A thin, drawn-out whistle – ‘phuuu-pheeeuuw’ – comes from the canopy of a White Stinkwood tree in our back garden. There, shimmering in the sunlight is a male Violet-backed Starling. It drops down to feed on the orange berries of a Sandpaper Bush, taking about 8 or 10 before flying back into the treetops where it is joined by another male and two females.
At this time of year, these starlings are breeding – typically laying their eggs in a tree cavity or hollow pipe – but numbers still gather together at food sources such as this fruiting tree, or an eruption of winged termites.
When I first became familiar with this bird it was known as the Plum-coloured Starling, and I find this name hard to shake-off. The iridescent feathers of the male change from sparkling violet to deep plum-purple, depending upon the light, but are always set off magnificently by the snow-white belly. Females are sienna brown with attractive streaking. At the end of the breeding season, loose flocks of 60 or more can be seen as they prepare to head to the tropics during the southern winter.
Turaco Wood, Nelspruit, South Africa, November 2012.