The brave little Batis
Cape Batis – Batis capensis (Afrikaans: Bosbontrokkie)
The Cape Batis is one of five members of the Batis family found in South Africa. They all belong to the bigger family of flycatchers.
The Cape Batis is found in all forested areas, specially along streams in kloofs. They also occur in gardens that have good cover of trees and big shrubs. Their territory stretches up into Natal.
They are very small birds, less than 12,5 cm long. Male and females are the same size, but differently coloured. They are mainly insect eaters, and most of their prey is taken in flight.
More famous than the birds themselves are the nests they build. They can nest anything from less than a metre to ten metres up a tree, usually on a thickish branch of about 10 centimetres, preferably a branch covered with lichens. The nest is a small, very neat cup of fine roots and fibres, all bound together with spiderweb. The outside is covered with the same lichens also neatly bound with spiderweb. They are particularly fond of old oak trees along streams, as these are always covered all over with lichens.
The female builds the nest, but the male keeps her supplied with food all the time. The female also does all the incubation. The eggs, two to three, are greenish or reddish in ground colour with small and larger brown spots, more at the thick end.
These little birds are very aggressive; I always think they act more like miniature shrikes, specially when they have eggs or young. My own personal painful experience of this aggressiveness happened one day when Peter Steyn and I went into the Bakkerskloof forest in Somerset West to look at a nest very low down, ±80 cm above ground, on a fallen tree. I bent down to within 30 cm of the nest to look inside when suddenly I realized that all the stars a person can see are not in the heavens above. I felt a terrible pain in my left eyeball and had blood all over my face. I thought I had been attacked by a leopard or something, but it was the little female Batis. It had pecked me dead centre in the eyeball. The doctor said another millimetre and I would have lost my sight in that eye. The eye was bandaged up and for a whole week I had to walk around with an eye-flap. So beware – don’t get your face too near the nest of a Cape Batis!
In the Helderberg Nature Reserve a nest, also low down, was regularly visited by members of the newly established Somerset West Bird Club. There were two young in the nest then. One day two members were sitting looking at feeding operations when an African Goshawk suddenly swooped down at the nest. The female very bravely tried to stop the hawk, but was caught by the hawk for all her trouble. Thereafter the club’s monthly magazine was named Batis in honour of this brave little bird.
Cape Batis are the favourite hosts for Klaas’s Cuckoo, also called the Christmas bird because that is the season their familiar “meidjie-meidjie-meidjie” call is heard most frequently. The egg is laid in the Batis nest with the other eggs. When it hatches, which is always about two days earlier than the host eggs, the cuckoo rolls the Batis eggs out with the female Batis in attendance. If the young of the Batis are in the nest at the same time they get thrown out. The little Batis family, male and female, now feed this cuckoo chick which soon outgrows the nest. At the end of the first week the cuckoo fills the whole nest in which three Batis chicks could fit comfortably! In one particular season, five out of seven nests in the Helderberg Nature Reserve contained a cuckoo egg or chick.
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