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The black crake

9 July 2015

 

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The black crake Amauornis flavirostris commonly occurs in Africa south of the Sahara except in arid regions. The name flavirostris is Latin and means yellow bill although the black crake often appears to be all black as an adult. In South Africa it mainly occurs in the wetter eastern parts, but there are scattered reports of black crakes in semi-desert and arid regions in the Karoo.

Black crakes are largely sedentary but they may move around locally. The sexes are alike and the adults are 19 to 23 cm in length and weigh around 90 g. The eyes are red and the legs vary from bright red when breeding to dull red and yellowish when nog breeding. The bill in the adult is a greenish lemon yellow. The habitat includes rank grass, sedges (including the papyrus Cyperus papyrus), reed beds, swampy thickets, bushes and other vegetation alongside still, flowing and open fresh and estuarine water bodies. Black crakes climb nimbly in tangled vegetation to roost or nest.

In general, black crakes occur alone but they may form pairs or small groups. They walk with ease over floating water plants. The adults build platforms on which to rest or preen. They are active all day in cool weather, with activity increasing after rain. Adults often preen each other.

Foraging is done in the open along muddy shorelines, from floating vegetation, in short grass, near water and even on dry, burned ground some distance away from water. Black crakes catch flying and aquatic insects and may take food from the back of an immersed hippopotamus. They also may perch on the back of a warthog to catch insects that fly up. The diet is a wide and also includes the eggs of birds, various invertebrates, frogs, fish and small birds.

The black crake is a monogamous, cooperative breeder but a solitary territorial nester. The nest is a cup 50 to 90 mm deep with an outside diameter of 100 to 200 mm. It is built of dry grass, rushes, sedges and other water plants and is hidden in dense vegetation just above the water surface. Vegetation is sometimes pulled over the nest to form a canopy. Two to six eggs are mainly laid in the late spring and the summer. These eggs are elliptical, oval, pale whitish buff to pinkish buff and have chestnut or reddish brown speckles or spots over pale, purplish slate markings. Incubation by both sexes begins after the fourth egg of a larger clutch has been laid and lasts 13 to 19 days. Newly hatched chicks are covered in black down and have a pink bill with a black band around the centre. The eyes are grey and the legs and toes are slate grey. The chicks leave the nest within a day of hatching and the down is lost when they are 14 to 21 days old. Helpers assist in rearing the chicks.

 


Reference:

Hockey, P A R, W R J Dean and P G Ryan (Eds) 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, seventh edition. Cape Town: Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Trust, pp. 326 – 327.

 

article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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