Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura)


The Pin-tailed Whydah is a small sexually dimorphic species. Males and females differ dramatically when breeding, and appear similar outside of the breeding season. These seasonal “wardrobe changes” are common in many bird species in which one sex (usually the male) performs a display or builds a special structure to attract a mate. Pin-tailed Whydahs fall into the first category; males sing and perform elaborate aerial displays to attract the attention of females.

As environmental conditions become suitable for raising young, males undergo a process called moult, replacing their drab everyday feathers with striking, boldly-coloured breeding plumage. For species like the Pin-tailed Whydah that undergo these seasonal transformations, we can divide identification into a few different categories: breeding male and female, non-breeding male and female, and juvenile.

Let’s start with the breeding male. In full breeding plumage, the male Pin-tailed Whydah is difficult to miss. He is white with a black cap on his head, a bright reddish-orange bill, black legs, and a distinct long, flowing black tail.

Identification guide: Pin-tailed Whydah
Breeding male Pin-tailed Whydah. Derick Oosthuizen, Still Bay, Western Cape. 6 January 2019. BirdPix 116201

By contrast, breeding females make a much less flashy counterpart. A key feature to look for in Whydahs is a striped head. The female Pin-tailed Whydah has a brownish head and face with bold black stripes. She is a pale buff or whitish colour underneath, has black legs, and her back is a mottled mix of brown and black. When breeding, her bill is usually black.

Breeding female Vidua macroura identification guide.
Breeding female Pin-tailed Whydah. Dieter Oschadleus, Cape Town, Western Cape. 12 November 2016. BirdPix 32108

Though it might be hard to imagine, outside of breeding season, males and females look very much alike and can be difficult or impossible to tell apart! Overall, they more closely resemble a breeding female. The head and face are brownish with bold black stripes, the underparts are a pale buff colour, and the back is mottled brown and black. The bill is always red in males, but non-breeding females may have a red or blackish-red bill, making it hard to know for certain which is which.

Non-breeding Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura) identification guide.
Non-breeding Pin-tailed Whydah. Lia Steen, Shellybeach, KwaZulu-Natal. 9 October 2020. BirdPix 136987

This becomes a bit easier to untangle when males begin moult; let’s have a look at a male in transitional plumage. This bird is in the process of changing its non-breeding feathers to its bold black-and-white breeding colours. If you see a group of Pin-tailed Whydahs, keep an eye out for males in various stages of transition. You might notice black feathers starting to grow on the back and wings, the beginnings of a black cap on the head, or, often most conspicuously, a half-grown black tail.

Transitional plumage male Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macoura) identification guide.
Transitional plumage male Pin-tailed Whydah. Johan Heyns, Heidelberg, Gauteng. 16 September 2012. BirdPix 7621

What about birds that are too young to breed? The juvenile Pin-tailed Whydah looks quite different to adult birds; it can be tempting to see a juvenile and think it is a different species! There are no distinct stripes on the head and face, and the entire body is a plain brownish colour. The bill is usually a dull pinkish-red, but very young birds have blackish bills.

Juvenile Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura) identification guide.
Juvenile Pin-tailed Whydah. Gregg Darling, Craddock, Eastern Cape. 13 April 2018. BirdPix 52178
Inset photo: Dieter Oschadleus, Cape Town, Western Cape. 4 February 2017. BirdPix 34442

Pin-tailed Whydahs are noisy and communicative, especially breeding males. Their high-pitched, squeaky song is a common sound in gardens.


The Pin-tailed Whydah feeds on grass seeds, often on bare ground. If you watch a Pin-tailed Whydah foraging, you might observe an interesting behaviour; they often use their feet to kick soil away and reveal seeds. This species is at home in a range of habitat types, including savanna, grassland, dense vegetation along running water, wetlands, edges of agricultural fields and residential gardens.

