Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Cover image: Grey Heron by Malcolm Robinson– Darvill Bird Sanctuary, KwaZulu-Natal – BirdPix No. 249235

Identification

The Grey Heron is a large, conspicuous and easily identifiable species. The sexes are alike.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea
Dinokeng Game Reserve, Gauteng
Photo by Lance Robinson

Adults in breeding plumage have a white head, nape, throat and neck sides. The fore neck has a series of black streaks that form a pair of lines that end at the breast. The eyebrow is black and broad, ending in plumes that form a lax crest. The back and tail pale are grey, and the upper wings are pale grey, with black shoulder patches. The underparts are pale greyish-white with pale grey plumes on the breast. The straight, pointed bill is orange-yellow and the eyes are dull yellow. The long legs are bright pinkish-brown. Non-breeding adults are similar but lack the plumes on the nape and breast.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea
Muzi Pan, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

In flight the Grey Heron is seen to have pale grey upper wings with black shoulder patches. From below the wings are uniform dark blueish-grey.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea
Near Carnarvon, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Juveniles resemble non-breeding adults, but are paler grey with less contrasting colours. The forehead and crown are dark grey and the nape is dull black and they have heavy, dark brown streaking on the throat. Immatures and juveniles also have duller bills with dark grey upper mandibles.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea). Juvenile
Near Carnarvon, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Grey Heron most resembles the similarly sized Black-headed Heron (Ardea melanocephala). Confusion is most likely between juveniles, but those of the Grey heron are distinguished at all ages by the plain grey underwings. The underwings of the Black-headed Heron are contrasting black-and-white.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea
Bonamanzi Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Michael McCarthy

Status and Distribution

The Grey Heron is a common resident and local nomad. It is widespread across Eurasia and Africa. The range of the Grey Heron covers most of Africa (excluding the Sahara), Europe and Asia (including India, China, Japan and Indonesia). In Africa it is primarily a Palearctic migrant north of the equator, and a breeding resident to the south.

The Grey Heron occurs throughout most of southern Africa. It is is less common in the drier west where it concentrates at the coast and along major river systems and at isolated water bodies. It is absent from the very arid parts of Namibia, the Kalahari basin and some of the north-western parts of the Northern Cape due to a lack of surface water.

SABAP2 distribution map for Grey Heron Ardea cinerea – February 2024.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

The Grey Heron is not threatened locally or globally. A regional range expansion probably occurred during the 20th century, helped by agricultural practices and the construction of artificial water bodies.

Habitat

Typical habitat
Kosi Bay, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Grey Heron frequents shallow water bodies in all major habitat types. These include the marine intertidal zone, estuaries, lagoons, rivers, lakes, marshes and pans. It also common at man-made habitats like dams, canals, sewage works and salt works. It is sometimes also found in open grassland near water.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea
Elands Bay, Western Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Behaviour

The Grey Heron is generally found singly or in small groups when feeding, but is colonial when breeding.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea
Near Carnarvon, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

They are commonly seen standing or wading in shallow water, but sometimes in water deep enough to partially submerge the body. They are mostly active by day but will also hunt after dark, especially on moonlit nights. The Grey Heron often stands still for long periods while waiting for food to come to them. On occasion the Grey Heron is known to dive for fish from a perch, submerging completely. When prey spotted, the Grey Heron rapidly extends its neck and strikes, spearing or capturing prey with the bill. Prey is manipulated into a head-first position before being swallowed. Food items are swallowed by jerking the head back and rapidly opening and closing bill. Small items are swallowed alive, while larger prey is shaken or stabbed to death before swallowing. They will discard food items that are too large to swallow.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea
Muzi Pan, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Grey Heron is predatory and consumes a wide range of animal prey, with fish weighing up to 110 grams being preferred. They will also readily take frogs, large tadpoles, molluscs, crustaceans, worms, insects, turtle hatchlings, eels, snakes, lizards, small rodents and birds. Plant material is rarely eaten. The Grey Heron occasionally steals food from other species like cormorants and is itself a regular victim of kleptoparasitism by African Fish Eagles (Haliaeetus vocifer) and Grey-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus).

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea
Muzi Pan, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Grey Herons roosts singly or in groups, usually in trees and sometimes also on cliffs. It flies with the neck pulled into an ‘S’ shape with legs outstretched.

The Grey Heron has been recorded breeding throughout the year but mainly during the summer months. They usually nest colonially and often in mixed-species colonies with other herons, egrets, cormorants, African Darter and storks. They will sometimes also nest singly or in small groups.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea
Muzi Pan, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The nest is a large platform of sticks, lined with grass and is usually placed in the fork of a tree over water. Nests are sometimes also built in reedbeds or rarely, on cliffs or on the ground. The nest is normally constructed by the female with nest material brought to her by the male. 2 to 4 blueish-green eggs are laid per clutch. The incubation period lasts for up to 28 days and is performed by both sexes. The nestling period lasts for a further 30 days or so. Nestlings are fed and cared for by both parents and are able to fly after about 50 days. Juvenile birds become independent after 60 to 70 days.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
Near Malmesbury, Western Cape
Photo by Les Underhill

Further Resources for the African Sacred Ibis

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

The use of photographs by Garth Aiston, Gerald Wingate, Gregg Darling, Michael Wright, Phillip Nieuwoudt, Tino Herselman and Zenobia van Dyk is acknowledged.

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

Other common names: Heilige ibis (Afrikaans); uNokilonki (Zulu); Isikhwalimanzi (Xhosa); Blauwe Reiger (Dutch); Héron cendré (French); Graureiher (German); Garça-real (Portuguese)

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2023. Grey Heron Ardea cinerea. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/02/23/grey-heron-ardea-cinerea/

Bird identificationbirding

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
Near Malmesbury, Western Cape
Photo by Les Underhill

Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)

Cover image: Western Cattle Egret by David Kennedy– Linyanti Swamps, Botswana – BirdPix No. 249235

The Western Cattle Egret is monotypic, meaning it lacks close relatives and has been placed in its own genus. They are not that closely related to other egrets.

Identification

The Western Cattle Egret is a conspicuous, largely all-white bird and is normally closely associated with cattle and large game animals.

It is the smallest of the white egrets and has a stocky build with a relatively short bill, neck and legs. They are all white when not breeding but develop buff-coloured plumes on the crown, mantle and breast. The bill colour varies from yellow to orange, and the legs are dull brownish to yellow. The sexes are alike.

Identification guide Western Cattle Egret
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding adult.
George, Western Cape
Photo by Cobus Elstadt

Immature and juvenile birds are all-white and have black bills, legs and feet.

