22 July 2022

The Ukrainian war forcing millions of people to leave their homes as refugees without a family base or secure income in unfamiliar parts of the world… businesses to close… a major gas shortage in Europe… oil prices shooting up… rising inflation… food security threatened in many countries around the world…


Even as far away as South Africa, we feel the effects, with the exorbitant oil and gas price increases during the worst electricity cuts in years with a cold, wet winter in progress. The small light in our economy’s tunnel that was international exports is being hampered by embargos on exports to Russia (causing pear prices to fall through the floor, and this after a bumper crop – the best in a while after a terrible drought). 


Wheat prices will certainly rise, meaning that our own population and probably many other people in countries worse off than ours, who are dependent on daily government-subsidised bread, will suffer under yet another long, harsh sentence without having committed any crime.


How do we prioritise our home planet, mother earth, when the greedy and power-hungry are threatening our livelihoods – in Chinua Achebe’s words, “when things fall apart” around us?


I look this week towards a humble, rather drab-looking (as birds go, that is) local bird species – the sociable weaver – for inspiration. One of the few bird species who do not build a nest for their little nuclear family of mom, dad, and baby alone, but have a rather large sense of community spirit. They build family estates, so to speak! It is like a massive apartment block that can be occupied by up to 100 families around the year. 


Fun facts about this bird are that they are found in South Africa, Namibia, and south-western Botswana. Despite the extreme conditions, droughts and encroachment on their habitat, these birds are found in great abundance and there is little concern about their survival, unlike many other bird species today. Their colonies can be up to 500 strong and nests can reach up to 4 metres in height! It looks like a giant haystack. Nests are made from a myriad of smaller nesting chambers, all lined with soft materials like fluff, hair, feathers, and so forth. Some of these nests can be a hundred years old.

There are many benefits to this cohabitation agreement, namely:


1. Location security: They choose either poles (yes, even telephone poles) or trees with sparse branches so that snakes and other predators cannot easily reach them.

2. Energy saving: In winter, especially on the escarpment of the Kalahari and Namib deserts where these birds live, temperatures drop to below zero on winter nights and rise to over 40 degrees Celsius in summer. By roosting together when cold, the insulation translates into significant energy savings, which reduces their demand for food and enhances their ability to survive in the cold. When very hot, they roost in individual chambers, keeping comfortable and cool. 

3. Inclusivity across species: They are inclusive little folk and even allow birds from other species to roost there – lovebirds, chats, finches, African pygmy falcons, and even certain owl species, to name a few. The bigger opportunists like eagles roost and nest in the penthouse – on top of the nest!

4. Family values: Sociable weavers react by breeding as soon as there is a rain downpour, whether in or out of the usual breeding season. Breeding pairs can have up to five chicks each and older siblings help raise the young ones.  

5. Food security and circular economy: There have also been reports that all the inhabitants, even different species, help with feeding the community. The weavers live in very dry areas and do not need any water to survive but get all the needed hydration from eating insects, which form about 80% of their diet. In turn, their droppings underneath the nest act as a food source for the grateful scarab beetle (also called a dung beetle). Dung removal and burial by dung beetles has ecological benefits, such as soil aeration and fertilisation; improved nutrient cycling and uptake by plants, increases in pasture quality, biological control of pest flies and intestinal parasites, and secondary seed dispersal.

In short, there are many lessons to be learnt from the humble sociable weaver. The one that stands out for me is that, when things are tough, it is not a time to look inward and isolate yourself, but, in fact, the opposite. Reach out, collaborate, find a way to work together for the sustainable survival of our species and our home planet. 


There is no planet B.

About the Author:

Leonie Pentz

VP Sustainability & Managing Partner
AIMS International South Africa
Leonie Pentz

Leonie has 20+ years as a recruitment professional in the Sub Sahara African market and since January 2011 as AIMS International’s Managing Partner based in South Africa.