Black-throated canary on Eragrostis,
as seen from my office.
Today I looked out of my office window and saw a sight I never expected to see in Johannesburg: bronze mannikins. Just about the tiniest birds in South Africa, these little seed eaters were perched on wild grass stems without even weighing them down. I know some very serious birdwatchers who have never seen a bronze mannikin in Johannesburg. This is just the reason that I have turned the small space outside my office into a patch of bushveld.
At one time, this section of our garden featured kikuyu grass and pom-pom roses. Fortunately the roses were moved before I arrived, so I didn’t have to deal with the guilt of plowing under such pretty flowers. Arthur Mennigke, a.k.a. The Naked Gardener, chose and planted a selection of aloes, acacias, native bulbs and shrubs and wild grasses for the space. My goal was a garden that would require very little water once established, that would feel wild, and would attract birds. He promised bronze mannikins. I didn’t believe him.
In the first year, I was delighted to find black-throated canaries feasting on my wild grasses. These, too, were entirely unexpected, but stayed for weeks and returned again this year. In year two, the mannikins have arrived. Next, Mennigke predicts, I will have blue waxbills. At that stage, I can cancel all further trips to Kruger National Park.
The key drawing cards for these little seedeaters are Eragrostis capensis, or heart-seed lovegrass, and Setaria megaphylla, sometimes called broad-leaved bristle grass or ribbon bristle grass. I won’t pretend that these grasses are particularly beautiful, at least not up close. They tower over my head until they start to bow under the weight of their seed heads. My wife refers to them as “mealie grass.” But imagine the flocks of mannikins, finches, canaries and waxbills that would make Jo’burg their home if more gardeners would restore a patch of the highveld grasslands that once stretched to the horizon.