The Western Cattle Egret could be confused with the larger Intermediate Egret (Ardea intermedia), but that species is slimmer, with a longer-neck and a longer bill, and its lower legs are blackish, not yellowish. Little Egret differs from juveniles by having a more slender build and has black legs with bright yellow feet and a longer bill.

Cattle Egret
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Non-breeding adult.
Rondebosch, Western Cape
Photo by Les Underhill

Status and Distribution

The Western Cattle Egret has a very wide distribution and is found throughout the warmer regions of the world. The species was historically confined to tropical Africa, Madagascar and south-east Asia but it has expanded its range dramatically during the 20th century. The Western Cattle Egret now occurs throughout Africa, across the Mediterranean region, India, southern Asia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and North and South America!

Western Cattle Egret in breeding plumage
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding Adult.
Louis Trichardt district, Limpopo
Photo by Megan Loftie-Eaton

A global increase in cattle farming, coupled with high breeding rates and effective dispersal and migration strategies, have enabled the species to undergo one of the most remarkable range expansions and population increases of any bird.

During the late late 1800s the Western Cattle Egret first began spreading throughout Africa and reached southern Europe by 1950. African birds are believed to have dispersed across the Atlantic Ocean to north-eastern South America in the 1880’s, reaching Alaska by 1981. Its range expansion across Asia to Australia and New Zealand took place in the 1940’s.

SABAP2 distribution map Western Cattle Egret
SABAP2 distribution map for Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis – February 2024.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

The Cattle Egret is a very common resident or nomad and is found throughout southern Africa, but is sparse in the arid western regions. It is not threatened.

Habitat

Habitat Westrn Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding Adult.
Karoo-Gariep Nature Reserve, Northern Cape
Photo by Les Underhill

The Cattle Egret inhabits open grassland, grassy savanna, floodplains, wetland fringes, semi-arid scrub, man-made pastures and agricultural lands. They are usually associated with large game mammals or domestic stock, especially cattle, buffalo and elephants. Western Cattle Egrets are also occasionally found on open seashores and avoid dense woodland, forest and desert. Roosts in trees or reedbeds in or near inland waters like marshes, rivers and dams..

Bubulcus ibis
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding Adult.
Franskraal district, Western Cape
Photo by Cobus Elstadt

Behaviour

Western Cattle Egrets are highly gregarious and are most often found in flocks of 10 to 20 birds. Birds usually gather in larger numbers at water in the late afternoon, before flying to their roosting site. They often roost communally with other water birds. In the morning they disperse up to 20 km away to its feeding grounds.

Bubulcus ibis
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Baynesfield district, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Typically hunts by walking steadily before either running forward to stab at prey, or standing crouched, with its neck swaying before striking. They may glean items from vegetation, or seize flushed prey in the air. Small food items are swallowed whole, larger ones are repeatedly pecked or washed in water before swallowing.

Breeding adult Western Cattle Egret
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding adult.
Hartbeespoort, North West
Photo by Mark Stanton

They will occasionally follow ploughs to seize disturbed invertebrates, but are far more often associated with mammals, ranging from cattle and other domestic livestock such as sheep and goats, to antelope, zebra, buffalo, rhinos and elephants.

They frequently perch on the backs of large mammals, particularly in tall grass, where visibility is poor.

Research has shown that by associating with mammals, and feeding on disturbed prey items, they obtain, on average, 37% more food than they would by foraging alone.

Western Cattle Egret, with a cow
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding adult.
Thurlow Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

This egret’s diet consists largely of insects. Locusts and grasshoppers predominate, but a wide range of other invertebrates are consumed such as beetles, caterpillars, flies, spiders and earth worms. Ticks are also important in their diet and are mostly gleaned from vegetation but are sometimes also removed from large mammals. Vertebrates like frogs, tadpoles, fish, reptiles, small mammals, adult birds and nestlings are also eaten.

Bubulcus ibis, with zebras
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
Photo by Derek Solomon

The Western Cattle Egret breeds throughout the year in South Africa. Breeding mainly takes place from August to February with a November/December peak in the summer rainfall regions. It breeds during winter in the winter rainfall region of the Western Cape.

It is a highly colonial breeder, often in mixed colonies with other species such as storks, herons, egrets, spoonbills and cormorants. The nest is a simple platform of sticks lined with leaves and grass. Nests are most frequently placed in trees but also in bushes or sometimes even on the ground.

Western Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Kirkwood District, Eastern Cape
Photo by Irene Brown

Two to five eggs are laid per clutch. The eggs are dull white, sometimes with a blueish tinge and usually with some reddish-brown spots. The incubation period lasts for around 29 days and incubation duties are shared by both parents. Chicks are altricial and the nestlings are ready to leave the nest after 14 to 21 days. The young birds are fed and cared for by both parents.

Further Resources for the Western Cattle Egret

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

The use of photographs by Cobus Elstadt, David Kennedy, Derek Solomon, Irene Brown, Karis Daniel, Les Underhill, Malcolm Robinson, Mark Stanton and Megan Loftie-Eaton is acknowledged.

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

Other common names: Cattle Egret (Alternative English Name); Veereier, Springkaanvoel (Afrikaans); iLanda (Zulu); Dzandza (Tswana); Koereiger (Dutch); Héron garde-boeufs (French); Kuhreiher (German); Garça-boieira (Portuguese)

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. Western Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/02/19/western-cattle-egret-bubulcus-ibis/

Bird identificationbirding

Western Cattle Egret, in flight
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Greyton district, Western Cape
Photo by Karis Daniel

Little Swift (Apus affinis)

Cover image: Little Swift by Gerald Wingate – Vanschoorsdrif, Western Cape – BirdPix No. 186019

Swifts are specialised, highly aerial birds with long pointed wings and short or deeply forked tails that provide superb manoeuvrability. They have very short legs and toes, and small bills with a wide gape to enable swallowing while in flight.

Identification

Identification guide for Little Swift
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
Carnarvon district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Little Swift is a smallish species with a stocky build and a short, square tail that appears rounded when spread. The body is dark brownish-black, slightly darker and glossier on the mantle and back. It has a large, white throat patch and a distinctive, broad white rump that wraps around onto the flanks. This is often visible from below. The wings are dark brown to dull black with a silvery-grey hue. The bill is black while the feet are purplish-black and the eyes are dark brown.

Little Swift in flight
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
St. Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Garth Aiston

The sexes are alike in plumage colouration. Juveniles are duller and browner than adults with pale-edged feathers.

