The African continent, with its diversity of landscapes, houses the third-largest desert in the world. At over 9 million square kilometres, the Sahara stretches across the north, from the Red Sea and the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, encompassing ten countries in its vastness. Composed of rocky hamadas, rising dunes, and sand seas, the dramatic landscape is beautiful and treacherous.
Yet the Sahara Desert is home to roughly 70 mammal species, 100 reptiles, and over 200 species of birds. Wildlife here are remarkably resilient and adapted to survive the hostile desert environment.
Let’s take a look at some of the birds of the Sahara Desert and the adaptations that allow them to thrive in one of the harshest landscapes of the continent.
1. Common ostrich
A living dinosaur, the ostrich is a special species for many reasons. Not only is it the largest and fastest living bird, but also the fastest two-legged land animal. With its powerful, prehistoric feet and long muscular legs, this large ratite can reach speeds of up to 70 kilometres per hour, using its open wings for balance.
The common ostrich can be found throughout the continent, typically inhabiting in hot, dry habitats. Like other birds, ostriches also use gular fluttering to help them cool down on hot days. But they have several other neat adaptations to protect them from the heat in warmer climates.
While they cannot fly, their wings are still pretty useful. Ostrich feathers, unlike the feathers of flying birds, lack the tiny barbules that aid flight. Instead, they are specially designed for thermoregulation A contraction of muscles causes the feathers to raise when it’s hot, allowing for airflow between the feathers and skin. The fluffy soft feathers flatten to keep these big birds warm in cold weather. Ostriches also take dust baths to cool off, using their wings to scoop sand and throw it over themselves.
Other than its high temperatures, the desert poses several other challenges. Like other desert animals, ostriches are able to go for several days without water, making use of metabolic water and moisture from plants. They typically feed on seeds, shrubs, grasses, and other plant foods but also take the occasional locust or lizard when the opportunity arises.
The high sand dunes of the desert can impede visibility, but ostriches, with their long legs and necks, are able to see further than most desert animals. They also have long eyelashes to protect their eyes during sandstorms, which is helpful since ostriches have exceptionally large eyes—larger than any other bird species.
Owing to their size, speed, and strength, ostriches don’t have many natural predators. Still, they are targeted by apex predators such as lions, leopards, and crocodiles. And while there aren’t a great many animals bold and tactful enough to approach their nests to steal eggs, baboons, vultures and even mobs of meerkats can pose a threat. With few places to hide in the desert, ostriches conceal themselves by laying down with their heads and necks flush against the ground, using the heat haze to blend in like mounds in the landscape.
2. Lappet-faced vulture
The most powerful and aggressive African vulture, the lappet-faced vulture is found in the southern parts of the Sahara, where it cruises the desert skies, scanning for animal carcasses. It is an exceptionally large species with a 9-foot wingspan and one of the largest bills among the raptors. It has dark plumage, with white to off-white underparts and thighs.
This lappet-faced is named for the distinctive folds on the sides of its pinkish head, which protect the ears from sand and food debris. Like other vultures, it is bald—an adaptation to them clean while feeding. Its baldness also aids heat regulation in hot desert temperatures.
Vultures employ a unique cooling method when it gets really hot. They urinate over their legs and feet—the resulting evaporation helps them cool off.
Lappet-faced vultures reign supreme in their habitats, with other species ceding to them at scavenging, which is in a way beneficial, as these powerful vultures are able to tear through the toughest of hides, thereby opening up the carcass to other scavengers.
Also, known as the Nubian vulture, this raptor has a patchy distribution across Africa and the Middle East. In addition to deserts, it also inhabits dry savannah, thornbush, arid plains, and mountain slopes.
Another desert-dwelling species is the Egyptian vulture, also known as the Pharoah’s chicken. By contrast, this is one of the smallest Old World vultures. Its plumage is white with black flight feathers and a shaggy hackle that gives it a somewhat comical, chicken-like appearance. It has a featherless, yellow face and a small, black bill.
Vultures are known for the important role they play as cleaners of the ecosystem, ridding the environment of disease-causing parasites and pathogens by clearing away the carcasses of dead animals. In addition to carrion, this species also feeds on vegetation, insects, small animals such as wild rabbits, and the faeces of mammals.
The Egyptian vulture is also notable for its ability to use tools—typically smooth stones, which it uses to break open the eggs of larger birds, such as ostriches and bustards. The species is found across North Africa. It has a wide range that includes the Iberian Peninsula, West Asia, and India.
Both the Lappet-faced vulture and the Egyptian vulture are endangered. In general, vultures across Africa are in serious decline due to a number of threats, such as lead poisoning, collision with electrical infrastructure, and persecution.
