Cape White-eye (Zosterops virens)


The Cape White-eye is a very small, fast-moving bird. Males and females look alike but show geographic variation. This means that one species can look different in different parts of its range. The Cape White-eyes you are likely to see in Cape Town have olive green upperparts, grey or yellowish bellies, and bright yellow patches on their throats and under their tails. They have short, black bills and a characteristic circle of small white feathers around their eyes—this is where the name “white-eye” comes from!

Cape White-eye identification guide: BirdPix 18077 – Desire & Gregg Darling, St Francis Bay, Eastern Cape, 06 June 2015.

Further north, the same species looks quite different. For instance, in Limpopo province, Cape White-eyes tend to be much more yellow overall with less of a contrast between their upperparts and underparts. Young birds anywhere in southern Africa are a duller greyish colour. Have a look at these two photos from Polokwane, Limpopo: both were taken on the same day in the same place, and believe it or not, they are the same species! The duller-coloured bird on the left is young and still growing its adult feathers, whilst the brighter yellow bird on the right is a mature adult.

Northeast subspecies of Cape White-eye (Zosterops virens); young bird and adult.
L photo (young bird): BirdPix 114574 – Lance Robinson, Polokwane, Limpopo, 09 September 2016. Right photo (adult bird): BirdPix 114572

If you are lucky enough to have Cape White-eyes nesting in your garden, you might glimpse a bird without a white eye ring, like the bird on the left, or a partial ring, like the bird on the right. White-eyes only develop their “white eyes” around 5 weeks of age. If you keep an eye out for these transitional stages, you may be able to work out an estimate of a bird’s age.   

Immature and subadult Cape White-eye (Zosterops virens).
Giles Mulholland, Nelspruit, Mpumalanga. L photo (immature): 14 February 2012. BirdPix 134789; R photo (subadult): 7 March 2012. BirdPix 134790

Cape White-eyes are very vocal, and you may find that you are already familiar with some of their repertoire. These birds usually maintain constant streams of communication with each other when flying between trees and foraging. Their trilled contact call is a distinct sound; in the early morning, listen out for their long, liquidy song, which sometimes includes mimicry of other species.


Cape White-eyes have quite a varied diet and commonly feed on a combination of insects, fruit, and nectar. They forage in small groups, working together to scour a tree or plant for food before moving together to the next spot.

Examples of Cape White-eye (Zosterops virens) diet.
Cape White-eye diet. Clockwise from top L: Phil White, Simunye, eSwatini. 30 January 2020. BirdPix 103486;
Gerald Wingate, Cape Town, South Africa. 10 January 2021. BirdPix 152153; Colin Summersgill, Weenen, KwaZulu-Natal. 13 February 2021. BirdPix 157611; Dave Rimmer, Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal. 7 August 2015. BirdPix 20685; Keir Lynch, Grabouw, Western Cape. 24 August 2019. BirdPix 89310

Because they consume a variety of food sources, these birds occupy a range of habitat types, including open shrubby land with scattered trees, forests and forested mountain slopes, residential gardens and parks, and scrubby vegetation alongside rivers. White-eyes are unlikely to visit birdseed feeders in gardens, but will happily feed on fruit or mealworms or have a splash in a bird bath.

Examples of Cape White-eye (Zosterops virens) habitat.
Cape White-eye habitat. L: Dewald du Plessis, Fourth Reverse, Eastern Cape. 5 December 2009. BirdPix 23874 Top R:
Itxaso Quintana, Cape Town, Western Cape. 13 June 2020. BirdPix 115354 Lower R: Karis Daniel, Anysberg, Western Cape. 4 February 2021. BirdPix 155606


The Cape White-eye is a southern African endemic; in other words, it does not occur anywhere else in the world outside of southern Africa.

SABAP2 distribution map for Cape White-eye (Zosterops virens).
SABAP2 distribution map for Cape White-eye, downloaded 3 November 2021. Details for map interpolation here.

It is common across South Africa, except for the very dry interior regions of the Northern Cape, as well as in eSwatini and Lesotho. Cape White-eyes can also be found in southeastern Botswana and along the southwestern border of Mozambique.


Cape White-eyes are gregarious, spending their time in pairs or small groups rather than alone. These birds usually spend the night huddled together in pairs before joining a large foraging flock very early in the morning. Flocks work through surrounding vegetation in search of food, often starting before dawn. As the day progresses, the large flock breaks off into smaller and smaller sub-groups until only a few birds or pairs remain together and eventually return to a night-time perch.

Zosterops virens is a gregarious species.
Small group of Cape White-eyes. Maans Booysen, Stilbaai, Western Cape. 6 April 2010. BirdPix 11676

Cape White-eyes are solitary nesters, meaning that each pair of birds builds its nest away from other White-eyes. Males and females share the building responsibility, forming a tiny cup-shaped structure from whatever materials they find in surrounding vegetation.

Cape White-eye (Zosterops virens) nest and young.
Cape White-eye nest. Dewald du Plessis. Plettenbergbaai, Western Cape. 29 November 2019. BirdPix 98148

In forests, nests may include lichen and moss; in drier regions, grasses and roots. Nests are lined with soft grass flowers and animal hair, and nests in urban areas occasionally include bits of string or fabric. They are usually constructed between two forked twigs in a shrub or tree, and can be difficult to spot.  

Further resources

Species text in the first bird atlas (1997)

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

More common names: Kaapse Glasogie (Afrikaans); Zostérops du Cap (French); Kapbrillenvogel (German); Anteojitos de El Cabo (Spanish)

A list of bird species in this format is available here.

Recommended citation format: Daniel KA 2021. Cape White-eye Zosterops virens. 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.