Little Swift from below
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
Carnarvon district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Little Swift is most similar to the Mottled Spinetail (Telacanthura ussheri), but the latter has distinctive short secondaries, bulging inner primaries and a white vent bar. White-rumped Swift (Apus caffer) and Horus Swift (Apus horus) have deeply to shallowly forked tails.

Little Swift
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, Gauteng
Photo by Marius Meiring

Distribution and Status

The Little Swift is distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent, with isolated populations in Morocco, the Arabian Peninsular, Iran and Turkmenistan. It occurs throughout southern Africa but is largely absent from the Namib Desert and the Kalahari (see habitat below).

SABAP2 distribution map for Little Swift
SABAP2 distribution map for Little Swift (Apus affinis) – February 2024. Details for map interpretation can be found here.

The local range of the Little Swift has increased dramatically since 1900. It was historically confined to the dry western regions of southern Africa but is now common across the region. It originally nested on cliffs but has adapted to make extensive use of man-made buildings and other structures for breeding on. The Little Swift is now a common resident and partial migrant and is still expanding its local range and populations.

Little Swift
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
Vanschoorsdrif, Western Cape
Photo by Gerald Wingate

Habitat

Little Swift habitat
Habitat – Kogelberg Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Sharon Stanton

The Little Swift is most often seen near its breeding colonies around cliffs, gorges, rocky crags and in built up areas.

It forages in the air over all vegetation types including woodland and forest but prefers more open habitats like grasslands, Karoo scrub and fynbos. It occurs regularly over water and drinks frequently. The Little Swift is scarce or absent over much of the Namib and Kalahari, where its presence is limited by the availability of surface water for drinking.

Behaviour

Apus affinus
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
Bird Island, Western Cape
Photo by Les Underhill

The little Swift is highly gregarious, often in flocks of hundreds of birds. It frequently forms mixed species foraging flocks with other swifts and occasionally with swallows.

It is mostly silent when feeding, but becomes very vocal in large flocks during ‘circus’ flight around roosting and nesting sites, especially in the late afternoon. In ‘Circus’ flight, large numbers of birds wheel and spiral together, calling incessantly. The purpose or function of this remains uncertain. Little Swifts roost in their nests or under the eaves of buildings.

Apus affinus
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
Kruger National Park, Limpopo
Photo by Lappies Labuschagne

Typically flies at an almost constant height and speed, alternately fluttering and gliding slowly.

The Little Swift drinks regularly by skimming the water surface, with wings held high. They are insectivorous aerial specialists that feed on a wide array of flying insects such as termite alates, damselflies, dragonflies, mantids, katydids, grasshoppers, bugs, lacewings, antlions, beetles, flies, mosquitoes, wasps, ants, moths, butterflies and spiders.

They are attracted to termite alate emergences, foraging aerially and sometimes even on the ground. They also opportunistically follow fires to capture insects flushed by the flames. Little Swifts often forage at great heights, particularly in winter, and may travel up to 20km per day in search of food.

Apus affinus
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
Gifberg, Western Cape
Photo by Salome Willemse

Breeds from September to May in southern Africa. The Little Swift is monogamous, and is usually a highly colonial nester but is known to sometimes nest solitarily. Nests are often found to be touching or overlapping. The nest is a closed bowl with a small side-top entrance. It is composed of grass and feathers and glued together with saliva. Nests are usually placed under an overhang or the eaves of buildings, bridges or a natural rock face.

Little Swift nest
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
Kruger National Park, Limpopo
Photo by J. Terblanche

1 to 3 elongate, white eggs are laid per clutch. The incubation period lasts from 17 to 23 days and incubation duties are shared by both sexes. The nestling period lasts for a further 60 days or so and the young are cared for by both sexes.

Apus affinus
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
Britstown district, Northern Cape
Photo by Cathy Jenkins

Further Resources

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

The use of photographs by Cathy Jenkins, Garth Aiston, Gerald Wingate, J. Terblanche, Lance Robinson, Lappies Labuschagne, Les Underhill, Marius Meiring, Salome Willemse and Sharon Stanton is acknowledged.

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

Other common names: Kleinwindswael (Afrikaans); Nkonjana (Tswana); Huisgierzwaluw (Dutch); Martinet des maisons (French); Haussegler (German); Andorinhão-pequeno (Portuguese)

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. Little Swift Apus affinis. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available Online at https://thebdi.org/2024/02/12/little-swift-apus-affinis/

Bird identificationbirding

Little Swift
Little Swift (Apus affinis)
Alberton district, Gauteng
Photo by Lance Robinson

Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa)

Cover image: Malachite Sunbird by Pamela Kleiman – Steytlerville, Eastern Cape –  BirdPix No. 10960

Identification

The Malachite Sunbird is notable for being the largest sunbird in southern Africa. The adult male in breeding plumage is highly distinctive and unmistakeable.

Identification guide to Malachite Sunbird male
Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa)
Near Darling, Western Cape
Photo by Marius Meiring

The overall plumage is bright metallic green with a copper sheen when seen in bright sunlight. The rump and upper tail coverts are slightly darker green. The tail is dark blackish-green with a blue gloss and the central tail feathers are elongated. The feathers in the folded wings are blackish with a green and blue metallic sheen. Displaying males have bright yellow pectoral tufts but these remain concealed at other times. The lores between the eyes and bill are black. The bill is very long and decurved. The bill and legs are black.

male Malachite Sunbird
Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa) 
Steytlerville, Eastern Cape
Photo by Gregg Darling

Females are olive-grey above and paler grey-brown to yellow-brown below. The pale underparts contrast with the darker upperparts. Females have a pale yellowish supercilium and malar stripe. The tail is dark brown with white outer tail feathers and lacks the elongated central rectrices of the breeding males.

female Malachite Sunbird
Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa). Female
De Kelders, Western Cape
Photo by Sybrand Venter

Non-breeding males in eclipse plumage resemble females but have variable green-blotches on the underparts and wings. Juveniles closely resemble the females.

Male Malachite Sunbird in eclipse plumage
Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa). Male in eclipse plumage.
Mpofu Dam, Eastern Cape
Photo by Gregg Darling

Status and Distribution

The Malachite Sunbird is a locally common to common resident and partial migrant. Its distribution is discontinuous from central Ethiopia south through east Africa to South Africa. In South Africa the Malachite Sunbird ranges from central Limpopo Province south through Mpumalanga and western Swaziland to KwaZulu-Natal, and down to the Western Cape and up to Namaqualand and extreme southern Namibia. There is also an isolated population in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe and adjacent Mozambique.

