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posted 05/18/06

Hedgerows in Sauri are a Birder's (and a Graduate Student's) Paradise

By Justin Nobel, Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Journalism Student

Residents of Sauri regularly see crested francolins, tropical boubous and black-and-white mannikins, but a mzungu with binoculars is rare. The first three are birds, just a few of more than one hundred that are found in this agrarian village in western Kenya a stone's throw from the equator. The land is a quilt of fields, homes, forest-fringed rivers and marshland. Flowery, hedge-lined paths weave throughout, and guava, mango and avocado trees dot roadsides and gardens.

I am the mzungu ("white person" in Swahili), here to conduct the research for my masters' project: a survey of bird diversity and an assessment of local knowledge about birds in this once heavily forested area.

Justin Nobel with the sustainable brothers - Churchil and Ken

Justin Nobel with Churchil and Ken Oriko (left to right) in front of Ken and Churchil's maize field. Churchil is also an agriculture student who is working to educate local residents about sustainable growing practices.

Photo by Kennedy Kandira'

In 2004, Sauri became the first Millennium Village. The Millennium Villages Project, run by scientists from The Earth Institute at Columbia University and overseen by the United Nations, aims to end extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and make village life sustainable. Today there are 12 villages, each located in a distinct agro-ecological zone in sub-Saharan Africa defined by such factors as climate, soil conditions and main agricultural crops.

Sauri is in the mixed maize zone where, in addition to corn, villagers grow beans, cassava and sweet potatoes. Birds are an important part of this ecosystem, dispersing seeds from fruit trees, pollinating flowers, and preying on lizards, small mammals and insects. Some also disturb crops, and as a result not all birds are viewed favorably by farmers.

The numerous small yellow-and-black weaver birds in particular eat maize seeds and use the crop's leaves to build their nests. Water and corn flour, made from maize, are the sole ingredients in ugali, the starchy dough most East Africans, and this graduate student, eat daily with meat and steamed vegetables. Because of their heavy reliance on maize, it is easy to see why villagers might despise the weaver bird, but opinions vary. As Churchil Oriko, a local student of sustainable agriculture, explained to me, weaver birds also fertilize soil with their waste, disperse guava seeds and are preyed upon by eagles that might otherwise be eating baby chickens.

Weaver Bird

Above: Weaver birds often use maize leaves to build their nests.

Below: Kevin Odhiambo, 13, and William Ochieng, 14, brothers and residents of a village near Sauri, guiding Justin around his field research sites.

Photos by Justin Nobel

The two young guides -- Kevin Odhiambo, age 13, and William Ochieng, 14

The birds also have aesthetic value and make Sauri a birder's paradise. Sunbirds, with long, curved bills and glossy green and yellow feathers, sip nectar from flowers in the hedgerows. Brown parrots, Ross's turacos and eastern grey plantain-eaters noisily munch fruit. Swallows and swifts swoop down in bunches to perch on rooftops. Grey crowned cranes, hadada ibises and black storks inhabit nearby wetlands and above soar kites, crows, falcons, hawks, goshawks, kestrels and eagles. Whether the land can continue to support this diversity, even as it is modified by Millennium Village projects aimed at increasing crop yield, is a question I will examine.

Although villagers do not usually count birds, I will rely on them, and my Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania field guide, to point out local species. Kevin Odhiambo and William Ochieng, two boys who live nearby, have already taken an interest in my work and guided me on one of my first days in Sauri. We explored some of the area I will begin surveying next week after a professional birder from a nearby rainforest arrives to advise me in my research.

Related Links:

The Millennium Villages Project
Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania (on

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