Birds of Africa are amongst the most varied, numerous, and colourful of anywhere in the world. The continent is home to over 2,300 documented bird species, of which 67% are endemic to Africa.
Whilst the large mammals often steal the show on a safari, the huge variety of birds of Africa can be overlooked. Birds have been around since dinosaurs, and fill so many different niches in the African ecosystems – from large predators such as the fish eagle to scavengers like the vulture, and helpful sidekicks like the oxpecker.
Due to their variety – and impressive colour displays – we wanted to showcase the most iconic birds of Africa. Below, in alphabetical order, are 25 birds commonly spotted on a game drive, picked for their looks, special moves and the likelihood of spotting:
African Fish Eagle
African fish eagles are large, distinctive birds found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They tend to sit prominently perched alongside large bodies of water – flowing or still. They’re strong fishers, catching fish with a graceful plunge into the water, but also eat other birds and reptiles, and even scavenge on carcasses if necessary.
African Masked Weaver
The African masked weaver is found across Southern Africa, and lives in a variety of habitats from savanna and grassland to woodland and wetlands, and even in semi-desert areas.
Aside from their bright plumage, these tiny birds stand out wherever they live due to their intricate nest-building techniques, making nests woven from reed, grass, or palm in trees or reeds, often over water. Once built, the female bird lines the nest with soft grass and feathers.
The collared sunbird is a common bird in sub-Saharan Africa, feeding mainly on nectar and occasionally insects as well. It is able to take it’s nectar whilst hovering like a hummingbird, though usually perches to feed. They are tiny birds – just 10 cm long – with short, downturned bills and tubular tongues, both adaptions for their nectar diet.
Also known as the crowned lapwing, the crowned plover is an adaptable bird found across Southern Africa. It’s easily recognized by the combination of red legs, brown and white plumage, and its black crown divided by a white halo.
Crowned plovers have a long breeding season, with eggs laid prior to rainy season in a sandy area which they then line with vegetation or pebbles. The females incubate the eggs, assisted by the male on hot days.
Eurasian Golden Oriole
The Eurasian Golden Oriole breeds in Eurasia from Western Europe all the way to China, and the winter in sub-Saharan Africa and India. The male is striking in its black and yellow plumage, whilst the female is a drabber green bird.
They favour deciduous and mixed woodland, particularly tall leafy trees, and feed on insects and fruit, using their bills to pick insects out of crevices.
Flamingos are an iconic bird to see on safari, known for their bright pink coloration and standing on just one leg. They have very long, graceful necks and legs which are the longest of any bird in proportion to their body size, and they often rest their head on their body to avoid fatigue in their neck muscles.
Flamingos live in large colonies across much of sub-Saharan Africa, tending to favour mud flats where loose mud can be shaped into mounds they use as nests.
The great cormorant is found nearly worldwide, and across Africa. They’re usually seen around many types of water bodies, from rivers to lakes to wetlands, and are often spotted standing on rocks or branches sticking out of the water.
Grey Crowned Crane
The national bird of Uganda is the striking grey crowned crane, with long white, black, gold and brown feathers, and a head topped with a crown of stiff golden feathers. Their bright red pouch on the front of their neck allows them to produce a deep, booming call.
As with all cranes, the grey crowned crane engages in a form of dancing, primarily as part of a mating ritual. It’s quite a site to see these stunning birds of Africa head pumping, bowing, jumping, running, wing flapping and tossing sticks and grass!
Grey Go-away Birds
Grey go-away birds have a range across Southern and Central Africa, occupying any habitat from dry to moist savanna and woodlands – particularly where acacia trees are present. They make their presence known by their unusually loud and nasal calls which sound like “kweh” or “go-way”.
Guinea fowl are found in the savannas and grasslands of Africa, with their distinctive bright blue head and neck and hanging red wattle. They are terrestrial birds (though can fly and glide short distances), preferring to run rather than fly when alarmed.
They’re often seen scratching around in loose soil, like chickens, looking for food such as seeds, fruits, greens, snails, spiders, worms, and insects. They also take on larger prey with their strong claws such as frogs, lizards, small snakes, and small mammals.
This scruffy looking vulture species is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, reaching sizes of up to 80 cm tall. They are found in open grassland, forest edges, wooded savanna, and the African deserts. Like other vultures, the hooded vulture is a scavenger, feeding on carcasses of dead animals and waste around human habitation, including waste tips and abattoirs.
They are monogamous birds, with males and females remaining with one mate during the mating season, and rear their young together as a team.
The kori bustard is one of the heaviest flying birds, though avoids flying where possible, spending most of its time on the ground, foraging. Its diet consists primarily of seeds and lizards.
There are East and Southern African kori bustard subspecies, both of which are grey in color with yellow legs and a black crest. The birds are polygamous, with one male attracting and mating with several females, before leaving them to care for the chicks on their own.
The Lappet-faced Vulture has the largest wing-span of all the birds of Africa, and also goes by the names Nubian vulture and African eared vulture. The species is easily recognizable due its large size, bare pink head and the lappets on each side of its neck – the fleshy folds of skin.
Built for scavenging, their powerful beak is able to tear the hides, tendons and any other tissue from its prey, which may be too tough for other scavengers. As the largest vulture in Africa the Lappet-faced vulture dominates other vultures during feeding, and is strong enough to drive off a jackal.
Lilac Breasted Roller
The photographer’s favourite, the lilac-breasted roller is found in savanna and open woodland across sub-Saharan Africa.
