Breeding male is unmistakable, being black above with a broad white nuchal collar and underparts, a red bill and long 'pintails'. It may be told from breeding male shaft-tailed whydah by its white (not buff) underparts and by the lack of spatulate tips to the tail feathers.
Female and non-breeding male are buff above and pale below, and have boldly striped black-and-buff head. The bill is red in male, brownish in female. Juvenile is pale brown and paler below.
Savanna, grasland, scrub, parks and gardens. Parasites mainly waxbills, but also cisticolas, mannikins and prinias.