliott 1989; Mullié 2000). Quelea guano is collected in Nigeria (Ward, 1965). Huge flocks of the birds are spectacular and a sight for tourists, such as in Kruger National Park. Quelea have been seen eating pest insects such as Helicoverpa armigera, Spodoptera exempta and Locusta migratoria (Elliott, 1989a), but they provide food for the pest armoured bush crickets Acanthoplus discoidalis (Walker) (Cheke et al., 2003).

Environmental Services

These have not been sufficiently studied but red-billed quelea very probably play major roles in seed distribution and nutrient re-cycling, and as food for other organisms.

Uses List

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Animal feed, fodder, forage

  • Meat and bonemeal

General

  • Botanical garden/zoo
  • Pet/aquarium trade
  • Research model

Human food and beverage

  • Eggs
  • Emergency (famine) food
  • Food additive
  • Meat/fat/offal/blood/bone (whole, cut, fresh, frozen, canned, cured, processed or smoked)

Similarities to Other Species/Conditions

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There are two other species of quelea with which the red-billed quelea can be confused. The red-headed quelea Quelea erythrops occurs in much of sub-Saharan Africa, but in wetter habitats than Q. quelea, and can be distinguished by its adult male breeding plumage, which consists of an entirely red head, upper neck and throat; females generally have darker upperparts.

The cardinal quelea Q. cardinalis is only found in East Africa, most commonly in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but also in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Zambia, with a few records in neighbouring countries. Q. cardinalis is smaller than the other two species and its breeding males have red heads, with the red being more extensive, reaching the upper nape and upper breast.

Prevention and Control

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The mere presence of quelea in an area is not a reason for controlling the birds, however numerous they may be. Red-billed quelea are unlikely severely to attack crops unless their natural food is depleted, although both adults and particularly young inexperienced birds may attack crops simply because they are easy of access and easy to eat. Control is only justifiable if quelea are threatening a crop.

SPS Measures

No sanitary and phytosanitary measures specific to quelea are known, although minimization of grain spillage is advisable.

Early Warning Systems

The reliance of the birds’ breeding activities on rainfall allows for some early warning, based on experience of the timings, quantities and locations of rain associated with quelea infestations in the past. This was formalized into a forecasting model by Cheke et al. (2007) for the southern African subspecies Q. quelea lathamii, driven by satellite-derived rainfall estimates. They utilized knowledge that 60 mm of rain within a two week period would stimulate grass-seed germination, and hence the initiation of the early rains migration, and that only if a further 240 mm falls within the following six weeks will conditions allow breeding. By showing colour-coded maps depicting where and when the rainfall had led to particular conditions, a system forecasting where and when quelea could or could not breed was devised. By comparing predictions with observed events, the system was shown to be 85-99% reliable. The forecasts were made available online from 2002 until 2008, when funding to support maintenance of the forecasts stopped.

Rapid Response

Possible if the locations of breeding colonies and roosts are reported to control teams promptly.

Public Awareness

Most farmers in affected areas are aware of the danger to their crops of quelea. Information sections of Ministries of Agriculture may publicize quelea outbreaks when they occur. In Botswana, South Africa and elsewhere there is concern about the negative impacts of quelea control measures on non-target organisms and the environment in general.

Eradication

Given the enormous numbers of red-billed quelea, eradication is not a realistic possibility, even though in an average year 173 control operations may kill 50,000,000 birds in South Africa alone (Willemse, 2000).

Containment/Zoning

Attempts have been made to attract quelea to roost in purpose-grown patches of vegetation, such as napier grass Pennisetum purpurum, which act as ‘trap roosts’ where the birds can be controlled (Jarvis and La Grange, 1989).

Cultural Control and Sanitary Measures

In some years it is possible to harvest crops before quelea populations reach an area. For instance, in some years if rice is harvested during mid-May to mid-June in Chad and Cameroon, quelea damage may be reduced to less than 1%. However, sometimes the birds arrive within the above period, leading to crop losses of 13-26% (Elliott, 1979). Similarly, strategies such as planting as early as possible or the planting of fast-maturing strains of millet and sorghum are advised. If rainfall is sufficient to sustain the crop, the planting of maize instead of small-grain crops can be successful, as red-billed quelea are unable to eat maize on the plant.

Physical/Mechanical Control

If nesting birds with newly built nests or unhatched eggs are consistently disturbed they may desert colonies and move elsewhere. The harvesting of quelea for food, either directly from nests (Jaeger and Elliott, 1989; Mullié 2000) or indirectly by catching flying adults (Elliott et al., 2013), may succeed in protecting crops if the colonies involved are not very big.

Chemical Control

Chemical control involves spraying with organophosphate avicides such as fenthion  or cyanophos. The targets are concentrations of birds at roosts or breeding colonies. Spraying takes place at dusk, using either vehicle-mounted sprayers or aircraft. Dosages of 2-4 l/ha of fenthion are usual but occasionally they range from only 0.5 l/ha up to as high as 14 l/ha.

Host Resistance (incl. Vaccination)

Some varieties of sorghum such as Ark-3048 have low concentrations of tannins but high concentrations of the cyanogenic glycoside dhurrin, which is avoided by quelea (Tarimo, 2000). See also Bullard and Gebrekidan (1989).

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

Combinations of cultural practices and harvesting of chicks or adults for food, or destroying nesting colonies, are possible IPM strategies. Traditional methods such as bird-scaring were reviewed by Bashir (1989), as were repellents by Bruggers (1989) and agronomic practices by Bullard and Gebrekidan (1989).

Monitoring and Surveillance (incl. Remote Sensing)

So far no remote sensing methods have been used other than the use of satellite derived rainfall data for forecasting models (Cheke et al., 2007), although satellite monitoring of habitat suitability has been attempted (Wallin et al., 1992). Thus, monitoring and surveillance relies on scouting, aerial surveys or reports by affected farmers.

Gaps in Knowledge/Research Needs

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Quelea are not known to act as a vector of disease, although mechanical transmission of plant pathogens by birds visiting crops is possible and worthy of investigation.

Research on relationships between rainfall and migrations of the two subspecies Q. quelea quelea and Q. quelea aethiopica is needed for comparisons with what is known for Q. quelea lathamii.

How quelea congregate synchronously at breeding sites, and how they can detect where rain has fallen, requires investigation. Olfaction may be involved since quelea colonies have a characteristic smell, possibly caused by secretions from the birds themselves or resulting from breakdown products of their waste, which may be detectable by the birds. The possibility that odours associated with rainfall events are detectable by quelea is also worth investigating.

More research on the economic value of harvested birds is needed, as is more research on red-billed quelea’s effects on ecosystems.

References

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GISD/IASPMR: Invasive Alien Species Pathway Management Resource and DAISIE European Invasive Alien Species Gatewayhttps://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.m93f6Data source for updated system data added to species habitat list.

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12/08/13 Original text by:

Robert Cheke, University of Greenwich, UK

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