The African continent is a veritable Shangri-La for wildlife and birding, from the Sahara Desert to the Great Plains, from the sub-Saharan grasslands to the rainforests of tropical Africa. While South America and Asia boast some of the world’s most colorful and unique birdlife, Africa is home to a profusion of spectacular species.
When we talk about bird nativeness, we refer to their breeding range. As you know, resident birds are those that remain in the same region year-round, whereas migrating birds typically move with the seasons.
The warm African climate makes for an idyllic winter escape for species from colder regions. Many migratory species, such as the Amur falcon and white stork fly south after the breeding season, spending winters in Africa where the weather is ideal and food is abundant. Let’s take a look at some of the most beautiful birds on the continent.
1. Lilac-breasted roller
Popular among birders, the lilac-breasted roller is a stunning species found across the south and east of the continent. It is often spotted prominently perched amid the savanna, scanning the environment for arthropods and small vertebrates.
Named for its lilac throat and upper breast, its pastel plumage features up to eight colors, including turquoise, green, black, tawny-brown, and royal blue. Less attractive than its feathering is its guttural cackle, which could be mistaken for the harsh call of a crow.
2. European bee-eater
Despite the name, the European bee-eater breeds in Africa and Asia, as well as Europe, with most populations spending winters in tropical Africa.
It is a slender bird with colorful plumage in shades of red, orange, and green with sky-blue underparts. It has red eyes, a long, curved black bill, and a black eye mask characteristic of bee-eaters.
European bee-eaters are gregarious birds that nest colonially in burrows along sand banks, typically near rivers. They inhabit savannahs, grasslands, woodlands, shrublands, and cultivations, often in drier regions. Small, vocal flocks are often spotted perched on thin branches or telephone wires. As the name suggests, these insectivores primarily feed on bees and other flying insects, typically catching them on the wing.
3. Yellow-collared lovebird
This small parrot is native to Tanzania, with feral populations occurring in Kenya. Its plumage is apple-green, with a bright yellow collar for which it is named. Its red bill and white eye rings contrasting against a dusky, brown face give it a striking appearance—a characteristic for which it is also known as the masked lovebird.
Yellow-collared lovebirds are highly social, occurring in small flocks often seen grooming and preening each other. They inhabit savannahs, woodlands, and croplands, as well as around human habitations. This species usually stays close to a water source and feeds mainly on seeds and grains.
4. African pygmy kingfisher
Kingfishers are among the most beautiful birds, owing to their richly colored plumage—tawny below with upperparts in various shades of blue or violet hues—an illusion created by structural coloration.
The African pygmy kingfisher is a particularly beautiful species, with a deep blue crown and back, violet ear coverts, and rufous underparts. It is a shy species, found solo or in pairs across most of sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of drier regions.
African pygmy kingfishers inhabit savannahs, woodlands, and coastal forests, where they feed on insects, spiders, and small reptiles.
5. Beautiful sunbird
Known as Africa’s hummingbirds, sunbirds are small nectar feeders belonging to the Nectariniidae family. The beautiful sunbird is a tiny species, owing its apt name to the plumage of the male. Iridescent shades of metallic green and red dazzle against the velvety black of its throat, belly, and upper wings. It has a thin, downcurved bill and tubular tongue adapted for feeding on nectar.
The beautiful sunbird is native to tropical Africa. Its range spans from Senegal, Guinea, and Mauritania in the west to Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia in the east.
6. Superb starling
African starlings are known for their glossy, iridescent plumage. The superb starling is a small, short-tailed species with a distinct plumage pattern. It has a reddish-brown belly, white undertail and underwing coverts, and a black face. The rest of its plumage is iridescent blue-green. It has pale yellow irises and a small, black bill.
The superb starling is native to East Africa, where it inhabits savannahs, open woodlands, and thornveld. It has a shrill, screeching call and a loud song comprised of trills and chatter. These gregarious birds are unafraid of humans and can also be found in gardens and cultivations. Small flocks are often seen foraging on the ground for insects and worms.
They also eat grains, berries, and small fruit. The species is similar in appearance to the Hildebrandt’s starling, but the superb starling can be distinguished by the thin white line across the breast, separating the rufous underparts from the metallic mantle.
7. Violet-backed starling
Another beautiful African starling, the violet-backed is a species like no other. Also known as the amethyst starling, it is named for the unmistakable iridescent violet of the male’s plumage, contrasting against pure white underparts. It has yellow irises and a grayish-black bill.
The violet-backed starling occurs across most of the continent, south of the Sahara, with the exception of drier regions and the Congo rainforests. It lives in open woodlands, gallery forests, and forest clearings, where it forages in the canopies for fruits, seeds, and invertebrates.
8. Purple-crested turaco
Turacos are peculiar birds with long tails, chunky bodies, small heads, and mohawk-like crests. The purple-crested turaco has the added mystery of its unresolved phylogeny, as biologists are uncertain whether it belongs to the turaco family.
It is a handsome species named for its deep, purple crest. It has an emerald green forehead and eye mask, a lime-green throat, underparts and mantle, and crimson-red flight feathers. There is a pinkish-red wash on the breast. The rest of its plumage is bluish-purple. Its raucous croaking gets progressively louder, ascending as it echoes through the forest.
