quelea (kwēˈlēə) [key], common name for an East African weaverbird, Quelea quelea. Less than 5 in. (13 cm) long and weighing slightly more than 1/2 oz (1.4 grams), these tiny birds are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa in areas receiving less than 30 in. (76 cm) of annual rainfall.
With the spread of grain farming and irrigation, they have extended their natural habitats, generally picking new breeding grounds every year. Highly mobile, they often descend in a locustlike manner upon fields and in flight may indeed be mistaken for locusts. Queleas are often found in concentrations of more than a million birds; such a flock can destroy up to 60 tons of grain in a single day, consuming half and knocking the rest to the ground. Hence, they are hunted aggressively with poisons and fire, but, as with locusts, to little effect.
Queleas nest in thick thornbushes and trees; a colony may cover up to 4 sq mi (10.4 sq km). The males build the simple grass nests, and a single thatched nest may house hundreds of females and their young, with only a few highly polygamous males. Queleas are persistent and prolific breeders, beginning as early as nine months of age. In addition to grain, queleas also feed on insects and, in the dry season, strip the leaves from trees. The size of their groups is sufficient to break branches and flatten plants. Queleas are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Passeriformes, family Ploceidae.