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Author: Mark Anderson - Executive Director, Birdlife Africa

( Article Type: Explanation )

South Africa has a rich diversity of birds, with 841 different species currently being recognized. This amounts to a remarkable 8% of the all world’s bird species, just in this small corner of Africa. These range from the small, fynbos-restricted Orange-breasted Sunbird to the large, desert-adapted Ludwig’s Bustard. South Africa is one of the most accessible places to see many classic African birds, such as Secretary bird, Hamerkop, nine species of vultures, many attractive species of hornbills, and much more. There are 20 true South African endemics (i.e. species found only there). Compared to neighbouring countries, South Africa’s richness is very impressive – Zimbabwe has no endemics, and Namibia, Mozambique and Zambia have one each. Many of South Africa’s special birds are shared only with the tiny territories of Lesotho and Swaziland and if one includes these two areas the list of endemics rises to 40.

The main reason for the high level of endemism is because of South Africa’s amazing diversity of unique habitats, particularly the arid western area, the mist-belt forests of the eastern escarpment, the grasslands of the eastern plateau and the Fynbos of the Cape, which is one of the world’s six Floral Kingdoms, and is found only in South Africa. These different habitats all support their own special birds. South Africa straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, and the bird fauna includes sub-tropical and temperate species. The resulting diversity of birds is remarkable, ranging from penguins in the south to spinetails in the north, and from coursers in the west to trogons in the east. The eastern woodlands and forests hold a rich diversity of exquisitely attractive birds, from the flamboyant rollers and bee-eaters, to the loud and somewhat comical hornbills and barbets. The bushveld at sunrise is alive with the sounds of the dawn chorus, with robin-chats, bush-shrikes and a plethora of vociferous birds heralding the start of a new day. What the bushveld lacks in endemic species it more than makes up for in sheer, spectacular diversity. The arid west supports fewer bird species, with many of these being small and brown or small and grey – thus allowing them to be camouflaged in the semi-desert habitats. These birds, such as the larks, pipits and chats, are the LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) of the country’s birds.
They are sought-after by bird-watchers but, because they lack obvious distinguishing features, test many birders’ identification skills! The arid west is also well known for its bustards, coursers and sandgrouse. The incredible Sclater’s Lark nests on the hottest gravel plains, and often with not even a blade of grass for comfort. The tiny Fynbos Biome, the world’s smallest floral kingdom, not only supports an extraordinary 8500 species of plants (more than two-thirds of which occur nowhere else in the world), but also seven endemic birds, including Cape Sugarbird, Victorin’s Warbler and Protea Seedeater. A large number of seabirds make their living from the abundant food in the cold Benguela Current. The hundreds of thousands of albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels and others which patrol these waters in search of fish, squid and crustaceans forms one of the richest aggregations of seabirds to be found anywhere in the world. Most of these birds do not breed in southern Africa, but visit our waters from their breeding areas at islands in both southern and northern waters, coming from as far as South America, New Zealand and Canada. Some of the world’s most interesting birds are found in South Africa, including the world’s largest (Common Ostrich), the largest flying (Kori Bustard), fastest (Peregrine Falcon), the only bone-eater (Bearded Vulture), and the bird which builds the largest nest (Sociable Weaver).
South Africa offers some wonderful bird spectacles… among the best pelagic trips in the world, vast masses of flamingos at massive pans, flocks of vultures at carcasses in the game reserves, awesome displays of some of the most remarkable larks on the planet, incredible Red-billed Quelea colonies which can blacken the sky due to their sheer numbers, to the amazing sight of sandgrouse transporting water over 50 km to their nestlings. One bird family, the Promeropidae (i.e. the sugarbirds), is virtually restricted to South Africa. South Africa is a special place, particularly because it has diverse cultures, diverse landscapes and a wealth of plants and animals. Unfortunately, our country’s natural habitats and its biodiversity are under threat. Sadly, the rapidly growing population and the transformation of natural habitats for homes, factories, agricultural lands and mines are resulting in less and less space for birds. Currently, 125 (or about 15%) of South Africa’s bird species are threatened with extinction and therefore are listed in The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. There is the further threat of global climate change. Global warming will see the Fynbos retreat to high altitudes and the Succulent Karoo, a bird-endemism hotspot and an internationally-recognized biodiversity crisis area, is predicted to disappear by 2080! The Tawny Eagle and White-bellied Korhaan are two of many species whose ranges have contracted considerably during recent years. In contrast, some birds have benefited from the altered landscape, with species such as Glossy Ibis, Crested Barbet and Thick-billed Weaver having expanded their ranges significantly. Some unwelcome birds have arrived on ships at our harbours and proliferated in numbers and literally swamped some towns and cities; and unfortunately Common Mynas and Common Starlings are now a regular feature of our landscape. Others, such as House Crows and Mallards, are even less welcome, as they have detrimental effects on our indigenous birds - through competition for food and nest spaces, and hybridization with native species.

Much needs to be done to ensure that these threats are addressed, and that our birds survive into the next century. There are many reasons why we need to conserve our birds. Birds provide essential ecological services, as pollinators of plants, dispersers of seeds, and as predators of potential pests. They are also particularly good indicators of the health of our environment, and changes in their distribution, numbers and migration patterns tell us about how climate change and other factors are affecting life on earth. We value birds intrinsically: they have always played an important part in cultural practices and belief systems. Bird-watching is one of the world’s fastest growing pastimes, and has economic value for bird guides, for communities, for businesses, towns and cities. It adds significant value to tourism, the biggest industry sector on the planet. BirdLife South Africa is at the forefront of conserving South Africa’s avifauna, and people who care about our birds and their habitats should consider becoming a member of this organization and donating money to its important conservation work.