SABAP2 distribution map for Malachite Sunbird
SABAP2 distribution map for Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa) – February 2024.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

In South Africa the Malachite Sunbird appears to concentrate in the east of its range during the summer and in the west during winter. It generally moves out of the drier western areas (winter rainfall) in summer when it is hot and dry and flowering plants become scarce. This sunbird is an altitudinal migrant in the high altitude regions, particularly the Drakensberg, and moves to warmer, lower lying areas during the winter months.

There is no evidence of significant changes to its distribution or abundance. The Species has benefited from the planting of garden ornamentals which may have allowed the Malachite Sunbird to expand its range. In some areas, agriculture, forestry, urban development and alien plant infestations have impacted on its natural habitat. The Malachite Sunbird is not considered threatened.

Habitat

The Malachite Sunbird occupies a range of habitats from fynbos to mountain grasslands, forest edge and karoo scrub. It is often associated with scrubby hillsides and riverine bush, as well as parks, gardens and alien plantations. As a primarily nectarivorous species, its distribution and abundance are determined by the flowering cycles of food plants.

Habitat Malachite Sunbird
Montane grassland habitat
Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Free State
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Malachite Sunbird is most common in montane grasslands and fynbos, followed by the Succulent Karoo and the southern parts of the Nama Karoo. It generally avoids the central and northern regions of the Nama Karoo which is more grass dominated and offers little food for sunbirds.

Behaviour

The Malachite Sunbird is an active and conspicuous species. It is usually encountered singly or in pairs when breeding. Gathers in large numbers at localised, rich food sources outside of the breeding season. Malachite Sunbirds may get displaced by Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer), Gurney’s Sugarbird (Promerops gurneyi) and the more aggressive Bronzy Sunbird (Nectarina kilimensis), but males regularly chase conspecifics and other, smaller sunbirds.

Nectarina famosa
Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa)
Somerset West, Western Cape
Photo by Corrie du Toit

The diet consists mostly of nectar and is supplemented with arthropods, especially spiders and small insects like flies, moths, caterpillars, bugs and beetles. Insect prey is mostly gleaned from vegetation but the Malachite Sunbird will also hawk flying insects from time to time. Some pollen is also eaten and they readily take sugar water mixes from garden nectar feeders.

The Malachite Sunbird feeds on the nectar from a diverse array of plant species. The flowers of various Protea, Aloe, Leonotis and Kniphofia species are particularly important, and this sunbird is a key pollinator of these plants.

Nectarina famosa
Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa)
Waaihoek Mountains, Western Cape
Photo by Fanie Rautenbach

Bathes in rain-soaked foliage, bird baths and in irrigation sprays. The flight is fast and direct.

An interesting adaptation of the Malachite Sunbird is its ability to enter torpor (daily hibernation) at night. This saves up to 60% of energy by reducing body temperature to as low as 26°C.

Nectarina famosa
A displaying male showing off his bright yellow pectoral tufts.
Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa)
Near Durbanville, Western Cape
Photo by Gerald Wingate

The Malachite Sunbird breeds from May to November in the winter rainfall Western Cape, and during the summer months (mainly October to January) over the rest of its range. The nest is an oval of grass, leaves, twigs and roots, bound together with spider web. The nest has a side-top entrance and the inside is lined with fine grass, hair, feathers and plant fibres. The entrance usually has an overhanging ‘porch-style’ roof. The nest is often placed over a stream, gully or cliff face and is built entirely by the female.

Nectarina famosa
Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa)
Hermanus, Western Cape
Photo by Andries de Vries

One to three (usually two) eggs are laid per clutch. Incubation lasts for around 13 days and is performed solely by the female. The nestling period takes about 20 days, during which time the young are fed and cared for by both parents.

Malachite Sunbird nests are frequently parasitised by Klaas’s Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas), and to a lesser extent by Red-Chested Cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) and Diederik Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx caprius).

Further Resources

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

The use of photographs by Andries de Vries, Cobus Elstadt, Corrie du Toit, Fanie Rautenbach, Gerald Wingate, Gregg Darling, Marius Meiring, Pamela Kleiman and Sybrand Venter is acknowledged.

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

Other common names: Jangroentjie (Afrikaans); iNcuncu, iNcwincwi, uHlazazana (Zulu); Tale-tale (South Sotho); Souimanga malachite (French); Emeraldhoningzuiger (Dutch); Malachitnektarvogel (German); Beija-flor-verde (Portuguese).

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. Malachite Sunbird Nectarina famosa. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/malachite-sunbird-nectarina-famosa/

Bird identificationbirding

Malachite Sunbird
Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa)
Uniondale district, Western Cape
Photo by Cobus Elstadt

Bird Ringing Course at Botuin, Vanrhynsdorp : 31 January to 6 February 2024

This was the seventh BDI bird ringing course. You get links to the previous courses and other bird ringing events here.

Although we had some extremely hot (over 40°C) and windy days, the last 3 days started with overcast conditions. Our week long ringing course was based at Botuin in Vanrhynsdorp, from 31 Jan to 6 Feb 2024. We caught 285 birds, including retraps, of 37 species. As on previous trips, we visited the sewage works and Gifberg veld in addition to ringing in the Botuin gardens.

The species diversity was highest in the Botuin gardens, with some exciting species being Namaqua Warbler, Chestnut-vented Warbler and a Fairy Flycatcher (Table 1). Most birds were caught at the Vanrhynsdorp Sewage works, with a total catch of 65 Southern Red Bishops on two visits. Exciting species here included four Three-banded Plovers and a Little Stint. The karoo veld on the slopes of Gifberg had lower numbers and species but this site produced five Rufous-eared Warblers (a pair caught in a spring trap simultaneously!), three Large-billed Larks and a Karoo Chat.

Overall the most caught species were the Southern Red Bishop (67 birds) and Cape Sparrow (59). Lots of retraps from previous ringing events at Vanrhynsdorp were processed, including several that had moved between the sewage works and Botuin, a straight line distance of 1.5 km (see more here).

Table 1. Number of birds caught by species and site, 31 January-6 February, 2024

Sp noCountEnglishSewage worksGifbergBotuin
2383Three-banded Plover3
2531Little Stint1
31718Laughing Dove18
3185Namaqua Dove41
3911White-backed Mousebird1
3924Red-faced Mousebird4
4633Large-billed Lark3
4951White-throated Swallow1
5092Brown-throated Martin2
5444African Red-eyed Bulbul4
5661Karoo Chat1
5764African Stonechat22
5811Cape Robin-chat1
5835Karoo Scrub Robin113
6041Lesser Swamp Warbler1
6064African Reed Warbler13
6195Rufous-eared Warbler5
6462Levaillant’s Cisticola2
6535Namaqua Warbler5
6584Chestnut-vented Warbler4
6651Fiscal Flycatcher1
6781Fairy Flycatcher1
6863Cape Wagtail21
7222Bokmakierie11
7331Common Starling1
7603Southern Double-collared Sunbird3
7846House Sparrow24
78659Cape Sparrow1643
79912Cape Weaver813
80320Southern Masked Weaver128
80867Southern Red Bishop6511
8655White-throated Canary41
8661Yellow Canary1
87124Lark-like Bunting969
8732Cape Bunting2
11723Cape White-eye3
41391Karoo Prinia1
Total birds28513328124
No. of species37181323
Thanks very much to Salome for hosting us so well!

