This Striking African Bird Is Showing Up in California Yards — and That's a Problem

The pin-tailed whydah is a parasitic bird now showing up in California. Neal Cooper/Shutterstock

The pin-tailed whydah is a gorgeous songbird bird native to sub-Saharan Africa, so it's understandable that scientists wondered why it began showing up in California.

The songbirds are used in the pet trade, in no small part because the males sport spectacular tail-feathers during the breeding season. In some places, the bird has become an introduced wild species when pet birds are let loose or escape from their cages.

Parasite Problems

Not surprisingly, the introduction of the non-native pin-tailed whydah is a particular problem for native birds. The species is a brood parasite, meaning that females lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, fooling the foster parents into raising the pin-tailed whydah chicks at the expense of their own babies.

If whydahs are successful enough at fooling birds into raising their chicks, their presence can quickly have a detrimental impact on native bird species. And since native birds didn't evolve alongside the parasitic pin-tailed whydah, they're not as likely to recognize the chicks as nest invaders.

Spreading Throughout the United States

The places where the birds might become a problem is the focus of a study published recently in The Condor: Ornithological Applications. Mark Hauber, an evolutionary ecologist at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and colleagues used computer modeling to pinpoint likely places for pin-tailed whydahs to show up.

"Their models suggest that potential sites for invasion include California’s Orange County, southern Texas, southern Florida, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and many of the Hawaiian Islands," reports the The New York Times. "If the birds are introduced in great numbers to these areas, they could have a damaging effect on the birds you know and love."

Ironically, as one of MNN's readers pointed out, one of the whydah's most popular targets is the scaly-breasted munia, which just so happens to be another non-native bird introduced to the area through the pet trade. (Who says Mother Nature doesn't have a sense of humor?)

Fortunately, the pin-tailed whydah has a few behaviors that could keep its spread contained.

"If enough birds are released, if the climate is right, and, more important, if a proper host is around, the whydah can persist," writes the NYT. "But the whydah is not a good flyer, does not migrate and may not be good at crossing bodies of water. Therefore, Hauber thinks any invasion will remain somewhat localized."

The study should help experts stay ahead of potential invasions, hopefully protecting native bird species before the pin-tailed whydah can have a negative impact.