Safari Birds of South Africa

Safari Birds of South Africa

A visit to South Africa would be incomplete without a trip to the bush. And there is a lot more than the Big Five to look out for. Birdlife in South Africa is reflective of the sheer diversity that can be found here. And birding tours are becoming increasingly popular in the region.

Some of the best Safari-birding hotspots in the country include the Kruger National Park, the southern Drakensberg, mKhuze Game Reserve, and the Isimangaliso Wetlands Park World Heritage Site

Common birds you can expect to see on a South African safari include the yellow-billed hornbill, helmeted guineafowl, and Burchell’s sandgrouse. Other familiar species, such as the red-eyed dove and Natal spurfowl, are often heard before they are seen. 

It’s worth spending some time in bird hides, where you can watch cormorants, herons, and other waterbirds. South Africa also has four species of kingfishers—at least one of which you are likely to encounter while on safari. You may also notice some interesting nests, such as the large communal nest of the sociable weaver. 

Several bird species in the region are known for their interactions with other animals, usually in mutually beneficial relationships. Species known for this behavior include oxpeckers and cattle egrets. The honeyguide is another fascinating bird known to guide people and other animals to wild bee colonies, where they feed on the wax, larvae, and leftover fragments.

And of course, no safari would be complete without a sighting of Africa’s most beautiful bird, the lilac-breasted roller. In this article, we take a look at some of the most coveted bird sightings for an unforgettable safari in South Africa.

1. African Fish Eagle

Naturally, the fish eagle is at the top of the list. The stately raptor is a favorite among birders and wildlife enthusiasts alike. It is a large, distinctive bird, bearing a resemblance to the American bald eagle with its white hood that reaches down its breast and dusky body plumage.

The African fish eagle has dark eyes and a curved black bill with a prominent yellow cere. Its large yellow feet are rough-soled, and it has long, sharp talons for gripping prey. 

African Fish Eagle

Fish eagles are typically found near large freshwater bodies in the savannah, grasslands, and wetlands across the country. Its sharp, wailing cry is iconic, perfectly capturing the spirit of the African bush.

2. Bateleur

The French word, Bateleur, means “street eagle.” Bateleurs are among the most majestic creatures in the African sky. They are named for their acrobatic aerial displays. This stunningly beautiful raptor looks like something that emerged from the fantasy genre with its ruffly, cowled hood and dramatic plumage coloration. 

The bateleur has dark, piercing eyes and a relatively small, hooked bill. It has a conspicuous red cere, red facial skin, and scaly red feet with thick toes and sharp talons. Its bow-shaped wings are exceptionally long, and it has a very short tail.


Juvenile bateleurs are distinctively different from the adults, with brown plumage and long tails. They can take up to eight years to mature and fully develop their adult plumage. This species is found in savannah-woodland habitats, as well as thornveld and shrublands, often seen gliding over the bushveld.

3. Martial eagle

Another spectacular raptor worth looking out for on an African safari is the martial eagle. At three feet long with a seven-foot wingspan, it is the largest African eagle and one of the world’s most powerful raptors. 

This magnificent bird has a commanding demeanor, piercing yellow eyes, a distinctive crest, and long, powerful talons. Its plumage is mainly brown, with spotted, white underparts.

Martial eagles are ferocious hunters that can prey on mammals far larger than themselves. They are also known to take on dangerous prey, such as jackals and monitor lizards.

Martial eagle

Despite their hunting prowess, martial eagles are shy, elusive birds of the savannah-woodlands. Sadly, they are endangered due to indiscriminate persecution and habitat loss.

4. Hammerkop

The hammerkop is a peculiar African bird, named for the shape of its head, which together with its long, pointed bill and backward-facing crest, creates a hammer-shaped profile. Its common name, hammerkop, is the Afrikaans word for “hammerhead.”

This medium-sized waterbird has uniform brown plumage, with a purplish iridescence. It has large, rounded wings and a short, faintly barred tail. Its thin, wading legs and partially webbed feet help it navigate aquatic environments. 


Hammerkops are found in wetland habitats, where they forage the shallow waters for fish, amphibians, and insects. They are often seen perched on rocks. This is an unimposingly elegant bird with an understated beauty.

5. Secretarybird

A large distinctive raptor with an eagle-like face, crane-like legs, and a dramatic erectile crest, the secretarybird looks like a blend of several different species. It is a tall, slender bird with a conspicuous crest of long, black quills—a characteristic for which it may have been named. Its plumage is mostly gray and white, with inky-black thighs and flight feathers.

The secretarybird has a feminine face with bare, orange-red skin, large brown eyes, and long lustrous lashes. In flight, a pair of long, spatulate tail plumes trail at the end of its tail.


