Birds of the African Savanna (With Pictures)

Birds of the African Savanna (With Pictures)

The African savanna supports an abundance of wildlife. Characterised by an extensive cover of grasses and scattered trees, the savannah provides both nesting sites as well as suitable hunting grounds for a diversity of bird species. This element, coupled with its accessibility, makes the savannah biome a haven for African safaris and birding. 

Among the birds often encountered in the savannas of Africa are the hornbills, bee-eaters, oxpeckers, and kingfishers. Birders are also likely to see flocks of vultures circling the skies or perched atop a tree, eagerly awaiting their turn at a fresh carcass.

Let’s take a look at some of the common as well as sought-after species to look out for in the African Savannas.

Helmeted guineafowl

An almost comically peculiar gallinaceous bird, the helmeted guineafowl is a fairly common gamebird sighting amid the grasses of the African savannah. Flocks scurry along the game paths, feasting on grass seeds, tubers, flowers, and other plant materials.

They also eat beetles, snails, insect larvae, and ticks, among other invertebrates and even some small vertebrates such as mice, playing a role in the control of pests and diseases.

Helmeted Guineafowl

The helmeted guineafowl is an unmistakable species named for its vibrant blue or red—or a combination of blue and red—facial skin. It also sports a peculiar bony casque, and rows of tiny white spots adorn its plumage. 

Helmeted guineafowl are well-adapted to their terrestrial lifestyle. They can cover over 10 kilometres in a single day and can run swiftly with surprising stability across uneven terrain. Like most landfowl, they are weak fliers, but are capable of an explosive, albeit short flight to escape predators or when disturned, issuing a harsh alarm call.

Woodland kingfisher

The loud, dual-note trilling call of this tree kingfisher can be heard in wooded habitats throughout tropical Africa. Like many other kingfisher species, the woodland kingfisher does not subsist on a piscivorous diet. Instead, it feeds primarily on insects and the occasional lizard, frog, or other small vertebrate. 

Woodland Kingfisher

It is an attractive bird with an electric-blue back, tail, and wing panels, outstanding against a pale grey head and underparts. Its large, bicolored bill is red above and black below. It can be distinguished by the mangrove kingfisher by its dark lores that form a distinctive eye mask.

This species can be aggressively territorial and is known to attack intruding animals—including humans—and perceived threats around the nesting site.

Lilac-breasted roller

Named for its vibrant, lilac hues, the lilac-breasted roller is popular among birders. Its resplendent plumage features beautiful shades of blue, turquoise, and green among others, which it puts on full exhibit during its flight display, entailing a series of aerial acrobatics for which rollers are named.

Less attractive than its feathering and fanciful flight display, its call is a harsh, crow-like, guttural cackle.

Lilac-Breasted Roller

The lilac-breasted roller is found in the southern and eastern parts of the continent. It is usually spotted on a prominent perch amid the savanna, from where it hunts insects, spiders, and small vertebrates such as lizards and small snakes.

Martial eagle

The real king of the African savanna, the martial eagle is arguably the most powerful African raptor. At three feet tall with an impressive seven-foot wingspan, it is also the largest eagle on the continent.

With its short yet distinctive crest, piercing yellow eyes, and commanding demeanor, the Martial eagle is a majestic bird and favoured sighting among birders. 

Martial Eagle

Martial eagles are ferocious hunters that often prey on mammals far larger than themselves. They are also known to take on dangerous animals, such as jackals and monitor lizards. Hunting prowess aside, These are shy, elusive birds that are particularly wary of humans. 

Martial eagles have an exceptionally vast range across most of sub-Saharan Africa, but they require large territories and are endangered due to habitat loss and indiscriminate persecution.

Red-crested korhaan

Known locally as the suicide bird for its startling courtship display, the red-crested korhaan is a savanna bustard found across southern Africa. It is named for its rusty-red crest—although this feature is almost always concealed. 

Red-Crested Korhaan

While fairly common within its range, the red-crested korhaan blends remarkably well in its environment, owing to the cryptic colouration and patterning of its plumage. It has a lurking gait and is typically spotted on the ground, singly or in pairs, steadily making its way through the bushveld. 

Ahead of the mating season, the male attracts a mate by shooting high into the sky, then dive-bombing toward the ground before impressively landing on his feet.

Grey crowned crane

This peculiar-looking crane is found in dry savannas across sub-Saharan Africa. Similar in appearance to the black crowned crane, it is named for its crown of spiky, golden plumes. It has a predominantly grey plumage, which distinguishes it from its duskier relative.

Grey Crowned Crane

Crowned cranes are unique in that they are the only species that roost in trees, having a prehensile fourth toe to enable this. Of the two species, the gray crowned crane has a wider distribution across the continent—although it is most commonly found in eastern and southern Africa.

Gray crowned cranes are gregarious birds but may also occur solitary or in pairs. Flocks of over 100 birds can be observed around wetlands, dams, and other water bodies, foraging for aquatic plants, insects, worms, and small vertebrates. In drier habitats, they associate with herbivores, feeding on the insects kicked up by grazing ungulates. 