It’s easily spotted as it likes to perch conspicuously on top of high vantage points like trees and pole, looking for prey on the ground such as insects, scorpions, snails, and rodents. During mating seasons the males fly high to engage in huge dives and swoops whilst making loud calls.
As with all bee-eaters, the little bee-eater has magnificently coloured plumage, with green upper parts, yellow throat, black gorget, and a brown breast fading to sandy on the belly. As their name suggests, these birds feed mostly on bees, but also other insects like wasps and hornets. Once it catches its prey the bee-eater removes the sting by hitting the insect on a hard surface.
Little bee-eaters prefer areas with some open ground and reasonably low perches including bushveld, and open woodland. They lay four to six spherical white eggs and both the male and the female take care of the eggs.
The small malachite kingfisher (up to 13 cm) is distributed widely in Africa, south of the Sahara. These small birds come in a bright electric blue colour, with a short crest of black and blue feathers on the head, and white patches on the throat and rear neck sides.
Kingfishers have regular perches, above and close to water, from where they catch fish, crustaceans, and aquatic insects.
Marabou storks are large wading birds found in Africa south of the Sahara – in both wet and arid habitats, often near human habitation, particularly landfill sites.
They’re an unusual looking bird, bald-headed with wisps of hair, perhaps worthy of their addition to the ugly five. They have a wingspan of 2.6 meters and a height of 1.5 meters. Interesting maribou stork fact: they have hollow leg and feet bones, an adaptation to help them fly
Marabous are scavengers eating anything from termites, flamingoes, and small birds and mammals to human refuse and dead elephants. They also feed on carcasses with other scavengers such as vultures and hyenas.
The common ostrich is the tallest and heaviest bird in the world, with an average height of over 2 meters (sometimes as tall as 2.7 meters) and a weight of up to 160 kg. At this size, the ostrich is, of course, flightless, but can outrun plenty of animals with its top speed of 69 km per hour. Their long, powerful legs double up as defensive weapons which pack a powerful kick to would-be predators. Fun ostrich fact – they are able to survive without water for days, generating water internally and extracting water from vegetation.
Sacred ibises are fairly common in Africa and parts of the Middle East, inhabiting a range of habitats so long as there is water in close proximity. They feed by wading in shallow wetlands, looking for fish, frogs, insects and small mammals, reptiles and other birds.
These elegant birds nest in tree colonies, building stick nests – often in their favoured baobab trees.
This large wading bird is a widespread species in sub-Saharan Africa from Sudan to Senegal to South Africa. Male and female saddle-billed storks have identical plumage with an iridescent black head, neck, back, wings and tail, with a white body. Their large bill is crimson with a black band and triangular yellow saddle shape.
Interesting stork fact – they have no muscles in their voice boxes and, therefore communicate by rattling their bills.
The secretary bird is an impressive and striking predator that’s found mostly in Africa’s open grasslands and savannah. They are fairly terrestrial, and hunts prey on foot – often in pairs – chasing insects, small mammals, lizards, snakes, and young birds, and sometimes eating any bird eggs or dead animals it comes across.
The shoebill bird is also known as a whale-headed stork or whale head. It’s a very large stork-like bird and its name comes from its massive shoe-shaped bill. Growing up to 1.4 metres, this iconic bird has something of a dinosaur-like appearance, and is known to feed on baby crocodiles and other reptiles. The showbill bird lives a solitary life, only spending time with other adults during a brief mating period.
White-faced whistling ducks are a highly social species found in Southern Africa, often in flocks of hundreds, and sometimes thousands. They are found at all sorts of water sources, including dams, lakes, rivers, estuaries, and floodplains. It doesn’t spend much time perched in trees, preferring sandbanks, and generally behaving more like a goose than a typical duck.
These ducks forage for their food at night, diving to find underwater tubers and seeds of aquatic plants, as well as molluscs and small aquatic animals.
There are actually two species of yellow-billed hornbill – the southern yellow-billed hornbill found in Southern Africa, and the eastern yellow-billed hornbill found in East and Northeast Africa. Both species look very similar, with their long yellow beaks with casques, white bellies, grey necks, and black backs covered in white spots and stripes. The one difference is the skin colour around the eyes – pinkish for the southern yellow-billed hornbill and blackish for the eastern yellow-billed hornbill.
Yellow-billed hornbills feed mainly on the ground, foraging for seeds, small insects (particularly termites and ants), spiders, and scorpions.
Native to the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, the yellow-billed oxpecker has a unique habit of perching on large wild and domesticated mammals, picking and eating parasites from them. While they can eat up to 13,00 larvae a day, their preferred food is blood, and they often peck at the mammal’s wounds until blood flows.
Breeding pairs nests in tree holes lined with hair plucked from livestock, whilst non-breeding birds tend to roost on their host animals at night.
The yellow-billed stork is one of the wading birds of Africa, found south of the Sahara desert. It favours wet habitats such as shallow lakes, mudflats and coastal lagoons where it can feed on crustaceans, small fish, frogs, worms, and insects. Their hunting style is interesting as they use one foot to stir the muddy water which disturbs the prey and causes movement. The storks then submerge their heads in the water quickly, snapping their bills.
And that’s your lot for the birds of Africa (unless you’re interested in the parrots of Africa). Did any surprise you, or have we left any obvious birds out? Or perhaps you’ve had the chance to spot one of these stunning birds whilst on safari. Please do share your experiences in the comments section below!
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