Secretarybirds inhabit grasslands and savannahs, where they prey on small vertebrates, such as frogs, lizards, rodents, and even birds. Unlike most raptors, they primarily hunt on the ground, stalking their prey on foot. They are known for their penchant for snakes and their ability to take on highly venomous species. The secretarybird is an endangered species threatened by habitat destruction, human disturbance, hunting, and illegal capture.

6. Blue Crane

Also known as the paradise crane, this demure species is the national bird of South Africa. It is an elegant bird with a long neck, long legs, and pale, blue-gray plumage for which it is named. Long, wispy plumes hang loosely over the breast, and it has long, black flight feathers that trail at the end of its tail.

Blue cranes are near-endemic to South Africa, where they inhabit open grasslands. They are also found in pastures, croplands, and semi-desert areas. Like other crane species, blue cranes mate for life, forming lifelong pair bonds. Pairs are often seen engaging in elaborate courtship displays and calling in unison. 

Blue Crane

Blue crane populations have been in decline since the 80s and the species has largely disappeared from parts of its range. Their main threats are habitat loss and destruction, inadvertent poisoning, and persecution by farmers.

7. Southern ground hornbill

The southern ground hornbill is the largest species of the hornbill order. It is an unmistakable bird with dark plumage, prominent red throat wattles, and red facial skin. It has a long, black bill with signature casque, pale irises, and exceptionally long eyelashes.

This large hornbill has a deep, booming call that can be heard from miles away. Ground hornbills live in the savannah, where they hunt and forage in the grasses. While they can fly, they prefer to spend most of their time on the ground. Long white primary feathers are visible in flight. 

Southern ground hornbill

The southern ground hornbill is a territorial species found in groups of up to ten birds. They require vast expanses for their large territories. Populations are in decline, mainly due to habitat loss.

8. Common ostrich

We would be remiss to exclude the largest living bird. The common ostrich is an African icon that cannot be mistaken for any other species on the continent. This flightless bird can reach up to 9 feet in height. It has a large body, long powerful legs, and a long, sparsely-feathered neck. Ostriches have small, near-featherless heads and large eyes.

Their loose, soft body plumage gives them a shaggy appearance. Male ostriches are mostly black, while females are dirty, brownish-grey. Unlike other large ratites, which are three-toed, ostriches are didactyl, meaning they have two toes on each foot.

Common ostrich

Ostriches inhabit the open savannah and drier desert and semi-desert habitats. They are mainly herbivorous but also eat insects, lizards, and rodents. Owing to their tough intestines, they can ingest foods that other animals cannot. 

The common ostrich is the fastest bird on land and the fastest-running land animal on two legs, reaching speeds of up to 44 miles per hour.

9. Marabou Stork

This large, wading bird bears an uncanny resemblance to an old man. The marabou stork is always a fun sighting. This massive bird can reach heights of up to 5 feet, with a 12-foot wingspan, and weigh up to 20 pounds. It has a bare head and neck for staying clean when feeding, a huge bill, and a dangly, pink gular sac. Its plumage is black above with black wings and it has white underparts and a cream-white neck ruff.

Marabou Stork

The marabou stork is often called “The Undertaker Bird” due to its cloak-like wings and back, thin white legs, and slow, sinister gait.

Marabou storks are social birds. Flocks can be encountered in the savannah, grasslands, wetlands, and riverbanks. 

10. Cape vulture

Also known as the Cape griffon, this large vulture is always a welcome safari sighting. Circling vultures often lead to a nearby kill, where other carnivores and scavengers can be seen. The Cape vulture has dirty-white plumage with a brown tail and flight feathers. Its head and neck are near-featherless-allowing it to stay clean while feeding—and it has a large, powerful gray-black bill. Its hooded, yellow eyes give it a rather serious facial expression.

Cape vulture

Cape vultures inhabit savannah, grasslands, and shrublands. Despite their menacing appearance and pop culture portrayal as the bad guy, vultures are highly valuable species, that play an important role in the ecosystem. These scavengers are specially adapted for feeding on carrion, effectively removing pathogens from the environment. With their powerful bills, they tear open carcasses and break bones, which also allows smaller scavengers to feed on the kill.

Unfortunately, the Cape Vulture is often a victim of persecution. Populations are in sharp decline due to inadvertent poisoning, collision with powerlines, habitat loss, and unsustainable harvesting.

Final Thoughts

Birding is an intrinsic component of any safari, adding a touch of resplendence to the adventure. Learning about the birds you encounter and their interactions with other animals and the environment creates a memorable and enriching experience and one that will no doubt draw you back to this southern gem of Africa.

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