BDInsight – February 2024

Cover image: Malachite Sunbird (Nectarina famosa) – Middelburg district, Eastern Cape – Photo by Tino Herselman

Welcome to the February 2024 edition of the BDInsight. We have plenty of news to share and plenty of exciting events coming up. Read on to find out more…..

BDI-style Bird Species Texts

We are aiming to make it easier for beginner birders! Key to this is the production of “BDI-style” species texts on the BDI website. Each of the texts starts with an annotated photograph like this one for the Pririt Batis:

Each of the texts starts with an annotated photograph like the one above. The next sections cover Habitat (with photos), Distribution (with bird atlas map), and Behaviour (with words and photos).

The BDI-style texts do not only focus on identification but provides all sorts of interesting information; to see the full text for this species, click here.

We added texts for five species during January 2024:

New Biodiversity Observations Papers

Biodiversity Observations is an Open Access ejournal which focuses on the publication of descriptive papers which report observations relating to biodiversity. There is a great new paper which reflects on the papers submitted to the Journal during 2023.

Of the papers published in 2023, the one with the most downloads is A Guide to the Common Garden Birds of Cape Town, South Africa which had been downloaded 1172 times by 31 August. You can find the the paper here: https://journals.uct.ac.za/index.php/BO/article/view/1316. This link does not download the paper itself; it takes you to the page where you click on the PDF to get the paper.

The graph below shows that Biodiversity Observations had its best month ever for number of papers downloaded; 3219 downloads of papers were made during December 2023. For January 2024, the number of papers downloaded were 2110.

A new year also means the start of a new Volume. Volume 14 (2024) already contains two papers which you can access here.

Bird Ringing

Bird ringing remains one of the most important research methods for discovering some of the most important basic information about each species. Conservation initiatives need a lot of information. Two key factors to understand are rates of survival and extent of movement. There is a discussion about the value of ringing here.

Diederik Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx caprius)
Tygerberg Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Gerald Wingate

There are three ringing courses planned for 2024. They are:

  • 31 January to 6 February at BoTuin, Vanrhynsdorp, Western Cape
  • 1 to 7 May at Ouberg Private Nature Reserve, Montagu, Western Cape
  • 09 to 15 September at New Holme Lodge, near Hanover, Northern Cape.
  • More details are here. There is a broad description of the course activities here.

Virtual Museum

Up-to-date distribution maps for species are critical for taking conservation decisions about species. Spring is springing, and the butterflies and moths, dragonflies and damselflies, will soon be out and about. Now is the time to dust off your cameras and get out into the field and start refreshing records in the Virtual Museum.

Records made long ago in a grid cell are slowly losing their value as evidence that the species is still present there, and need to be refreshed.

If your access to the Virtual Museum is not working (eg password issues) please contact Megan Loftie-Eaton for help (megan@thebdi.org).

Pririt Batis (Batis pririt)

Cover image: Pririt Batis by Ryan Tippett– Carnarvon district, Northern Cape –  BirdPix No. 252534

Batises make up a genus of small, uniquely African, flycatcher-like birds, that are in fact most closely related to Bushshrikes and Helmetshrikes.

Identification

The Pririt Batis is sexually dimorphic, with the sexes differing in plumage colouration. Unusually for birds, the females are more colourful than the males.

Pririt Batis (Batis pririt) Male
Saaipoort, Northern Cape
Photo by Dieter Oschadlius

Males are striking black, white and grey birds. The forehead, crown and nape are dark grey, bordered by a narrow white supercilium. A black facial mask extends from the base of the bill to the sides of the neck. The rest of the upper parts from the hind neck to the rump are grey. Flight feathers are black with a distinct white wing bar. The undersides, from the chin to the vent are white, except for a broad, glossy black breast band. The flanks show indistinct grey speckling. The tail is black with white outer tail feathers.

Pririt Batis (Batis pririt) Female
Middelburg district, Eastern Cape
Photo by Zenobia van Dyk

Females have the same general plumage as the males, but the chin, throat, lower sides of the neck and breast are pale orange, shading to white on the belly. Juveniles resemble females but are duller with dark brown mottling on the buff-orange breast. In both sexes and juveniles, the bill, legs and feet are black and the eyes are relatively large and yellow.

The female Pririt Batis is unlikely to be mistaken for any other species within its range, but males closely resemble those of the Chinspot Batis (Batis molitor). The Chinspot Batis lacks the grey speckled flanks. The distribution of the two species overlaps marginally in the north and east of the Pririt Batis’s range.

Pririt Batis (Batis pririt) Male
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
Photo by Josu Meléndez

Male Pririt Batises could also be confused with the black, white and grey of the Fairy Flycatcher (Stenostira scita), but that species has a longer tail and does not have a broad black breast band.

Status and Distribution

The Pririt Batis is a common resident and near-endemic to southern Africa, extending only marginally into south-western Angola. There are two disjunct populations. The northern population occurs in Namibia, Botswana and central and north-western South Africa (Northern Cape, Free State and North West Province.) The southern population occurs in the succulent Karoo regions of the Western and Eastern Cape. The gap in distribution corresponds to a high-lying and virtually treeless region on the escarpment and central plateau.

SABAP2 distribution map for Pririt Batis (Batis pririt) – January 2024.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

No widespread regular movements have been recorded for the Pririt Batis. However, there may be some movement into the periphery of its range, mainly in the south and east, during winter and drought periods. The Pririt Batis does not seem to be under any threat across its large range. The species probably benefits from bush encroachment in response to overgrazing.

Habitat

Habitat near Carnarvon, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Pririt Batis inhabits various arid and semi-arid woodlands, especially Acacia (Vachelia) savanna. It also occurs along wooded watercourses in deserts and Karoo scrub. In the north-eastern part of its range it is present in dry Mopane (Colophospermum mopane) woodland. In the Karoo, the Pririt Batis also occurs in stands of alien Mesquite (Prosopis spp). The Pririt Batis is a common garden bird at farmsteads and villages in the Karoo.

