The birders’ column

Photo: Albert Froneman

The adult bird is jet-black in colour, with a bright greenish-yellow bill, and red eyes and legs.
The sexes are alike, but the male is slightly larger. Wherever there is permanent water fringed by a robust growth of reeds, tall rushes or bushes, one is likely to encounter this active, dapper bird stepping it out along the water line. The Black Crake is not afraid of being in the open, but likes to have cover close by, to run into when alarmed. Often walking over floating water plants; jerking its head and flicking its tail.
They occur in tangled growth in which they climb, roost and nest. When these jet-black birds are hidden from view, they regularly reveal their presence with a throaty “chrrooo“ call and hysterical, bubbling wheezy duet.
A striking feature is the the loud “churrr“ call, which is usually given when the bird is in the depths of a reed bed. They are common waterside birds of sub-Sahara Africa, from Senegal to Ethiopia and all the way down to the Cape, save for the dry parts of the Kalahari and Karoo. It inhabits marshes with thick cover of reeds and other aquatic vegetation, and are primarily birds of perennially wet places. They are often vocal at night.
Being as small as they are, they often inhabit weedy ponds in larger private gardens and city parks.
The Black Crake is essentially monogamous and territorial. Due to the fact that conditions in all wetlands are unstable, a pair may have as many as four broods in one season, with successive clutches being laid as soon as three weeks after the previous clutch hatched. In these circumstances helpers are required. These helpers come from the ranks of young from the previous year, and even of earlier broods, when they are only half-grown.
This practice includes beak-to-beak feeding of the the new brood. In the birding world this practice is termed co-operative breeding, and it occurs among several different bird families.
Perhaps this reflects that even in a perennially wet habitat, optimal breeding conditions occur for only a short period. In most cases this occurs in species that have a naturally social disposition.
Breeding takes place from October to March.
The normal clutch is two to six cream to pinkish buff eggs, speckled or blotched with red-brown and purplish grey. The nest is a deep basin-shaped structure of grass and reeds, built in an emergent sedge bed.
The nest is normally well concealed just above water level and difficult to find. The birds are very cautious when approaching and leaving the nest. Incubation 18 days, fledging about five weeks. The chicks are fed by both parents and helpers for ten days. Chicks are eaten by African Purple Swamphen, and eggs by Water Monitor Lizard.
Their food consists of worms, insects, other invertebrates, small frogs and fish, birds’ eggs and chicks, seeds and soft parts of aquatic plants.
It pecks food from the mud and water surface and water plants, and climbs reeds to catch flying insects.
It catches aquatic insects by immersing its head and neck into shallow water.
Black Crakes are common residents along rivers with dense reed beds, flowing into the Hartbeespoort Dam.

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