The species is native to South and East Africa and is the national bird of Swaziland. Purple-crested turacos inhibit evergreen forests, riverine woodlands, and savannah thickets. They forage the treetops for buds, berries, and fruit.
9. African green pigeon
Pigeons may not be on the birder’s list of sought-after birds to encounter in nature, but many Columbid species warrant closer inspection. African green pigeons are not your average city birds.
They occur in savannah and woodland habitats and riparian forests, where they can be found foraging for fruit in the canopy. These birds are not easy to spot but can be detected by their whimsical song, composed of a series of whinnies, whistles, clicks, and cackles.
The African green pigeon has remarkable climbing ability, much like parrots. The similarity is continued by its plumage color, which is gray-green above, and yellow-green below, with yellow thighs, and purple-red shoulder patches. It has pale blue to white irises, a red bill, and red feet.
Despite their rarity, African green pigeons have a wide range across sub-Saharan Africa.
10. Red-billed hornbill
Fans of The Lion King will be familiar with this species. Hornbills are synonymous with the African bush. They are large, quirky birds with characteristic gray, black, and white, speckled plumage, long tails, and prominent downward-curved bills.
Africa is home to several species of hornbills. Among the most well-known is the red-billed hornbill, named for its orange-red bill, if not for which it could be mistaken for its southern counterpart, the yellow-billed hornbill.
Red-billed hornbills are found in woodlands and savannahs across sub-Saharan Africa. They are often seen perched in trees or foraging on the ground for seeds, fruit, and insects. Hornbills are easily spotted in-flight, distinguishable by their distinctive, undulating flight pattern.
11. Secretary bird
This large, distinctive raptor looks like an amalgamation of species with its eagle-like face, crane-like legs, and dramatic crest made of long, black quills. It is a tall, slender, elegant bird with mostly gray and white plumage. Its flight feathers and thighs are inky black. It has bare, orange-red facial skin, brown eyes, and long lashes. A pair of long, spatulate tail plumes are conspicuous in flight.
Secretary birds are found in the savannah and grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike most raptors, they hunt on the ground, stalking their prey on foot. While known for their penchant for snakes and ability to take on highly venomous species, their diet comprises mainly small vertebrates, such as rodents, lizards, frogs, and small birds.
12. Martial eagle
At three feet long, with a seven-foot wingspan, the martial eagle is the largest African eagle and among the world’s most powerful raptors. It is a magnificent bird with a commanding demeanor. Its plumage is mostly dark brown with white, spotted underparts. It has a short, albeit distinctive crest, piercing yellow eyes, and long, powerful talons.
Often called the leopards of the sky, these apex predators are ferocious hunters that don’t shy away from taking on mammals much larger than themselves, including dangerous prey, such as jackals, monitor lizards, and smaller wild cats.
Despite their hunting prowess, martial eagles are shy, elusive birds, they inhabit savannah woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa. The species is endangered, due to indiscriminate persecution and habitat loss.
13. African fish eagle
A stately raptor with a distinctive far-carrying cry, the fish eagle is an evocative symbol that aptly captures the spirit of the African bush. It has a dusky plumage with a pure white hood, similar to that of the bald eagle. Its back and upperwings are mostly black, and it has brown underparts.
It has brown eyes and bare yellow skin on the face, extending to the base of the large, hooked, black bill, which together with its powerful feet and sharp talons, are adapted for a carnivorous lifestyle. While they feed mainly on fish, their diet includes birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and carrion.
The African fish eagle is found near large open bodies of water across sub-Saharan Africa.
14. Greater Flamingo
The largest and most widespread flamingo species, the greater flamingo’s range spans across, and parts of Asia and Europe. Its plumage is mostly pinkish-white, with red wing coverts, and black flight feathers. It has long, pink legs, and its large, movable, downbent bill is black-tipped pink and adapted for filtering food.
Flamingos get their pink coloration from their carotenoid-rich diet of brine shrimps and algae. The greater flamingo also eats seeds and mollusks. It inhabits shallow coastal lagoons and mudflats.
15. Grey crowned crane
The grey crowned crane is an extraordinary bird closely related to the equally beautiful black crowned crane. It is a tall bird with a long neck and long legs. Its tri-colored plumage is mostly gray with hints of white, buff, and black.
It has a distinctive crest of stiff golden plumes for which it is named and a red throat pouch, which inflates when it gives its loud, booming call. The grey crowned crane also has a honking call, unlike the familiar trumpeting of other species.
Grey crowned cranes are native to southern and eastern Africa. They inhabit savannahs, grasslands, wetlands, and cultivated areas and feed on a wide variety of insects, worms, amphibians, and reptiles, as well as plant foods, such as seeds and grains.
They forage on the ground during the day and roost in the trees at night. The species is endangered, due to the destruction of their habitat by wetland drainage, overgrazing, and pesticide pollution.
The African continent is home to an array of spectacular and charismatic species, but many are in decline from habitat loss and destruction, persecution, climate change, invasive species, pesticide poisoning, and other human-induced threats.
Over two-hundred African birds are threatened with extinction. Learning about them and raising their profiles helps us understand their plight in that we may raise awareness and take measures that contribute to their conservation, preserving them for generations to come.