The southernmost land of the African continent is home to over 700 resident bird species, with around 850 species recorded in the region. South Africa’s diverse environment offers nine biomes for its abundance of birdlife.
Most of the country lies within savannah and grasslands, boasting iconic species, like the African fish eagle and the blue crane—South Africa’s elegant national bird. The Cape Floral Kingdom with its fynbos shrublands, provides a unique and specialized habitat for several endemic species, such as the Cape sugarbird, the orange-breasted sunbird, and the rare fynbos buttonquail. Even the karoo region is rich in birdlife, with multiple lark species, nomadic birds, and species adapted to the harsh conditions of the arid west.
South Africa has a 1,740-mile-long coastline, along which are the breeding grounds for many nesting seabirds, including the African penguin and Cape Gannet. Let’s take a look at some of the most notable, as well as lesser-known Southern African birds.
The bokmakierie is a species of bushshrike endemic to southern Africa, where it is found mainly in South Africa and its neighboring Namibia. It is a rather unimposing bird, except for its bright yellow face and underparts. It has a gray head and flanks, black eye mask and bib, olive-green back, and gray head.
The bokmakierie is a shy species more often heard than it is seen and was named for its high-pitched call, onomatopoetically described as bok-mak-kierie by Dutch settlers. It lives in open habitats, including the fynbos and karoo scrublands. The bokmakierie is often seen in parks and gardens. Typical of shrikes, it feeds mainly on insects but also preys on small lizards, frogs, and birds.
2. Orange-breasted sunbird
As mentioned, sunbirds are the hummingbirds of Africa, and twenty-one species of these nectarivores can be found in South Africa. The orange-breasted sunbird is endemic to the fynbos biome in the southwest of the country. This small, attractive bird has iridescent feathering—an emerald green head and violet collar. It has an olive-green back and is named for its bright orange breast.
Like other sunbirds, it feeds mainly on flower nectar, with its thin, long, curved bill and brush-tipped, tubular tongue. The orange-breasted sunbird is strongly associated with proteas and ericas. While it is classified as least concern by the IUCN, populations are decreasing, possibly due to habitat destruction, human disturbances, and invasive alien vegetation outcompeting the indigenous vegetation these birds depend on.
3. Southern yellow-billed hornbill
This peculiar species is a familiar and welcome sighting in the drier savannahs of southern Africa. The yellow-billed hornbill is a medium-sized bird. Its plumage is pale gray below and black above with large, white spots. It has bare red skin on its face and pale-yellow eyes. It gets its name from the yellow-orange bill, which is curved, casqued, and fairly large relative to its body size.
Yellow-billed hornbills can be found alone or in pairs or small flocks, foraging the ground for seeds, insects, and arachnids. The common call is a loud, piercing, cry. In flight, they can be identified by their gliding flight pattern, punctuated by rapid wing beats.
4. Knysna turaco
Also known as the Knysna loerie, this African turaco is an otherworldly bird of the evergreen forests along the southeastern coast. It is also found in Swaziland (now Eswatini).
The Knysna loerie has mainly green plumage, with metallic purple-blue back, upper wings and upper tail, and crimson primaries visible in flight. It has a prominent, white-tipped crest, white markings around the eyes, red eye rings, and a short, red bill.
Knysna loeries have a loud, harsh, croaking call and are often seen flying between the treetops, where they hop around on the branches, feeding on fruit insects and worms.
5. Cape parrot
A large, short-tailed parrot of the temperate forest, the Cape parrot, also known as Levaillant’s parrot, is endemic to South Africa. It inhibits the eastern Afromontane Forest, where it feeds on fruits and nuts, especially those of the African yellowwoods.
The Cape parrot has mainly green plumage, with a brownish-gray hood, tail, and flight feathers. There are bright orange spots on the shoulders. It has dark irises and its large, ivory-colored beak is adapted for cracking hard nuts. The Cape parrot has a raucous call and can be distinguished in flight by its slow, rowing wingbeats.
The species is threatened by disease and habitat destruction and is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. Each year, hundreds of volunteers and birding enthusiasts come together to participate in the Cape Parrot Big Birding Day—an annual population count to track population numbers and trends.
6. Southern ground hornbill
The southern ground hornbill’s range spans across southern and southeast Africa from South Africa to Kenya. It is one of two species of ground hornbills, both of which are only found in Africa.
This is an unmistakable, large bird with dusky plumage and prominent red skin on the face and throat wattles. It has a long, casqued black bill, pale irises, and exceptionally long eyelashes. Long, white primary feathers are visible in flight.
Ground hornbills are found in the savannah, where they hunt and forage in the grasses and nest in the trees. These unlikely apex predators prey on reptiles and small mammals in addition to insects, mollusks, and amphibians.
Southern ground hornbills are vocal birds that give deep, booming calls to mark their large territories. The species is in decline due to habitat loss, collision with power lines, accidental poisoning, and indiscriminate persecution in addition to having slow reproductive rates. Ground hornbills lay two eggs, of which only one is raised. Conservation efforts focus on the collection of abandoned eggs and rearing the chicks in captivity to replenish wild populations.
