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Topic : Rare Birds

Article 22 bullet 13 February 2007

Lemon-breasted Canary – an unsuccessful breeding species

by Hugh Chittenden and Guy Upfold

Lemon-breasted Canary Crithagra citrinipectus is an exceptionally unique bird with its entire distribution range linked to that of the Lala Palm Hyphaene coriacea. This diminutive little canary obtains no food from any part of the plant. These birds are not only completely dependant on these palms on which they breed, but all the nesting material they use for the construction of their nests is derived from these plants. Interestingly, it merely uses the palm as a structure on which to conceal its nest, as they feed on grass seeds and occasionally take insects.

male Lemon-breasted Canary

A male Lemon-breasted Canary helping to feed the chicks

This uncommon Near-endemic was first made known to science in 1960 and so was one of the last birds to be described in southern Africa.

Female Lemon-breasted Canary

Female Lemon-breasted Canary

Nest sites

The new leaf of Lala palms forms without fully opening at the top, and it is in this deep ‘V’ that the birds choose to conceal their nests. This means that the nests are almost entirely hidden from view except through a narrow gap, when the palm frond is viewed from the front. By walking around the palms it is possible to search for nests from the ground and without having to climb up the extremely spiky fronds.

Palm savanna

Palm savanna. A nest found in one of the upper center palm fronds  

Nest construction

Both adults construct the nest using various parts of the palm. The bulky base of the nest is built with shredded palm fibres and old flower petals bound with cobweb. The cup of the nest is neatly lined with long palm frond tendrils.

Inspecting a nest 6 m above ground

Inspecting a nest 6 m above ground

Nest search

On the 27 th January 2007 we spent 8½ hrs looking for nests on the Lala palms in Bonamanzi Game Park (Hluhluwe, KwaZulu-Natal). Most nests are constructed 4 - 5½ m above ground, but nest heights varied between 1.8 – 7m. Of the 22 old nests we found (2006/7 season), only 8 (36%) had droppings on the rim of the nest showing evidence of chicks at some stage during the breeding attempt. Only one active nest was found (female incubating eggs), but after a violent storm that night the eggs were found lying on the ground below the nest the following morning. Previous visits to this area during the summer months showed that the peak breeding season lies between November and January.

Fibre used in construction of base of nestOld flower petals and cobweb

Left: Fibre used in construction of base of nest. Right: Old flower petals and cobweb also used to bulk up the base of the nest

Breeding strategy

Unlike its more common congener Yellow-fronted Canary Crithagra mozambica, Lemon-breasted Canary is not normally associated with human activity. Most nests at Bonamanzi are constructed in palms close to human activity, ie next to buildings, car parks, swimming pools or alongside roadways. Nest sites in open palm savanna (away from human activity) are invariably situated in isolated palms away from indigenous tree thickets, where it seems they are less prone to predation from monkeys and genet cats. Based on the few nests we have monitored in the past, as well as the low number of nests that showed evidence of chicks (36% from 22 nests) during the Jan 2007 count, and the willingness of these canaries to choose nest sites in busy car parks and next to buildings etc., it seems that the breeding strategy of Lemon-breasted Canary in Lala palms does not appear to be as successful as most other conventional tree nesting canary species in the region. They are regarded as a Red Data species in South Africa, listed as Near-threatened.

nest with 3 eggsold nest removed from the center of a palm frond

Left: nest with 3 eggs. Right: An old nest removed from the center of a palm frond, showing the bulky nest base


Much of the Lala palm savanna that occurs along the eastern littoral region of northern KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique is now inhabited by farming communities that harvest Lala palms for the purpose of tapping palms to make palm wine. Coupled to this, palm fronds are increasingly used these days for making of crafts and in the curio industry. Another concern is the alarming number of birds that are caught annually in southern Mozambique for the wild bird trade. Healthy, viable breeding populations of Lemon-breasted Canaries rarely occur outside protected areas within the region and the current Red Data status afforded of this species should in our opinion be reviewed.



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