Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea)

Cover image of Wattled Starling by Ryan Tippett – Carnarvon District – BirdPix No. 106357


The Wattled Starling is a distinctive and easily recognisable species with a slender, compact body and marked sexual dimorphism.

Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea)
Faan Meintjies Nature Reserve, North West
Photo by Tony Archer

Breeding males have featherless black and yellow heads with variable black wattles on the crown and throat. The overall body colouration is pale greyish-white with contrasting black flight feathers and a conspicuous white rump.

Non-breeding males have completely feathered, pale grey heads and a small triangular patch of bare yellow skin behind the eye. The lores are black and they have a short, black malar stripe starting at the base of the bill.

Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea)
Sandveld Nature Reserve, Free State
Photo by Ansie Dee Reis

Females resemble non-breeding males, but have dark brown wing and tail feathers. Some old females resemble breeding males in terms of plumage coloration, and can even develop bald pigmented areas and small wattles. The bill of both sexes is pale horn-grey.

Juveniles are similar to the females, but recently fledged birds have yellow bills.

Status and Distribution

The Wattled Starling is a locally common and highly nomadic species. It occurs throughout most of southern and east Africa and parts of west Africa, Madagascar and the Arabian peninsular. It has been recorded over most of southern Africa but is sporadic in many areas. Its core range is on the South African central plateau from Limpopo to the Northern and Eastern Cape.

SABAP2 distribution map for Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea) – downloaded in October 2023.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

It has been suggested that the Wattled Starling has become more common in the Western Cape, but in general neither its distribution nor abundance has changed. Past records show that the Wattled Starling has always been erratic and unpredictable in its occurrence. The Wattled Starling is considered valuable to agriculture, but is known to sometimes cause damage to vineyards. The species is not threatened and is perhaps the most numerous starling in Africa.


Arid grassland and Karoo scrub habitat.
Near Vanwyksvlei, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Wattled Starling is a bird of lightly wooded savannas, dry grasslands, Karoo scrub, drier fynbos and cultivated lands. It prefers fairly arid habitats with short grass and usually avoids well developed closed woodlands.

Arid savanna habitat.
Mokala National Park, Northern Cape
Photo by Karis Daniel


Wattled Starlings normally appear and disappear erratically, mostly in response to food supplies such as locust swarms and the emergence of termite alates. They are highly gregarious at all times and are almost always found in groups, and sometimes in very large flocks. They fly with rapidly beating wings, often in tight flocks and they sometimes perform murmerations in the late afternoon around breeding colonies.

Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea) performing murmerations near a large breeding colony.
Carnarvon district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

They form huge roosts in reedbeds or trees, often numbering in the hundreds or thousands. Wattled Starlings often roost in association with other starling species. They bath and sunbathe frequently and anting has been recorded in captivity.

Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea)
Near Alberton, Gauteng
Photo by Anthony Paton

Mostly forages on the ground, walking about quickly, pecking and probing for food. The Wattled Starling is the only African starling that probes into grass matts to catch insect larvae and other burrowing animals. Occasionally forages in the rocky intertidal zone along the coast, and at abattoirs and rubbish heaps. Often associates with game and domestic stock such as cattle, sheep and rhinos to catch disturbed insects, and they have been observed removing ticks from cattle.

Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea)
Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Dave Rimmer

Wattled Starlings drink nectar from a variety of indigenous and exotic tree species. Also eats seeds, crushed maize, small fruits, grapes and figs, as well as the arils of the alien Rooikrans Acacia cyclops. They consume a wide variety of insects including locusts, termites, flies and beetles. They are erratically associated with locust swarms in some areas but large flocks and breeding colonies form around locust swarms in the Karoo.

Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea) feeding on fallen Olea africana fruits.
Carnarvon district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Wattled Starlings are monogamous and highly colonial nesters. Breeding is closely synchronised within the colony. The onset of breeding is in response to abundant food, and may be suddenly abandoned at egg or chick stage if food supplies dwindle. Some breeding sites are used infrequently, while others may be used in most years.

Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea)
Middelburg, Eastern Cape
Photo by Tino Herselman

The nest is built by both sexes and is a robust, domed mass of sticks, with a small entrance on the side or near the top. Nests can often be clustered together in a single, interlocking mass, with up to 5 separate chambers. Several nests or nest clusters may be placed in one tree. The nest floor is lined with grass and feathers. Nests are typically placed in trees, 2 to 8 m above the ground, and frequently in trees that carry thorns.

Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea)
Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana
Photo by Derek Solomon

Eggs are laid from September to October in the winter rainfall region, and from January to March in the summer rainfall areas. Opportunistic breeding at other times is considered exceptional. 2 to 5, mostly plain, pale blue eggs are laid per clutch. The incubation period lasts about 11 days and incubation is shared by both sexes. Eggs hatch synchronously within the colony, however, newly hatched young are undescribed. The nestlings are able to fly after only 19 to 22 days. They are fed by both parents and are given mostly insect prey, particularly locust nymphs, crickets, earth worms, various caterpillars and also some berries.

Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea) bringing locusts back to their nests.
Vosburg district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Further Resources

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

The use of photographs by Ansie Dee Reis, Anthony Paton, Dave Rimmer, Derek Solomon, Karis Daniel, Maans Booysen, Tino Herselman and Tony Archer is acknowledged.

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

Other common names: Lelspreeu (Afrikaans); iMpofazana (Zulu); Unowambu, Uwambu (Xhosa); Étourneau caronculé (French); Lappenstar (German); Lelspreeuw (Dutch); Estorninho-carunculado (Portuguese)

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2023. Wattled Starling Creatophora cinerea. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2023/11/24/wattled-starling-creatophora-cinerea/

Bird identificationbirding

Wattled Starling (Creatophora cinerea)
Kromdraai, Limpopo
Photo by Maans Booysen
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!