7. Southern Black Korhaan
Also known as the black bustard, the southern black korhaan is another species with its insular range restricted to the southwest spanning from Makhanda in the Eastern Cape province through the Cape Garden Route to the Namakwaland.
Named for its dusky plumage, the southern black korhaan has a stout, boat-shaped body, longish neck, and small head. Its intricately barred upperparts bear shades of black, brown, and white and it has black underparts. The male has a black neck and face, white cheeks and wing stripes, and a barred crown.
These omnivorous ground birds live in dry savannahs, shrublands, and other semi-arid habitats, stalking through the grasses for insects and small reptiles and foraging for seeds and other plant foods.
The species is in decline due to habitat loss, possibly exacerbated by climate change. They are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN species red list.
8. Blue crane
The national bird of South Africa is a demure species of the crane family. It has long legs and pale, blue-gray plumage for which it is named. The feathering on its breast is adorned with elongated, ornamental plumes. Long, black flight feathers trail at the end of its tail, almost touching the ground. Its long neck, large head, and long cheek feathers give this species a cobra-like appearance.
Blue cranes feed on plant foods, insects, and small vertebrates. They are partial nomads of the grasslands, croplands, and semi-desert areas of South Africa. A small, endangered population can be found in the Etosha Pan of Namibia.
The signature call of the blue crane is a bugling, staccato duet. Typical of cranes, pairs engage in elaborate courtship rituals involving dancing, jumping, and tossing sticks and other objects found on the ground.
Since the late 80s, the species has been in decline and has largely disappeared from parts of its range. The main threats to blue cranes are habitat loss and destruction, inadvertent poisoning, and persecution by farmers. The IUCN currently lists the species as “vulnerable.”
9. Cape vulture
Also known as the Cape griffon, this large vulture can be spotted circling the skies of southern Africa, where it inhabits savannah, grasslands, and shrublands.
The Cape vulture has cream-white plumage with brown flight feathers. It has a long, gray, sparsely feathered neck and head and a large, powerful gray-black bill. Its furrowed eyes give it a serious facial expression.
Vultures have been given a bad reputation, owing to their somewhat sinister appearance and bad-guy portrayal in pop culture. But they are in fact, birds of great value in nature due to their role as cleaners of the ecosystem. Vultures have evolved to feed primarily on carrion. Their powerful bills are adapted to break bones and tear open carcasses, allowing smaller scavengers to feed on the kill.
Sadly, the Cape vulture is often a victim of human-wildlife conflict and populations are at risk due to a number of threats, including inadvertent poisoning, collision with powerlines, habitat loss, and unsustainable harvesting for traditional medicine. They are currently evaluated as “vulnerable” by the IUCN.
10. Cape gannet
A large, unmistakable seabird, the Cape gannet belongs to the Sulidae family of gannets and boobies. It has pure white plumage with black primary flight feathers, a black tail, and a lemon-yellow crown and nape. Its pale blue bill is long and pointed, and it has distinctive, black facial markings and blue orbital rings encircling its pale eyes.
Cape gannets have large, webbed feet with which they incubate their eggs. They are endemic to the Benguela Current Marine Ecosystem of southwest Africa. They nest in exceptionally large colonies that are restricted to only six islands off the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. The largest colony on Malgas Island is made up of over 140 thousand birds. Outside the breeding season, the species range extends as far north as the Gulf of Guinea on the west coast and Mozambique along the east.
Cape gannets are powerful fliers and strong swimmers that plunge-dive into the water at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour. A reinforced skull, subcutaneous air sacs, and a lack of external nostrils are among the adaptations this species has evolved to survive such impact.
These endangered seabirds subsist on a diet of pelagic fish, such as pilchards and sardines—the depletion of which has greatly contributed to declining population numbers.
11. African penguin
Another endangered seabird of the southwest coast, the African penguin is a charismatic species confined to the waters of southern Africa. It belongs to the Spheniscus genus of banded penguins, characterized by a black band that runs across the breast and down the flanks. It has a black bill and face mask. The rest of the underparts are snow white, with black spots, while the upperparts are inky black—a perfect example of countershading in nature.
Like other banded penguins, they have a loud, donkey-like call for which they have been nick-named the “jackass penguins.”
African penguins hunt within twelve miles of the coast and feed on pelagic fish and marine invertebrates. Like the Cape gannet, they are also threatened by overfishing in addition to oil spills and historical exploitation. Conservation measures include monitoring programs, artificial nests, hand-rearing, and protected areas.
South Africa is a land rich in diversity of all forms, and its birdlife continues this trend. Some of the most renowned birding hotspots in the country include the Kruger National Park, De Hoop Nature Reserve, and iSimangaliso Wetlands Park, World Heritage Site. The best time for birding in South Africa is over the spring and summer months from September to March. But there is plenty to see for birders year-round in this southern African birding paradise.