Weaver news

Weaver Wednesday [155] - Discovery [38]: White-browed Sparrow-weaver

2015-06-02 (643)

gravit8 Weaver Wednesday (species text)

White-browed Sparrow-weaver Plocepasser mahali

White-browed Sparrow-weaver
White-browed Sparrow-weaver head
figure from Swainson 1837
White-browed Sparrow-weaver
White-browed Sparrow-weaver,
figure from Smith 1841
White-browed Sparrow-weaver map
White-browed Sparrow-weaver
distribution, type locality circled


The White-browed Sparrow-weaver was collected and formally described by Andrew Smith, a Scottish surgeon, explorer, ethnologist and zoologist. Smith organised an expedition to the interior and he travelled to near the Botswana border in 1834-35, collecting many new birds, reptiles, mammals and other taxa along the way.

Smith described the White-browed Sparrow-weaver from between the Orange River and the Tropic (Smith 1836) and later he described the locality as 'upon a tree on one of the tributary streams of the great northern branch of the Orange River' (Smith 1841). Smith crossed the Vaal, Modder, Black Modder and the Riet rivers (Smith 1836: 15) on his journey between Thaba Nchu and Philippolis on 4-17 December 1834. From his diary, it is clear that Smith moved east from Thaba Nchu until he reached the Modder River (Oschadleus 2007). He stayed here a few days collecting specimens, including the White-browed Sparrow-weaver, then moved south-east to Philippolis (Kirby 1939).

Macdonald (1957) correctly restricted the type-locality to the Modder River near Bloemfontein. Clancey (1957, 1959) incorrectly changed this to the confluence of the Modder and Riet rivers, because he thought that Smith did not cross the Modder River near Bloemfontein. Clancey based his supposition on the map in Kirby (1940) where the upper reaches of the Modder River are not shown, but he did not read the diary.

The first illustration of a White-browed Sparrow-weaver was published by Swainson 1837, based on a specimen Smith sent to England. The first colour illustration was published by Andrew Smith in 1841 in his well known work, Illustrations of the Zoology of South Africa, and the White-browed Sparrow-weaver was painted by George Henry Ford.

Scientific citation

Plocepasser Mahali Smith 1836; Rep. Exped. Centr. Africa, p.51; 'country between the Orange River and the Tropic' = Modder River, Thabanchu, South Africa.

Meaning of names

mahali - no explanation given by Smith, not a Latin name, probably based on an African name.
Skead (1967) noted that it was probably named after the Tswana word mogale or Sotho word Mohale which mean a brave or fierce person, suggesting that the bird may be named for its angry scolding.

First English name

The Mahali Philagrus (Reichenbach 1863).

Alternate names

Black-billed Mahali Weaverbird, Black-billed Sparrow Weaver, Kismayu Sparrow-Weaver, Stripe-breasted Sparrow Weaver, White-browed Weaver Bird, White-crowned Weaver-Bird.


Andrew Smith.

Date collected

6 Dec 1834.

Locality collected

Modder River, near Thaba Nchu, Free State, South Africa.

Type specimens

There are at least 3 syntype specimens in different museums: BMNH 1845.7.6.132, ANSP 14256 and ANSP 14257.