Examples of Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura) habitat.
Examples of Pin-tailed Whydah habitat. L: Mary Ellen Lindsay, Scottburgh, KwaZulu-Natal. 24 January 2020. BirdPix 103148; Top R: Mark Stanton, Centurion, Gauteng. 18 December 2019. BirdPix 99446 Lower R: Ryan Matthew Tippett, Mkuze, KwaZulu-Natal. 5 April 2013. BirdPix 12332

In gardens, Whydahs are frequent visitors to bird feeders, and breeding males are notorious for their tendency to aggressively “defend” feeders from other birds. If you have Whydahs feeding in your garden, keep an eye out–territorial interactions between male Whydahs and other species are almost inevitable!


In southern Africa, the Pin-tailed Whydah is common within the Western Cape and along the eastern coast of South Africa, as well as in Zimbabwe and Mozambique and parts of Namibia and Botswana. In years with good rainfall, they may also be found in the typically drier inland regions of Namibia and South Africa.

SABAP2 distribution map for Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura).
SABAP2 distribution map for Pin-tailed Whydah, downloaded 29 October 2021. Details for map interpolation here.

Pin-tailed Whydahs are not confined to southern Africa; they are widespread in continental Africa and a common sight in many countries south of the Sahara desert. They are also an introduced species in the United States, Singapore, and Puerto Rico.

Male Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura) photographed in Sudan.
Male Pin-tailed Whydah in Sudan. Mohamed Salah, Bahri, Khartoum, Sudan. 3 August 2019. BirdPix 86633


Pin-tailed Whydahs are gregarious birds. When breeding, they tend to form small groups composed of a single breeding male and a mix of several females and non-breeding males. Outside of the breeding season, these groups may be much larger, expanding to include 30 or more individuals.

Breeding males have a knack for making themselves seen through a combination of aggressive behaviour, continuous vocalization, and eye-catching flight displays. You can watch a male singing and displaying in this video, created by Lynette Rudman.

When it comes to raising young, Pin-tailed Whydahs are masters of finding shortcuts! These birds are brood parasites; birds that lay their eggs in the nest of another species. A male Pin-tailed Whydah will aggressively defend a small territory in the breeding season, chasing off other birds and singing from conspicuous perches. Females will visit the territories of males who offer impressive songs and displays, and will often mate with more than one male.

Male Vidua macroura displaying for female.
Male Pin-tailed Whydah displaying for female. Lia Steen, Randburg, Gauteng. 7 March 2017. BirdPix 35195

After mating, the female searches for a suitable host nest in which to lay her eggs, and on finding a nest, may remove or even eat one of the host bird’s eggs before laying her own! The host, usually a Common Waxbill, is then left to feed and raise a Pin-tailed Whydah alongside its own young. Common Waxbill and Pin-tailed Whydah hatchlings look remarkably similar, and newly-hatched Whydahs will even mimic the begging behaviours of young Waxbills. Waxbill parents will feed both their own young and the Whydah until the chicks are ready to leave the nest; at this point, the Whydah chick leaves the Waxbills and re-joins a flock of Pin-tailed Whydahs.

This flashy parasite can be seen in action in the BBC documentary series “Attenborough’s Life in Colour.” Check out Series 1, episode 2: Hiding in Colour.

Further resources

Species text in the first bird atlas (1997)

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Koningrooibekkie (Afrikaans); Veuve dominicaine (French); Dominikanerwitwe (German); Vedova coda a spilli (Italian); Viuda colicinta (Spanish)

List of bird species in this format is available here.

Recommended citation format: Daniel KA 2021. Pin-tailed Whydah Vidua macroura. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at

Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel has been fascinated by birds since she was young, but while she was at university they became a passion. On a study abroad programme in South Africa, she was captivated by the diversity and abundance of bird life she encountered, and ultimately found herself drawn back to study them further. She completed her undergraduate studies at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. In 2017, she also received the opportunity to study wildlife ecology and conservation at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, where she completed her honours research and developed a focus on conservation science. Karis is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.