I don’t know if you have watched the classic film Out Of Africa, but if you haven’t, then you should! There’s a scene in the film where Robert Redford’s yellow biplane swoops low over Kenya’s Lake Nakuru, sending a seemingly endless flock of flamingos soaring into the sky. This spectacular scene is just a glimpse of how sensational bird watching in this part of the world can be. Africa’s birdlife is some of the most varied, numerous, and colorful. The continent is home to over 2,300 bird species, of which 67 percent are endemic.
Don’t be put off by those stereotypes that paint “twitchers” as fanatics, flocking (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) to Africa single-mindedly in pursuit of feathered conquests; bird-watching safaris in Africa are about much more than just the birds. Remember, too, that while there are dedicated bird-watching safaris you can sign up for, you don’t need to join one to enjoy the birdlife. If you’re traveling to Africa for a safari, along with the big beasts, you’ll likely find yourself being dazzled by the color and diversity of the birds you spot along the way; they might just be the unexpected highlight of your trip.
Here, I showcase some of the fabulous birds you can expect to see on your safari.
1. Weaver Birds
Common, masked, village, sociable, buffalo: There are too many different weaver birds in Africa for us to focus on each member of the family individually. As their name implies, weaver birds “weave” their nests, with the males tending to be the nest builders, building intricate nests woven from reeds, grass, palm, or other suitable material. Once built, the female bird usually lines the nest with soft grass and feathers. I have a pair of spectacled weaver birds who nest annually in my garden. The male makes a start on the nest and then partway through will bring his mate in for a “site inspection,” if his handiwork is not up to scratch, the female signifies her displeasure and he abandons the construction and starts again. Some years I have seen several false starts hanging in the palm tree by the pool, alongside the final product that she’d apparently deemed suitable for habitation.
As an aside, weaver birds are the only birds with the recorded ability to tie knots!
Since I mentioned the flamboyance of flamingos above, let’s start with them on our rundown of spectacular birds you can spot on safari. Often spotted in the hundreds, tightly packed together and standing on one leg, in some of Africa’s great lakes, flamingos are an iconic bird to see on safari. With their bright pink feathers, long, graceful necks, legs which are the longest of any bird in proportion to their body size, and unique upside-down eating style, funky flamingos are a wonderful sight on any safari. One of my favorite places to see them was in Ethiopia where we walked across the mudflats at Lake Abiata, never getting quite as close as we wanted to the huge flocks of flamingos, who always seemed tantalizingly one step ahead of us.
Editor’s Note: Captivated by flamingos in particular? Here are our picks for six places to see flamingos in the wild.
3. African Fish Eagles
African fish eagles are large, distinctive birds found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, from Kenya to South Africa. The fish eagle is the national bird of Zambia, my adopted home, and from my verandah, I see or hear a fish eagle at least once a day as it soars over the nearby river or perches in a tall tree on the bank. With a graceful plunge into the water, a fish eagle will grasp its prey with its formidable set of talons. They do not restrict their diet solely to fish, but will also eat other birds and reptiles. I once watched, in morbid fascination, as a fish eagle swooped down and grabbed hold of a duck that had, moments before, been paddling contentedly in the river. A struggle ensued as the fish eagle tried, in vain, to fly up out of the water. The duck put up a strong fight, the fish eagle tugging one way and the duck the other. Finally the fish eagle managed to drag the duck through the water, to the bank, where it soon became lunch.
4. Helmeted Guineafowl
Guinea fowls can seem to be everywhere on safari, striding across the landscape like battalions of soldiers in their black and white spotted plumage, with distinctive bright blue necks and yellow helmets. They are also some of the noisiest birds you will find on safari and are renowned for interrupting your sleep with their loud cackles. You will usually spot them scratching around in loose soil, like chickens, looking for food such as seeds, fruits, greens, snails, spiders, worms, and insects.
Vultures are the supreme scavenger of the bush. There are 11 different species of vulture in Africa and they are responsible for cleaning up 70 percent of the continent's carrion. On safari, you will most often see vultures flocking to a carcass of a dead animal, and your safari guide will often be on the lookout for vultures circling in the sky as a sign of where to head to show you some of the larger predator action. Two of my favorites in the vulture department are the hooded and the lappet-faced vultures.
The hooded vulture is the classic safari bird. It’s a scruffy-looking vulture, widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. Like other vultures, it is a scavenger, feeding on carcasses of dead animals. These are monogamous birds, with males and females remaining together during the mating season, and rearing their young together, as a team.
The lappet-faced vulture is one of the largest birds of prey in Africa and easily recognizable by both its size and its bald pink head, as well as the lappets (hanging folds of flesh) on either side of its neck. Built for scavenging, this vultures’ powerful beak can tear the hides, tendons, and other tissue from its prey, some of which can be too tough for other scavengers. As the largest vulture in Africa, the lappet-faced dominates other vultures during feeding and is even strong enough to drive off a jackal.
