Bachelors at the bar

Pamushana | December 2016

It was at around dawn, at a waterhole, when we heard a deep, resonant woum-woum-woum-woum, followed by a snapping sound. In the distance we spotted a kori bustard (Ardeotis kori) perched on a small rise in full courtship display. He held his head backwards, with cheeks bulging, crest erect, bill open and his gular pouch inflated forming a white throat ‘balloon’. His wings were drooped and his tails stuck out like a Christmas turkey.

Once he finished his display he, being the largest flying bird native to Africa, strode over to where we were, watching a sable antelope drink, so that we could admire and photograph his handsomeness too.

What was fascinating in comparing these two creatures as they drank was the way they bent down to the water. The bustard’s legs bend forwards, and it looks like its knees are bent backwards, but the ‘knees’ are actually its ankles and the ‘lower part of the leg’ is actually its foot with the claws being toes. The sable bends right down on his tucked-in knees, with his back legs straight and spread.

Take a look at this sable’s knees, and you’ll see that they are bald and calloused. Not only is this from bending down to drink, but also from fighting. Bull sable fight among themselves, and they do so by dropping to their knees and using their horns. It’s also how they defend themselves from attack, and woe betide the predator that gets stabbed with those scimitar horns.

The sable antelope (Hippotragus niger) bull has a dark coat and a compact and robust build, characterised by a thick neck. Males begin darkening from chestnut and turn blackish after three years. Calves less than two months old are a light tan.

Young males of 3-4 years old are driven out of their natal herd by territorial bulls. Usually they join other young males and make up small bachelor herds, although this male was on his own. Mature bulls are territorial, and when a female herd is in his territory he follows them around and tries to dissuade them from leaving by running around them, head stretched forward, snorting and sweeping his horns, escalating to chases and charges.