Like other species, grey crowned cranes have a loud, bugling call and a fanciful, dance-like courtship display comprising a series of twirling, bowing, jumping, and tossing vegetation. 

African paradise flycatcher

Paradise flycatchers belong to the monarch family of passerine birds. They are characterised by their rufous plumage with variations of blue, white, and grey  and the long tail streamers of the males that resemble the ribbons of a rhythmic gymnast. Lucky birders may catch sight of the exquisitely beautiful white morph.

African Paradise Flycatcher

The African paradise flycatcher inhabits savanna woodlands and scrublands across sub-Saharan Africa. It is a vocal bird with a harsh, strident call and a melodious, whistling song. 

African paradise flycatchers are typically seen perched on small branches with their short legs, hawking flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, and other insects in mid-air. They also eat ants, spiders, berries, and other available foods.

African green pigeon

Bearing the trademark green plumage of the Treron genus, the African green pigeon is the most widespread among the afro-tropical species, of which there are only five.

African Green Pigeon

The characteristic green colouration comes from a carotenoid pigment in their diet of fruits, nuts, and seeds. The African green pigeon bears dark, pinkish-red shoulder patches and a pale-tipped red bill.

As with other green pigeons, this species is able to climb trees, much like parrots, and typically forages in the canopy. They inhabit savannas, dense woodlands, and riparian forests. 

Owing to their colouration, African green pigeons camouflage well with their surroundings. Listen for their cacophonous call comprising cackles, clicks, whinnies, and growls or their flowy, whistling song.

European bee-eater

Among the most colorful savanna birds is the European bee-eater. Like other bee-eaters, it is a small, slender bird with richly-coloured plumage, a long bill, and a characteristic black eye mask. This species has a blue belly, flame-coloured upper parts, a bright yellow throat, and red irises. 

European Bee-Eater

Small flocks are often seen perched in a row on thin branches or wires. They are insectivorous and typically catch their prey on the wing in a swallowlike, circling flight.

While most populations of this species are migratory, breeding in Europe, Asia, and northern Africa, a resident population occurs in southern Africa. European bee-eaters are gregarious birds that nest colonially in burrows excavated in sand banks and river banks.  


Derived from the French word for “street eagle,” the name bateleur was awarded to these birds for their iconic aerial displays. This spectacular raptor looks like something that emerged from the fantasy genre with its ruffly, cowled hood and dramatic plumage coloration. 


Bateleurs inhabit savannah-woodlands, thornveld, and bushveld. They have a wide and varied menu and spend up to nine hours a day on the hunt.  They are silent predators, save for their raucous alarm call and resonant bark.

Bateleurs frequently dip themselves to cool off or sun themselves to warm up. This also heats the oils in their feathers, which they spread with their beaks—a function believed to aid aerodynamics. 

The bateleur is often seen gliding above the bushveld, awarding fortunate birders a special sighting indeed.

White-backed vulture

Widespread across the continent, the white-backed vulture is the most commonly encountered vulture species on the continent. Its white neck ruff and off-white back contrast against its otherwise dark plumage.

White-Backed Vulture

White-backed vultures live in wooded savannahs across sub-Saharan Africa. These obligate scavengers mainly feed on the carcasses of medium to large grazing animals. They feed in flocks and are often seen circling the skies, scanning the ground below for dead animals. 

Vultures play an important role as ecosystem cleaners, helping prevent the spread of disease. Like other African vultures and despite its vast range, populations of the white-backed vulture are rapidly declining owing to a number of threats, including indirect poisoning, habitat loss, and poaching.

Kori bustard

One of the “Big Six” in southern African birding, the kori bustard is a magnificent bird and sought-after sighting. It is the second-largest bird in Africa after the ostrich and the largest flying bird on the continent.

This species can reach over four feet tall, with a wingspan of up to nine feet. The kori bustard has a short black crest and loose, ruffly neck feathers. Like most bustards, it is a ground-dwelling bird with cryptically coloured, vermiculated plumage to enable camouflage with its surroundings.  

Kori Bustard

Kori bustards are opportunistic omnivores. Their diet comprises mainly insects and plant foods, but they also feed on solifuges, molluscs, small vertebrates, and occasionally even carrion.

They are tall enough to forage small trees and shrubs while standing on the ground. Acacia gum is a favoured food of this species, giving rise to its Afrikaans name gompou, which means gum peacock. Similar to peacocks, these birds also engage in lek mating. 

Kori bustards inhabit savannas, dry bushveld, and grasslands, and are also found in semi-deserts. These watchful, wary birds have a slow, purposeful walk, spending most of their time on the ground.

Final thoughts

Some of the world’s largest savannas are in Africa. Located close to the equator, the warm climate, mixed landscape, and seasonal rainfall provide suitable conditions for a diversity of wildlife. The iconic African savannas offer special birding experiences for experienced and novice birders alike. 

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