Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup)

Cover image of Pale-winged Starling by Desire Darling – Erongo Wilderness lodge, Namibia – BirdPix No. 13867


The Pale-winged Starling is a conspicuous and easily recognisable species of arid, mountainous environments.

Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup)
Kaokoland, Namibia
Photo by Johan Van Rooyen

The plumage is glossy black overall. The two most distinguishing features of the Pale-winged Starling are the bright orange eyes and the pale creamy-white patches in its primaries, which are very striking in flight. The outer edges of the primary feathers are more rufous-brown and this is visible as a rufous edge in the folded wing.

The sexes are alike. Juveniles have brown eyes and are duller than the adults.

Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup) showing the striking pale primaries.
Karoo National Park, Western Cape
Photo by Alan Manson

The pale-winged Starling is only likely to be mistaken for the Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio). The Red-winged Starling has dark red-brown eyes (not bright orange), rust-red (not creamy white) wing patches, and a longer tail. Female Red-winged starlings also have greyish heads. The distribution of the two species is largely allopatric, except for a broad area of overlap in the southern Free State, Eastern Cape and Western Cape Provinces. The Pale-winged Starling typically prefers drier environments than the Red-winged Starling.

Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup)
Molteno Pass, Western Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Status and Distribution

The Pale-winged Starling is a locally common resident and nomad. It is near-endemic to southern Africa, extending beyond the sub-region only into south-western Angola. It is widespread in coastal and central Namibia, south to the Northern Cape and the interior of the Western Cape, and eastwards to the southern Free State and adjoining uplands of the Eastern Cape. It is very occasionally recorded in extreme south-western Botswana.

SABAP2 distribution map for Pale-winged Starling Onychognathus nabouroup – downloaded in October 2023.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

It is rather patchily distributed across its range, as evidenced in the distribution map above. This is due to its preference for rugged hilly and mountainous terrain and its general avoidance of vast, flat plains between suitable habitat.

There is no evidence to suggest any recent changes to its distribution. The Pale-winged Starling’s preferred habitat is subject to little human pressure. It is well represented in conservation areas and is not considered threatened.


Habitat for Monticola brevipes
Typical habitat.
Near Carnarvon, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Pale-winged Starling frequents rocky outcrops, hills, escarpments, and mountain ranges in arid regions. It is dependent on cliffs and rock-faces for breeding and roosting sites. It visits farmyards and orchards, and enters towns for food, but generally avoids man-modified areas.


The Pale-winged Starling is gregarious and almost always found in flocks or small groups. Roosts on cliffs, seldom roosting in trees or on buildings. In the morning flocks fly out to forage in surrounding areas. Occasionally forms mixed flocks with Red-winged and Wattled Starlings. It is shy and wary in its natural habitat but can become tame and confiding around human habitation.

Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup)
Augrabies Falls National Park, Northern Cape
Photo by Lance Robinson

It is both a resident and seasonal nomad and its movements are likely forced by scarce food resources in arid areas, particularly during winter.

Forages on the ground, or in trees and regularly hawks insects in flight. The Pale-winged Starling’s diet consists primarily of insects like grasshoppers, beetles, butterflies and termite alates. They are known to perch on Klipspringers (Oreotragus oreotragus), as well as other antelope and zebras in order to feed on ticks and other ectoparasites.

Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup)
Augrabies Falls National Park, Northern Cape
Photo by Craig Peter

Pale-winged Starlings are attracted to flowering aloes for nectar and pollen. Fruit is also an important component of their diet and they are frequently drawn to fruiting trees such as wild figs (Ficus spp.) and Bluebush (Diospyros lycioides). They regularly visit picnic sites for food scraps like bread, cheese and maize pap, and they often pick bits of fat and meat off of braai grids. The Pale-winged Starling drinks and bathes regularly.

Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup)
Klein Aus Vista, Namibia
Photo by Johan van Rooyen

Breeding takes place from spring to late summer (October to April). Pale-winged Starlings are monogamous, semi-colonial nesters. Pairs defend small territories around the nest, but commonly breed near conspecifics on the same cliff. They are known to sometimes displace other species at nest sites like the Mocking Cliff-Chat (Thamnolaea cinnamomeiventris) and Cape Rock Thrush (Monticola rupestris), but are subordinate to Red-winged Starlings (Onychognathus morio)

Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup)
Augrabies Falls National Park, Northern Cape
Photo by Philip Nieuwoudt

The nest is constructed by both sexes and consists of a bowl or cup made from grass, typically placed deep inside a crevice or recess in a rock face, and is then packed with sticks and dry grass stems. They very rarely build nests on buildings.

Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup)
Mariental district, Namibia
Photo by John Fincham

2 to 5 eggs are laid per clutch. The eggs are pale greenish in colour with brownish-red markings. The incubation period lasts for approximately 20 days and all incubation is done by the female. The male remains nearby. The newly hatched young are undescribed. Chicks are fed and cared for by both parents. Nestlings are ready to leave the nest from around 25 days after hatching. Pale-winged Starlings are sometimes double-brooded, breeding more than once in a season, especially during years of good rainfall. Broods are sometimes parasitised by the Great Spotted Cuckoo (Clamator glandularis) which specialises in parasitising the nests of various crows and starlings.

Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup)
Middelburg district, Eastern Cape
Photo by Tino Herselman

Further Resources

Species text adapted from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Alan Manson, Carel van der Merwe, Craig Peter, Desire Darling, Johan Van Rooyen, John Fincham, Lance Robinson, Philip Nieuwoudt and Tino Herselman is acknowledged.

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

Other common names: Bleekvlerkspreeu (Afrikaans); Rufipenne nabouroup (French); Bergstar (German); Vaalvleugelspreeuw (Dutch); Estorninho-d’asa-pálida (Portuguese)

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2023. Pale-winged Starling Onychognathus nabouroup. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at

Bird identificationbirding

Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup)
Namib Desert Lodge, Namibia
Photo by Carel van der Merwe
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!