Behaviour

Pririt Batis (Batis pririt) Male
Nelspoort Road, Eastern Cape
Photo by Jorrie Jordaan

The Pririt Batis occurs in pairs or small family groups and readily associates with mixed bird parties, especially in winter. It is quite tame and inquisitive. The Pririt Batis is very active, often jerking the head and flicking its tail as it searches the canopies of trees and bushes for food. Flights between trees are undulating, often with conspicuous ‘wing-snapping’. They frequently mob predators such as the Pearl-spotted Owlet.

Pririt Batis (Batis pririt) Female
Waterberg Plateau, Namibia
Photo by J.K. Boyce

Most prey is captured by gleaning insects from leaves, twigs and branches, and food items are often seized with an audible bill snap. Also hawks flying insects, and sometimes descends to the ground to catch prey. The Pririt Batis is insectivorous feeding on a variety of small crawling and flying insects.

Over most of its range it is the only batis present, but along an extensive common boundary in the north and east it comes into contact with the Chinspot Batis. There appears to be regular interaction between these species where they co-occur.

Pririt Batis (Batis pririt) Male
Biedouw Valley, Western Cape
Photo by Gerald Wingate

The Pririt Batis mostly breeds during summer from September to May. Breeding has also been recorded in July and August which suggests breeding may be opportunistic at any time of the year according to rainfall.

The nest is a small, neat cup made from plant fibres and bound with spider web and decorated on the outside with cocoons and small bits of bark. The nest is most often placed on a fairly slender, horizontal branch in thorn trees.

Pririt Batis (Batis pririt) Male
Kleinpoort, Eastern Cape
Photo by M. Booysen

1 to 4 eggs are laid per clutch. The eggs are incubated by the female only and the eggs hatch after 17 days or so. The nestling period also lasts for around 17 days, during which time they are fed and cared for by both parents. Fledglings are dependant on their parents for about 6 weeks after leaving the nest. The Pririt Batis is a regular host of the brood parasitic Klaas’s Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas).

Further Resources

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

The use of photographs by Dieter Oschadleus, Gerald Wingate, Gregg Darling, J.K. Boyce, Jorrie Jordaan, Josu Meléndez, Maans Booysen and Zenobia van Dyk is acknowledged.

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

Other common names: Priritbosbontrokkie (Afrikaans); Pririt de Vieillot (French); Pririt-vliegenvanger (Dutch); Priritschnäpper (German); Batis de Pririt (Portuguese)

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2023. Pririt Batis Batis pririt. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/01/29/pririt-batis-batis-pririt/

Bird identificationbirding

Pririt Batis (Batis pririt) Male
Erongo Lodge, Namibia
Photo by Gregg Darling

Fairy Flycatcher (Stenostira scita)

Cover image: Fairy Flycatcher by Marna Buys – Wonderboom, Gauteng –  BirdPix No. 261347

Identification

This species is notable for being one of the smallest birds in southern Africa, weighing in at just 6 grams.

Fairy Flycatcher (Stenostira scita) 
Middelburg district, Eastern Cape
Photo by Tino Herselman

The Fairy Flycatcher has distinctive grey, black and white plumage. The head is grey with a black facial mask, surrounded by white. The mantle and back are plain grey, and the breast and upper belly is grey, fading to white with a slight peach-coloured wash on the flanks and lower belly. The flight feathers are black with a conspicuous white wing bar. The tail is black and fairly long with white outer tail feathers.

The sexes are alike, while juveniles are browner above and lack the peach flanks.

The Fairy Flycatcher is perhaps most likely to be mistaken for the black, white and grey male of the Pririt Batis (Batis pririt), but that species has a distinctive, broad black breast-band and a shorter tail.

Fairy Flycatcher (Stenostira scita) 
Standerton, Mpumalanga
Photo by JC van Rensburg

Status and Distribution

The Fairy Flycatcher is fairly common to common and is endemic to southern Africa. Its range encompasses most of South Africa, but is mostly absent from hot low lying areas like the lowveld and Zululand. Its range also excludes a broad coastal strip from near East London in the Eastern Cape to northern KwaZulu-Natal.

The range includes all of Lesotho and just reaches into eSwatini (Swaziland). It also occurs during winter in southern Namibia, south-eastern Botswana and very marginally in Zimbabwe.

SABAP2 distribution map for Fairy Flycatcher (Stenostira scita) – October 2023.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

The Fairy Flycatcher is most numerous in the Nama Karoo where it is resident, moving into surrounding biomes as an altitudinal migrant during the winter months.

There is no evidence of changes to its distribution, and the Fairy Flycatcher is not considered threatened.

Fairy Flycatcher (Stenostira scita)
Near Anysberg, Western Cape
Photo by Sue Gie

Habitat

The Fairy Flycatcher prefers semi-arid Karoo shrublands, of both the Nama and Succulent Karoo. It also inhabits fynbos and grassland regions. It requires an element of woody growth, however sparse, in which to forage, such as thorny thickets, scrubby mountain kloofs, wooded hillsides and drainage lines.

It is mostly resident in the Nama and Succulent Karoo biomes, moving into Acacia savanna, montane scrub, fynbos, plantations and gardens, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of its distribution. The Fairy Flycatcher normally avoids extensive closed woodlands.

Habitat near Carnarvon, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Behaviour

The Fairy Flycatcher is an active species that moves around singly, in pairs or occasionally in loose family groups. Restless, agile and constantly on the move, the Fairy Flycatcher forages among foliage, flitting between trees and shrubs. It frequently fans and raises its tail. Flies low from bush to bush and seldom flies far.

Fairy Flycatcher (Stenostira scita)
Hillston Farm, Eastern Cape
Photo by David Solomon

Fairy Flycatchers join mixed-species foraging parties with other small insectivorous species. Gleans small prey from twigs and leaves and flowers within leafy bushes, or in tree canopies. Often hawks airborne insects in short, fluttering flights. The Fairy Flycatcher’s dies consists entirely of small invertebrates, including flies mosquitoes, Hemiptera (Bugs), very small beetles, lacewings, wasps, moths and spiders.

Fairy Flycatcher (Stenostira scita)
Soutpan district, Free State
Photo by Toby Esplin

The Fairy Flycatcher breeds from October to December. It is a monogamous, solitary nester. The nest is a small, deep cup of finely shredded grass, weed stems and shredded bark, bound with spider web and is built entirely by the female. The outside of the nest is camouflaged with a layer of lichen, strands of bark and dry foliage secured with spider web to the outer wall. The nest is well hidden and usually placed in a densely foliaged shrub around 1m above the ground.

Fairy Flycatcher (Stenostira scita)
Sani Pass, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Dave Rimmer

2 or 3 glossy, pale green-brown eggs are laid per clutch. The incubation period lasts from 17 to 18 days and all incubation is likely performed by the female. The male feeds the female in the nest. The young are altricial but further details regarding the nestling period etc. are unrecorded.

