With twenty National Parks, thousands of nature reserves, and over 100 bird sanctuaries, South Africa remains a sought-after destination for birding and wildlife viewing. But with the sheer diversity and abundance of birdlife, you don’t even need to leave the backyard of your home, chalet, or holiday house to do some birding.
And if you’re in the company of locals, you are sure to pick up some interesting folklore, vocabulary, and onomatopoeia while you’re at it,
In addition to their common English names, birds in South Africa are also given names in other official languages, which are often more descriptive. Also, South Africans have a knack for nicknames, so you may come across terms like “little brown jobs” or “LBJ” which is the unofficial name (somewhat) affectionately given to all small brown birds that are less than easy to identify.
But worry not, you are sure to encounter many easily identifiable species too. Here are some of the more common birds you are likely to spot in gardens and parks across the country.
1. Dark-capped bulbul
Now this is a small brown bird you won’t have too much trouble identifying. The dark-capped bulbul’s Afrikaans name is bottergat, which literally means “butter bum,” owing to its bright yellow vent and undertail coverts. It gets its English name for the darker brown of its head and crest. The rest of its plumage is greyish-brown, with pale, whitish underparts.
Dark-capped bulbuls are typically seen in small, chatty flocks. Listen for a sweet chattery call, described onomatopoetically as “sweet-sweet-sweet-potato.”
These frugivores are important pollinators. While they mainly feed on fruit, they also enjoy seeds, nectar, and the occasional insects.
2. Grey go-away bird
Also known as the grey loerie or kwêvoël, this species is known for its quirky, nasal cry, for which it is named. It gives a loud, descending “kwehhh”, often described as “go-awayyy,” when alarmed or disturbed.
Interestingly, the go-away bird does, in fact, use its whiny alarm call to warn other animals when predators are around. Hunters dislike them for this reason as the birds give up their location to game fowl and other animals.
Go-away birds mainly feed on fruit but also eat leaves flowers, buds, and protein-rich invertebrates such as snails and termites.
3. Crested barbet
The crested barbet is a beautiful bird with fiery speckled plumage and dark upperparts. Despite its distinctive coloration, it is more often seen than it is heard. This species has a continuous, strident, insect-like whistle that could be mistaken for the drumming of a woodpecker.
Crested barbets are found solo or in pairs. Their diet comprises insects, fruit, and the eggs of other birds.
4. Hadeda ibis
Amusingly nicknamed “Johannesburg’s fish eagle,” the hadeda is known for its loud, nasal call that can often be heard in the mornings (to the horror of late sleepers).
They are often seen perched on roofs and other structures or loitering around the garden, foraging. They use their thin, long bills to probe the ground for worms and insects. Hadedas are also useful garden birds, as they clear garden beds of snails and slugs.
While this bird may not be a favourite among locals (especially the sleep-loving), the hadeda has certainly earned its place as a local icon.
5. African hoopoe
This species gets its common name from its duel or triple-note “hoop-hoop” call, given by the males during the breeding season. It is an attractive, crested bird with chestnut plumage and black and white striped wings and tail, very similar in appearance to its Eurasian cousin.
Hoopoes are often seen hopping around the lawn, probing the ground for beetles, crickets, locusts, and other insects with their long, thin bills. They then thwack them on the ground to break them up into bite-sized pieces.
6. Red-eyed dove
Named for its red irises, the red-eyed dove’s most notable feature, like many other South African garden birds is its call, which consequently also gives away its name. The soft, repetitive call can be phonetically described as “I-am, the-red-eyed-dove.”
This large, stocky pigeon has a pinkish head and underparts and blue-grey wings, back, and tail, and it has a black semicircular patch on the nape. It is very similar in appearance to the Cape turtle dove, but the red-eyed dove is much larger.
Red-eyed doves are typically seen singly or in pairs or threes, foraging the ground for grass seeds and other plant foods.
7. Laughing dove
The laughing dove is a small, slim pigeon with a long tail, dusty pink plumage, and mauve-tinged head and neck. It is named for its amusing call, which is a low, rolling chuckle.
Laughing doves are typically seen in pairs or small flocks, either perched in a tree or foraging the ground for seeds and small insects.
8. Green woodhoopoe
The green woodhoopoe is a beautiful, slender bird. Its plumage is metallic emerald-green, with an iridescent purple sheen on the back and a black and white striped tail and underwings. This species was formerly called the red-billed hoopoe for its thin, curved, bright red bill.
