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Dark-capped bulbul

23 October 2014

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The dark-capped bulbul Pycnonotus tricolor was formerly known as the black-eyed bulbul. The name tricolor is Latin and reflcts its three-coloured plumage. The name bulbul is the Arabic name for this group of birds of which there are some 140 species known. The oldest fossils are of birds that lived a million years ago. Although it was first described from northern Angola, the dark-capped bulbul has a wide distribution in Africa from northern Cameroon and southern Chad to the north-eastern parts of South Africa but it occurs as far south in the near-coastal areas as the Sundays River in the Eastern Cape province. It is abundant in the North-West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. In southern Africa it is restricted to the wetter eastern regions where it is represented by the subspecies Pycnonotus tricolor layardi.

The dark-capped bulbul has a body length of 20 to 22 cm but the male weighs 40 g as opposed to 35 g in the female. The sexes have a similar plumage and as its name indicates the top of the head, face and chin are dark brown, with slightly longer feathers on the back of the head forming an erectile crest. The breast is brown and the belly and flanks are dull white, but the coverts under the tail are characteristically bright yellow. The bill is black and as the former  name indicates the eyes are dark brown with a black eye ring. The legs and the feet are black and the dark-capped bulbul can be confused with the red-eyed and Cape bulbuls with which it can hybridize. However, the former has a broader, orange eye ring and the latter a whitish one.

The males sing almost continuously from a few prominent perches throughout the day. The dark-capped bulbul is common to abundant within its range and forms breeding densities of ten pairs per 100 ha in mixed woodlands. The annual survival rate is about 74 per cent. Captive birds can live for up to 26 years but  the life expectancy in the wild is around 12 years. It utilizes any type of open woodland that contains fruiting trees or shrubs as habitat and is absent only in unbroken forests, dense woodlands and open grasslands with no bushes. It is especially common in gardens and orchards around human settlements.

The dark-capped bulbul usually occurs in pairs or family groups containing three to four individuals. It is quick to spot a snake or other predator which it will mob. It drinks water regularly, which explains its absence from the more arid western parts of South Africa, and bathes in any shallow water puddle. It preens its feathers on a prominent perch. It forages in pairs or loose groups with other fruit-eating birds but it eats insects and fruits, sometimes becoming intoxicated when eating fermenting fruits. Berries are plucked and swallowed whole. It also eats the petals of the bitter aloe Aloe ferox and the flowers of some other plants. It will pursue flying insects and large flocks will gather at a caterpillar outbreak. It hunts for spiders on buildings, for nocturnal insects that gather around a light and often scavenges for food in camping and picnic areas.

Monogamous pairs are formed and the male will do a wing-flicking display when greeting his mate. Pair members often perch close together to preen their feathers and they roost together with their bodies touching and their heads tucked under their wings. They nest alone and the male defends his territory aggressively. When courting, the male gives a characteristic wing flutter display with an arched body and his head bent forward and down while he ruffles the feathers of his back and dropping his wings.

The nest is built by the female only while the male sit close to her and often sings loudly. The nest is a neat, strong but thin-walled cup of dry grass, rootlets and small twigs that are bound on the outer edge with a thin spider web layer. It is lined with fine plant fibres, animal hair and sometimes textile material. The outside diameter of the nest cup is 110 to 120 mm, the diameter of the cup is 60 to 75 mm and it is 37 to 40 mm deep. The nest is placed on a branch or it is slung between twigs in a fork in the canopy at least 1 to 5 m above the ground where it is screened by vegetation, but sometimes it is in the open. It is attached to the branch with spider web material.

Two to three oval, brown, pink or white eggs that are palely to heavily spotted, freckled and occasionally streaked in various shades of brown, red or purple are laid at a rate of one egg a day or every second day from September to April. Rainfall promotes early breeding. Incubation by the female mainly starts after the clutch has been laid and lasts for 12 to 15 days. The male feeds the female while she is incubating the eggs. The incubating female crouches low in the nest with only the bill and tail being visible above the rim of the nest. The newly hatched chicks are naked, brown to purplish on the back and slightly paler below. They have yellowish-pink mouths and yellow to white gapes. The first feathers appear when they are three days old and they remain in the nest for 11 to 16 days. The chicks can barely fly when they leave the nest and will clump close to it in foliage. The nests of the black-capped bulbul are often parasitized by various types of cuckoo.

 

Reference:

Hockey, P A R, W R J Dean & P G Ryan (Eds) 2005. Roberts – birds of southern Africa, seventh edition. Cape Town: The John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, pp 766 - 767.

 

Article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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