Further Resources

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

The use of photographs by Dave Rimmer, David Solomon, JC van Rensburg, Lance Robinson, Marna Buys, Sue Gie, Tino Herselman and Toby Esplin is acknowledged.

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

Other common names: Fairy Warbler (Alt. English); Feevlieëvanger (Afrikaans); Mignard enchanteur, Érythrocerque de Livingstone (French); Elf-apalis (Dutch); Livingstones Rotschwanzschnäpper (German); Papa-moscas-d’asa-branca (Portuguese).

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2023. Fairy Flycatcher Stenostira scita. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/01/22/fairy-flycatcher-stenostira-scita/

Bird identificationbirding

Fairy Flycatcher (Stenostira scita)
Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve, Gauteng
Photo by Lance Robinson

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)

Cover image of Secretarybird by Johan Van Rooyen – Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape – BirdPix No. 230151

The Secretarybird belongs to its own family: Sagittariidae, but are closely related to diurnal raptors. The name ‘Secretarybird’ is derived from ‘Saqr-et-tair’, the arabic name for this species which means ‘hunter bird’.

Identification

The Secretarybird is a large, striking and unmistakeable species.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) 
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
Photo by Anne Todd

It is noticeably long-legged with bare pinkish-grey lower legs. The upper legs and lower belly are black. The rest of the underparts and the head are pale grey. The upper parts are mostly plain bluish grey with black flight feathers. There is a characteristic, dark-tipped, long erectile crest on the head. The bare facial skin is orange and the bill is horn-grey. The tail is elongated and grey with broad black bands and a white tip.

The sexes are very similar but males are larger with a longer crest and tail. Juveniles have duller, browner plumage, shorter tails and the bare facial skin is yellowish.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) 
Ithala Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Carel van der Merwe

The Secretarybird is unlike any other species but superficially resembles Blue Crane from a distance. That species lacks any black colouration and has un-feathered upper legs.

Status and Distribution

The Secretarybird is an Afrotropical species occurring throughout the savanna regions of Africa. It avoids the Sahara desert of north Africa, the central and west African rain forest belt and the most arid parts of north-east Africa. It is widely distributed across Southern Africa.

SABAP2 distribution map for Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius – January 2024. Details for map interpretation can be found here.

The Secretarybird is considered locally fairly common to uncommon in southern Africa and is listed as Near-threatened due to decreases in some local populations. Overall, the current distribution of the Secretarybird is believed to reflect closely the historical range, and any changes are likely to be in abundance and not distributional.

Habitat

Habitat – Vanwyksvlei district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Secretarybird is an inhabitant of open country, mainly savanna, open woodland, grassland, dry floodplains and Karoo shrublands. It prefers habitats with relatively short grass. Some man-made habitats are also used, such as airfields, grazing paddocks and fallow fields. The Secretarybird avoids mountain fynbos, forest, dense woodland and very rocky, hilly or mountainous areas.

Behaviour

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
Photo by Zenobia van Dyk

Secretarybirds usually occur singly or in pairs, and occasionally in family groups of 3 to 4 birds. Groups of up to 50have been recorded at waterholes in arid areas. The Secretarybird is not known to undertake any regular seasonal movements, but is nomadic with increased local movements outside the breeding season. It is highly nomadic in low-rainfall areas.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Zimanga Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Vaughan Jessnitz

Secretarybirds roost singly or in pairs, usually in the crown of a flat-topped thorn tree, and often roosts on the nest. Flies to roost 1-2 hr before dark and often only leaves the roost a couple hours after sunrise. They frequently enjoy a dustbath and drinks water regularly in arid areas. The Secretarybird is often active during the heat of the day, but sometimes rests in shade when it gets too hot.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
Photo by Anne Todd

They are well adapted to soaring which enables them to disperse widely and efficiently. Secretarybirds have to run to take off from the ground, usually by running into the prevailing wind with the wings open for balance and to increase lift.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Farm district, Eastern Cape
Photo by Lance Robinson

Spends hours at a time striding across open veld in search of prey, occasionally stamping repeatedly in a small area to disturb or dislodge prey. Raises its wings in excitement and for balance when prey is sighted. All prey is captured on the ground, usually with the bill. Any prey that gets disturbed during stamping bouts is quickly dispatched with hard downward blows from the feet, which are equipped with short, strong toes and robust claws. Small prey items, such as insects or small tortoises, are swallowed whole. Larger prey items are secured with the feet and torn up with bill.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) 
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
Photo by Josu Meléndez

Consumes a wide variety of animal prey. Most prey items are small, favouring grasshoppers, locusts and lizards which usually form the bulk of the diet. Other commonly consumed, smallish prey items include amphibians, rodents and birds, including their young and eggs. Larger prey items include birds up to the size of francolins, mammals up to the size of hares and large snakes, including highly venomous species like puffadder and cobras.

Secretary birds are well equipped to deal with snakes, the long, bare legs are covered with tough armour-like scales to prevent injury or bites from its prey, and the upper legs are densely feathered to provide further protection. However, contrary to popular belief, snakes are not a staple and make up only a small percentage of the Secretarybird’s diet.

Some interesting prey items that have been recorded include Striped Polecat (Ictonyx striatus), Slender Mongoose (Herpestes sanguinea), and Southern African Hedgehog (Atelerix frontalis). Secretarybirds are often attracted to recently burnt areas to feed on animals displaced by the fire, but they do not eat carrion.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Pilanesberg National Park, North West
Photo by Helen Badenhorst

The Secretarybird breeds throughout southern Africa and in all months except during mid-winter in the winter-rainfall regions. They are territorial and maintain territories of 20-230 km2 around nest, depending on habitat.

The nest is is a large, flat platform of sticks up to, 2.5m in diameter and about 50cm thick. Nests are usually sunk into the top of a dense, thorny tree or large bush making the nest difficult to see. The central bowl of the nest is lined with grass and sometimes with pieces of dried dung.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga
Photo by Len de Beer

1 to 3 (usually 2) eggs are laid per clutch. As with most raptors, incubation starts before clutch completion, resulting in asynchronous hatching and chicks of different ages. The eggs are chalky white or pale greenish-blue. Incubation lasts for around 45 days and most incubation is performed by the female. The male provides for the female at this time by bring her food on the nest. The young are altricial and the nestling period lasts for up to 106 days during which time they are fed by both parents. Young chicks are fed by regurgitation but are presented with whole prey items as they get older. If 3 chicks hatch the youngest usually starves to death as it gets out-competed by its older siblings.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Greyton district, Western Cape
Photo by Stuart Shearer

Young birds that have left the nest start hunting for themselves, but remain partly dependent on their parents for food for a further 3 months or so.