Green woodhoopoes are social birds. They are cooperative breeders, always seen in small, noisy flocks—a behavior for which they are called iNhlekabafazi in Zulu, meaning “cackling women.”
These insectivores feed in trees or on the ground. They have specially developed claws that enable them to perch on tree trunks or on the underside of branches while picking off insects.
9. Crowned plover
Also known as crowned lapwings, this plover is a bird of the dry grasslands and is a common sighting in gardens, favouring the short, lawn grass. They are typically seen solo or in pairs, foraging the grass for insects, especially ants and termites.
The crowned plover is named for its black crown, encircled with a white halo. Its plumage is mostly gray, with a white belly and underwing coverts, and a black tail, breast band, and flight feathers.
It has relatively long, thin red legs its small, pointy bill is red with a black tip. Its wide yellow eyes and upright stance give it an alert appearance.
Crowned plovers are fairly noisy birds. The common call is a loud, harsh “krrrk.”
10. Blacksmith lapwing
Often found foraging nearby its crowned cousin, the blacksmith lapwing is a common garden visitor during winter, often seen picking at the lawn for insects and worms. Come springtime, it takes to wetland habitats for the breeding season.
The blacksmith lapwing has patchy black, white, and grey plumage, a short pointy bill, and thin, long grey legs. Blacksmith lapwings are named for their metallic “tink-tink-tink” call, which sounds remarkably like a hammer clanging on an anvil.
11. Southern masked weaver
The southern masked weaver is an interesting bird to watch. The male weaves a dome-shaped nest in a tree while the female looks on, inspecting his handiwork. If she is not satisfied, the male will start from scratch. This can go on until the female finds a nest that suits her, while several empty nests hang from the tree.
While this bird is named for its black face mask, its more notable attribute is the bright yellow plumage of the breeding male. Females and non-breeding males are drab brown.
Masked weavers often forage together with other species. Their diet comprises insects, seeds, and nectar, and they will readily eat from bird feeders.
12. Southern red bishop
Another weaver with an attractive summer plumage, the southern red bishop male is fiery red and black during the breeding season. Like the masked weaver, females and non-breeding males are brown.
Red bishops are often seen (and heard) in twittering flocks, foraging the ground for seeds. The male has a distinctive, buzzing song. They are gregarious birds that nest in colonies and forage in flocks, often mixed with other weaver species.
13. Cape starling
Among the most common starling species in South Africa, the Cape starling is a common sighting in suburban areas. It is a beautiful bird with glossy blue-green, iridescent plumage, and bright yellow irises. Its warbling song often includes sounds it mimics from its environment.
These starlings are often spotted perched in the trees or foraging around the garden for fruit, nectar, and insects.
14. Pied crow
The pied crow is named for its black and white plumage. Some experts believe it to be a small raven. It has a harsh, croaky call.
The pied crow is often seen perched in a tree, scanning the ground below for small vertebrates, insects, food scraps, and fruit.
15. Black-collared barbet
The black-collared barbet is another species that is often heard but rarely seen. Its rapid, repetitive duet is telling of its name, which sounds like “black-collared” on repeat.
It has a bright red face, red eyes, and a prominent black collar for which it is named. The black-collared barbet has a large, heavy bill and subsists mainly on a diet of fruit.
16. White-bellied sunbird
While Africa does not have hummingbirds, sunbirds not only fill the niche but also look the part. These small nectarivores hover around brightly-colored flowers, lapping up nectar. They also feed on insects, usually hawking them in flight.
The male white-bellied sunbird has iridescent blue-green upperparts, a shimmery violet breast, and white underparts for which it is named. Females are mostly brown. The twittery call of the white-bellied sunbird starts out slow and steady and becomes rapid toward the end. It also has a warbling song.
17. Diederik cuckoo
The Diederik cuckoo is an elusive species that is often heard but is difficult to spot and even harder to capture on camera.
It is a small, beautiful bird with patchy upperparts in various shades of green and copper-brown, white underparts, and heavily barred undertail and underwing coverts.
The name Diederik is a male Afrikaans name given to the species for its high-pitched, whistly call, the onomatopoeic rendition of which is “dee-dee-dee-deederik.” Diederik cuckoos feed on insects and caterpillars.
From the urban and suburban areas to the rural regions and farmlands, a wide variety of birds visit gardens across the country, and garden birding can become an addictive hobby.
So, remember to pack some binos and a sunhat when venturing out for a walk in the garden or park, as you may find yourself lost for hours, captivated by the wonderment of backyard birding.