Learning about birds was one of my favourite subjects at Utalii College. I am sure my lecturer, Mr Wandaka, was more than pleased to see our class go because I was such a pain in his neck during his sessions. I would ask numerous questions and interrupt him endlessly as he taught, when I doubted a fact he stated.
I remember once being so adamant about having read in a science journal, that ostriches actually bury their heads in the sand when confronted with a problem. I told Mr Wandaka I had the publication at home and would be glad to show it to him. He actually asked the dean of students to give me a school-day off to go get the journal. When I got home and searched everywhere for the magazine, I could not find it. But I was certain I had read something like that somewhere within my collection of magazines. When I finally found it, I discovered it was actually a comic book about animals. The drawing of an ostrich with its head well in the sand was on a full page. But the story was a comedy. I went back to college the same day because I did not want to waste a whole day and come back with my head held on the chin for doubting my teacher. After that episode, I listened well, and learned a lot of interesting facts about different birds found in Kenya.
One of the stories that I like sharing with clients, especially those who choose to visit Amboseli or Samburu, is the story of the sandgrouse.
Most sandgrouse are desert-dwelling birds that prefer to confine themselves, where possible, to regions with clay soil. Both Samburu and Amboseli parks have regions with clay soil.
Sandgrouse are generally seed eaters. In dry areas with clay soil, seeds remain on the surface for considerable time. Even when there hasn’t been rain for a season and the seeds have not germinated to new plants, there will always be enough of last season’s seeds spread out on the clay soil for the birds to eat. Nevertheless, for reasons not yet known, large flocks of sandgrouse occasionally migrate to new areas.
An exclusively seed diet is only practicable for those birds that can supplement it with a daily supply of fresh water. This is likely to cause a challenge for the sandgrouse living in semi-desert areas. They have to travel long distances in search of water. To cope with such situations, the sandgrouse are equipped with strong wings, giving them sustained flying power for over 30kms. Insect-eating birds require very little water as they get their liquid requirement from the insects. For the sandgrouse, it is a daily affair to wing their way towards distant ponds or rivers in enormous flocks, their unerring sense of direction and gregarious instincts being ever so important factors in the struggle for survival in parts where few other species would dare to venture. Indeed, they leave their young chicks unattended during their flight because they know they own the estate on their own.
One wonders, how then do the chicks survive without water when they are not old enough to travel to watering areas? It was the scientist EG Waldo, who in 1896 discovered the answer to this riddle. It was so improbable that it was received with scepticism. Waldo claimed the birds were able to carry water droplets in the feathers of their breast. Critics were of the opinion the water would surely evaporate during the long journey back from waterholes. But subsequent investigations carried out by later scientists, notably Mr Cade and MacLean, showed Waldo was actually correct in his submission.
When sandgrouse drink, they dip their beaks below the surface of the water and drink without having to lift their heads up like most birds do. This is also done by pigeons, to which sandgrouse are related. As they drink, their breast feathers, which act like synthetic sponges, absorb water and the bird is able to fly over 30kms to the chicks. All the while, those feathers hold enough water for the young ones. When I say this to clients, majority do not believe me. Waldo’s fellow scientists didn’t believe him either. Yet, that is the truth.