Further Resources

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

The use of photographs by Anne Todd, Carel van der Merwe, Helen Badenhorst, Johan Van Rooyen, Josu Meléndez, Lance Robinson, Len de Beer, Stuart Shearer, Vaughan Jessnitz and Zenobia van Dyk is acknowledged.

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

Other common names: Sekretarisvoël (Afrikaans); iNtungunono (Zulu); Ingxangxosi (Xhosa); Secretarisvogel (Dutch); Messager serpentaire, Messager sagittaire (French); Sekretär (German); Secretário (Portuguese).

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2023. Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available Online at https://thebdi.org/2024/01/13/secretarybird-sagittarius-serpentarius/

Bird identificationbirding

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Zimanga Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Vaughan Jessnitz

Cape Crow (Corvus capensis)

Cover image of Cape Crow by Anne Todd – Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape – BirdPix No. 270764

Identification

The Cape Crow is a distinctive black corvid. It is easily recognisable as the only all-black crow in the region. In both sexes the entire body is glossy black. The Bill, legs and feet are also black. The head is rounded and the bill is pointed and more slender than in other corvids.

Juveniles are a duller brownish black.

Cape Crow Corvus capensis
Lotheni Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Andrew Kruger

The Cape Crow is unlikely to be mistaken for any other species except the introduced House Crow (Corvus splendens), but that species has a dark greyish nape, mantle and breast. The House Crow is also smaller with a shorter, heavier bill.

Cape Crow Corvus capensis
Mackenzie Country Club, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Status and Distribution

The Cape Crow is generally a common species across its range. It occurs from Angola and Zambia Southwards, extending across southern Africa in a rather unusual distribution pattern. It is distributed almost continuously along the coast and adjacent interior from the Kunene River, through Cape Aghulhas to Richards Bay. An axis of distribution runs from the Etosha Pan in Namibia, through Botswana to Mpumalanga and western eSwatini (Swaziland). It It also ocurrs on the central plateau of Zimbabwe.

A second subspecies of the Cape Crow is found in nort-east Africa, centered on Ethiopia. The two subspecies do not overlap.

SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Crow Corvus capensis – download in January 2024.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

It is likely that the distribution of this adaptable species has been greatly influenced by human activities. Black Crows frequently build their nests on telephone poles and electricity pylons, and the erection of these structures has probably facilitated the spread of the Cape Crow into otherwise unsuitable, treeless areas. It is considered a pest by maize farmers.

Habitat

The Cape Crow is most common in open habitats with patches of trees or wooded watercourses. In the eastern regions of southern Africa it is generally a species of montane grasslands, and in the west of southern Africa it inhabits open, arid areas. It is uncommon in the Nama Karoo and in well-developed woodlands, but occurs in open, dry savannas, especially in the Kalahari. It is also common in cereal croplands where the natural vegetation has been removed for agriculture.

Typical grassland habitat.
Near Estcourt, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Colin Summersgill

Behaviour

Cape Crows usually live as permanently territorial pairs but can occasionally be found in groups of up to 50 or more. They are less often solitary. The Cape Crow is a sedentary, resident species and is not known to undertake seasonal movements.

Cape Crow Corvus capensis
Near Estcourt, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Colin Summersgill

The Cape Crow is less aerial than other southern African corvids and spends much time perched or foraging on the ground.

Cape Crows are omnivorous. Insects are an important part of the Cape Crow’s diet, including a number of pest species suck as swarming locusts and the Karoo Caterpillar (Loxostege frustalis). Other insects taken include various beetles and their larvae, grasshoppers, termites etc. They also consume various arachnids, snails, lizards, frogs, young tortoises, and sometimes the chicks of domestic chickens

Cape Crow Corvus capensis
Midmar Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

The plant side of its diet consists mainly of bulbs, fruit and seeds, including fallen grain. They are fond of the fruits of the alien Prickly Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) and are implicated in the dispersal of this pest in parts of the Karoo.

Cape Crows forage primarily on the ground, searching the bases of shrubs, grass and other low-growing vegetation. They regularly search for food along road verges and are partial to roadkill, although less so than the Pied Crow (Corvus albus). Cape Crows regularly follow ploughs to snap up any fleeing prey items and they are attracted to areas with livestock in order to probe around dung for insects and grubs. It is not known to attack young lambs in the manner of other, larger corvids. The Cape Crow is also less inclined to scavenge around human habitation than the Pied crow (Corvus albus), and is not often found in urban areas.

Cape Crow Corvus capensis
Near Wartburg, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Roosts in trees, either in pairs or family groups, and sometimes communally, forming large groups in trees. They roost on telephone poles and pylons in otherwise treeless desert and semi-desert regions. Cape Crows drink water regularly and are partial to bathing. Bathes by wading belly-deep in water and dipping the head and shaking the wings to wet the entire body.

Cape Crows are recorded breeding from July to January, although most breeding takes place from September to November. The nest is a bulky cup-like structure made from plant stems and leaves. The nest is is a large bowl of sticks, twigs and sometimes bits of wire. it is thickly lined with wool, fur, cloth, string, feathers and dry dung. The nest us usually placed among thin branches near the top of a tall tree or at the top of a telephone pole.

Cape Crow Corvus capensis
Near Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Pamela Kleiman

Anywhere from 1 to 6 (usually four) eggs are laid per clutch. The eggs are pale pink with brown to purplish spots and speckles. Incubation takes 18 or 19 days and duties are shared by both sexes. The nestling period lasts 36 to 39 days and the young are also fed by both parents. Fledged birds are dependant on their parents for food for up to 3 months after leaving the nest and may remain with the parents for up to 6 months.

Cape Crow Corvus capensis
Between Calvinia and Williston, Northern Cape
Photo by Amour McCarthy

Further Resources

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

The use of photographs by Amour McCarthy, Andrew Kruger, Anne Todd, Colin Summersgill, Malcolm Robinson and Pamela Kleiman is acknowledged.

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

Other common names: Black Crow (Alternative English); Swartkraai (Afrikaans); iNgwababane (Zulu); Unomyayi (Xhosa); Corbeau du Cap, Corneille du Cap (French); Kapkrähe (German); Kaapse Roek (Dutch); Gralha do Cabo (Portuguese)

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. Cape Crow Corvus capensis. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/01/10/cape-crow-corvus-capensis/

Bird identificationbirding

Cape Crow Corvus capensis
Near Uniondale, Western Cape
Photo by Cobus Elstadt