I’ve taken frequent boat trips up the Nile River to Murchison Fall. As we motor up the river, the guide always points out the bee-eaters colonies. These birds dig adits into the sandy banks, adjacent to rivers. They dart around, chasing insects.
The family Meropidae contains 27 brightly colored species, of which Africa is home to 20. Birder Adam Riley reports seeing 8 different species in one morning while boating toward Murchison Falls.
One of the most colorful and interesting of the Meropidae family is the European bee-eater. It’s a tiny bird, with a long down-turned beak, slender body, pointed wings, and almost psychodelic coloration: saffron throat, turquoise breast, and chestnut crown.
The European bee-eater is a migratory species. It has to run a gantlet to get to Africa, flying every year from southern Europe, across the Mediterranean, over the Sahara, before finally arriving in sub-Saharan Africa. The stress of this migration claims some, raptors attack others, but man has also become a major predator.
Each year, from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, hundreds of millions of migratory birds such as the bee-eater are killed by hunters. In an article in NG (Jul 2013), Jonathan Franzen campaigns against this senseless slaughter. According to the NG editor:
The orioles, warblers, [bee-eaters], and shrikes Franzen writes about–like the mockingbird in Harper Lee’s novel–“don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”
But not all species of bee-eaters migrate.
Bee-eaters are gregarious; they organize and live into colonies. And for most species, they are monogamous, with both parents caring for the young. Sometimes parental responsibilities are even shared with other members of the colony, a behavior unusual in birds.
The colorful bee-eaters are an stunning part of the African environment. They are another reason to visit Uganda and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.