The Birders’ Column – Spotted Thick-knee / Gewone Dikkop “ Burhinus capensis “

Spotted Thick-knee / Gewone Dikkop “ Burhinus capensis “

The large ploverlike thick-knee has dark brown and buff-spotted upper parts, a black bill with yellow base, conspicuous large bright yellow eyes, and yellow legs and toes. Its underwing is white with black trailing edges and a median stripe. It has faintly-washed cinnamon and streaked brown on the chest while the underparts are white with deep cinnamon undertail coverts.
They are predominantly crepuscular and nocturnal, hence the large eyes, but also active on cloudy days. By day it stands or crouches in the shade of a bush or tree. When disturbed it runs off with head low and flies strongly with shallow erratic wingbeats, holding its wings out briefly as it runs on landing.
The Spotted Thick-knee is a common resident in virtually any open country near trees or bushes, throughout Southern Africa, including fields and parks, and also larger pet-free suburban gardens. Most often found in pairs, but regularly congregates in flocks of 10 to 20 birds.
Their call is rising, then falling “ whi-whi-whi-WHI-WHI-whi-whi “. It is particularly vocal, noisy and active at night uttering their distinctive call and also on heavily overcast days, especially after rain.
They eat mainly termites, locusts, beetles and other invertebrates, with the occasional reptile and small mammal, also grass seeds. In South Africa the Spotted Thick-knees breed mainly from August to December. It lays only two pale cream, buff or clay-colour eggs that are blotched and spotted with irregular angular marks of dark brown and grey. It often breeds in larger suburban gardens. The nest is a shallow scrape on the ground next to a rock or shrub, sometimes ringed with small stones and other debris. The incubation period is 24 days shared by both sexes, with fledging at around seven to eight weeks. After hatching the parent birds eat the empty shells.
The chicks leave the nest after 24 hours, but forage in the vicinity of the nest. They crouch in response to danger with head outstretched flat on the ground.
Where they breed close to humans they have become habituated to their presence, and will defend their nest or young with an open-winged and tail spread display. This is supposed to make would-be predators or intruders think twice about coming to close. Adults use broken-wing, broken-back and broken-leg displays to draw intruders away from eggs and chicks. Chicks of brood one may remain with adults until at least 10 days after the chicks of the next brood hatch. Aggression by adults observed towards older chicks at this stage forces them to leave and establish their own territory.
Spotted Thick-knees pose a threat to airports for risk of air strikes. At Bloemfontein Airport, 14 were shot in one year. They are infrequently used for medicine by Xhosa traditional healers and are plentiful in the Hartbeespoort area, often foraging on our roads in the vicinity of street lights which attract various insects at night.

Willie Froneman

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