One other vulture really worth looking for is the lammergeier or bearded vulture. A scavenger that lives on a steady diet of bones and bone marrow, after finding a picked-over carcass, the bird will drop it from a tremendous height, shattering it into swallowable pieces.
Of Africa’s myriad of kingfishers, my favorite is the tiny malachite kingfisher. At about five inches tall, these diminutive birds are a bright electric blue color, with a crest of black and blue feathers on the head, and white patches on the throat. These kingfishers have regular perches, above and close to water, from where they catch fish, crustaceans, and aquatic insects.
7. Lilac-Breasted Roller
The colorful lilac-breasted roller is a photographer’s favorite on safari. It’s easily spotted, liking to perch conspicuously on top of high vantage points like trees and poles whilst looking for prey such as insects, scorpions, snails, and rodents. During mating seasons the males soar high in the sky and engage in huge dives and swoops whilst making loud calls, all in an effort to impress the ladies.
These charismatic and colorful birds are a favorite amongst birders. Of the world’s 27 species of bee-eater, 20 are found in Africa, some resident and others migratory, and you can find them from the southern tip of the continent right through to the far north, occupying an incredible range of habitats in between.
My personal favorites are the carmine bee-eaters. These bee-eaters nest in colonies, usually in holes in steep river banks, like those on the Luangwa River in Zambia. The colonies can consist of thousands of individuals, sometimes over 10,000 birds, and they create an incredible spectacle as they swoop out over the water with their scarlet feathers and turquoise crowns. There is something special about seeing hundreds of these brilliant crimson birds filling a tree like Christmas ornaments or taking off like a massive flock of red arrows.
9. Grey Crowned Cranes
The grey crowned crane's range stretches from the Democratic Republic of Congo through Uganda and Kenya to southeastern South Africa, and it is every bit as majestic as its name suggests. With its long white, black, gold, and brown feathers, and a head topped with a crown of stiff golden feathers, this is the national bird of Uganda. They have a bright red pouch on the front of their necks, which they use to produce a deep, booming call. I remember sitting one evening in the back of a safari vehicle on Zambia’s Busanga Plains and listening to crowned cranes producing this eerie sound as they roosted for the night. Like all cranes, the crowned crane performs a spectacular dance as part of their mating ritual. It’s an impressive sight to see these stunning birds, heads bobbing, bodies bowing, wings flapping, as they run and jump, tossing sticks and grass into the air.
It’s worth mentioning two other cranes you should keep your eye out for when next on safari: the rare blue crane, which is the national bird of South Africa, and Africa’s most endangered crane, the wattled crane (the Kafue Flats, in southern Zambia, supports the largest known population of wattled cranes).
There are 18 species of turaco, all found in Africa. They range from the grey loerie or Go-Away Birds (named for their unusually loud, nasal call, which sounds like a peevish old woman telling you to “kweh” or “go-way”), to the purplish-blue and uncommon Lady Ross’s turaco, or the rare white-cheeked turaco, which we were once lucky enough to spot in Ethiopia.
Hornbills are another special safari bird. Africa is home to 23 of the world's 54 hornbill species, including the largest members of the family, the ground hornbills who stride around the bush, looking so somber and serious that they are often referred to as undertaker birds. You are bound to spot a variety of hornbills on your safari, all of which will be a lot smaller than the ground hornbill. You might even spot the African red-billed hornbill (think of Zazu from The Lion King film); some safari guides refer to the red-billed hornbill as a flying chili given the color and shape of its bill.
Out on safari, some of the most common birds to spot are the small birds, seen hitching a ride on rhinos, zebras, buffalos, elephants, or giraffes. It’s also not uncommon to see them balancing on hippo’s backs as they bob in the water. These little birds are oxpeckers, small parasite-eating birds, endemic to Sub-Saharan Africa. There are two species of oxpecker: the yellow-billed and the red-billed. Similar in appearance, they can be mistaken for one another. As their names suggest though, the red-billed oxpecker has a red beak, and the yellow-billed oxpecker a yellow beak with a red tip. The red-billed oxpecker sticks to eastern Africa, but yellow-billed oxpeckers can be found all over sub-Saharan Africa, both east and west.
The oxpecker gets its name from its habit of perching on its “host” and eating ticks, flies, maggots, and various kinds of larvae. A full-grown oxpecker can eat hundreds of bugs and many thousands of larvae in a day! In a slightly macabre twist, it’s not uncommon to see them pecking at, and cleaning, their host’s open wounds, nibbling on the blood and flesh.
Africa is rich in birding opportunities, for beginners and professionals alike. Plenty of national parks, conservancies, and lodges offer specific birding programs, but it is possible to bird watch anywhere on the continent.
No bird-watching safari is complete without a good set of binoculars, so if spotting a wide range of birds plus a variety of other African wildlife is top of your holiday wish list, you won’t regret investing in a decent pair. Good binoculars get you up close to the wildlife action, disturbing the animals you’re watching as little as possible. See the TravelAwaits team’s picks for best binoculars for any budget here.