Sandgrouse chicks

The behaviour of the male double-banded sandgrouse was what one would expect; he took one look at us approaching and scurried across the road before launching himself into flight and in a few seconds he had disappeared from sight. The female, though, behaved very differently.

It was just after sunrise on a Saturday morning at the Spitzkoppe in central Namibia, and we were walking slowly along a gravel road, enjoying the peace of the early morning when we came upon the pair of Pterocles bicinctus with their cryptic colouring. The male, handsomely adorned with black and white forehead bands, took to flight; the female walked sedately across the gravel road and into the dry grass at the verge, tempting us to follow.

We drew a little closer and stopped; she emerged from the grass and walked slowly across the road in the opposite direction, one eye watching to see if we followed. We waited quietly, watching her watching us, but she grew more agitated and crossed the road a third time.

We moved forward cautiously to see whether the bird was injured, but with a flurry she took to flight and landed thirty or forty metres further down the road. Puzzled, we looked around and soon found the cause for her concern. Three chicks, all but invisible as they crouched motionless in the dry grass near the road. Although we were very close to the chicks before we saw them, they remained completely still and uttered not a sound. One had his head up, the other two were flattened to the ground and if the female’s strange behaviour had not alerted us, we would have passed by blissfully unaware of their presence.

Sandgrouse are monogamous and they nest in a shallow depression in the ground, typically laying three cryptically coloured eggs. The precocial chicks hatch after 20–25 days and leave the nest almost immediately that they are dry. Although they are able to feed themselves soon after hatching, they stay with their parents for several months.

These three chicks couldn’t have been more than a few days old, but they knew instinctively that they shouldn’t move (presumably their mother communicated the risk to them as we approached) and they didn’t flex a feather as we took a few photographs before moving away. When we were at a safe distance, the female flew back to her family, but of the male we didn’t see another sign.


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