3. Pharoah eagle-owl
The Pharoah eagle owl is a silent predator, lurking in the desert at night. It has tawny plumage, mottled with cream and brown blotches and cryptic patterns. Its large eyes are fiery orange. Like other nocturnal owl species, it has specialised wing feathers, enabling a silent flight. A keen eye may spot this owl, perched around its nesting site during the day.
Pharoah eagle owls breed during winter, nesting on rocky surfaces. They prey on lizards, desert rodents, hares, beetles, scorpions, and other birds.
Other raptors that can be found in the Sahara include the Barbary falcon and the Short-toed snake eagle.
4. Desert lark
The lark is a bird generally associated with hot, dry environments. Many lark species are found in deserts, semi-deserts, and other arid habitats. In fact, the lark family has the highest number of desert-dwelling species than any other bird family.
These species have special adaptations that allow them to thrive in harsh habitats. Larks in drier habitats have been found to have lower basal metabolic rates when compared to their temperate cousins.
In addition to physiological adaptations, desert birds also employ specific lifestyle habits. For instance, most lark species are nomadic, or locally nomadic, moving into vegetated areas such as oases or adjacent woodlands for refuge when temperatures soar. But species such as the desert lark typically remain in their treacherous desert habitats year-round.
There are 22 recognised subspecies, spanning from North Africa to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. The Saharan subspecies bear pale brown, cryptically-coloured plumage to blend in with the desert sands. They are found solitary or in pairs or small flocks and feed mainly on seeds and insects.
Other larks of the Sahara include the greater hoopoe lark, Dunn’s lark, and the bar-tailed lark.
5. Crowned sandgrouse
Like larks, sandgrouses also live in arid areas. These stout, ground-dwelling birds are found in open, fairly treeless environments. While most desert birds prefer the solitary lifestyle, sandgrouses are gregarious, taking advantage of safety in numbers.
They are often encountered in large flocks and subsist on a diet of seeds and other plant foods foraged amid the scrubby vegetation of their habitat.
The spotted sandgrouse is found in the stony deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. This species breeds on the stony plains during the hottest part of summer. They construct scrape nests with a high preference for porous rock surfaces. Spongy rock retains less heat and keeps the nest cool.
They also keep one or two large stones near the nest, which attract dew at night—the moisture of which seeps into the ground, cooling the nesting site during the day. Both male and female sandgrouses incubate the eggs and raise the young. Their cryptic coloration camouflages them against the colours of the desert.
Sandgrouses rely on daily trips to a water source. The young, while precocial, are unable to fly until around five weeks old. The male spotted has a special adaptation to solve this. On each trip to the waterhole, he immerses himself in water, saturating his hyper-absorbent plumage. Upon returning, he spreads his wings, inviting the young to hydrate by suckling at his drenched belly feathers.
Other species found in the Sahara include the very similar in appearance crowned sandgrouse, which can be distinguished by its darker flight feathers.
6. Desert sparrow
Outwardly unimposing, the desert sparrow is tougher than it looks. It is a small, plump bird with a delicate appearance. Its pale, sandy plumage matches the desert landscape. Desert sparrows inhabit sandy areas, scrub, and oases.
This small passerine is hardy and fearless, unafraid to approach people. They grow accustomed to human presence and often construct nests in the walls of mud houses.
In fact, the Mozabite Berbers build their homes with holes in the walls to welcome the desert sparrow, which many believe to be harbingers of good fortune—a belief shared with the Toureg.
7. Brown-necked raven
Ravens are generally resilient birds—smart, skillful, and highly adaptable to their environments, even thriving around human habitations. Some species have adapted to live in arid habitats. One such species is the brown-necked raven, whose range spans across North Africa. These ravens live in deserts and frequent oases and palm groves.
All ravens are opportunistic feeders—a useful quality where resources are generally low. Brown-necked ravens are fearless in their pursuit of food, feeding on carrion, snakes, lizards, and large insects as well as dates and other fruits, often thieving from human settlements and travelers.
Another desert species is the fan-tailed raven of North Africa and the Middle East. It can be found in the south Saharan Aïr Massif, where pairs nest along the crags. The fan-tailed raven has massive, vulture-like wings that enable gliding on thermals. This species is highly aerial traveling vast distances in search of food.
Other desert-dwelling bird species include the scrub warbler, house bunting, and desert wheatear. Species such as the Nubian bustard, the cream-coloured courser, and the golden nightjar can be found in the vegetated margins at the desert fringe, only venturing into the Sahara when conditions allow.
For thousands of years, the Sahara has alternated between desert and grassland, following a 20,000-year cycle. Given that it takes millennia for species to evolve, birds and other wildlife of the desert display a remarkable ability to adapt to the extreme desert environment.