Winged wonders: the exotic birds of Africa

Known with affection and a dash of humor as Twitchers for their sudden excitement when spotting a rare species, bird lovers from all corners of the globe flock to Africa for the vast numbers of unique and remarkable species found throughout the continent. It is estimated that almost 2,500 bird species from 111 bird families call Africa home full-time or for at least part of the year. How many of these have you seen while on safari?

1. Lilac Breasted Roller

(Courtesy of African Safari Company)

Best known as the most photographed bird in Africa due to their wide range, beautiful colors and convenient habit of sitting atop bushes and fence posts looking for their next meal. The Lilac Breasted Roller has the honor of being the national bird of both Botswana and Kenya. The roller is so named for a fantastic mating display where the male will fly up to a great height then plummet towards in the earth, rolling and swooping as he dives.

2. Brown Snake Eagle

(Courtesy of African Safari Company/Katie Sweeney)

This prolific eagle is generally more seen than heard, offering up only a hoarse call when in flight, during displays or when it has found its favorite prey – snakes. They are capable of killing and carrying off a 6 foot long snake, which it spots from high above then swoops down in a surprise attack.

3. Cape Glossy Starling

(Courtesy of African Safari Company/Katie Sweeney)

Playfully dubbed oil-spill birds, their shimmering colors make for a beautiful sight when foraging in a flock of up to 20. Adding to their theatrical appearance, these birds belt out a throaty, musical call and have quite a waddling walk, calling to mind a small but flamboyant opera star.

4. Little Bee-Eater

(Courtesy of African Safari Company/Katie Sweeney)

One of the favorite birds to see on safari, these tiny colorful birds are usually spotted perched on a thin piece of grass or reed, gently swaying in the breeze. As the family name suggests, they predominantly eat insects, removing the stings by repeatedly hitting the insect on a hard surface. They tend to be communal roosters so you may find four or more all cuddled up together on one branch overnight.

5. Marabou Stork

(Courtesy of African Safari Company)

A proud member of the so-called Ugly Five, the marabou stork is an ungainly wading bird sometimes called the “Undertaker” due to its black cloak-like wings, skinny white legs and the occasional frizzy mass of white hair.  Marabou storks are quite large, standing between four and five feet tall with a wingspan of up to 12 feet and have a voracious appetite for everything from carrion to fish, bugs, frogs, mice and even flamingos.

6. Ostrich

(Courtesy of African Safari Company)

Best known of the African birds, the ostrich is famously flightless with a literal killer of a kick. Males are black and white while the females are a dusty brown and they roam the savannas and deserts, getting most of their water from the plants they eat. Contrary to popular belief and Saturday cartoons, ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand when frightened, although they do lie flat to ground and press their long necks into the ground when threatened.

7. Spotted Eagle Owl

(Courtesy of African Safari Company/Katie Sweeney)

This owl is usually spotted heading back to the camp on a night game drive. A mid-size owl with the usual whoo-whoo-whoo call, the fact that’s found throughout Africa south of equator by no means lessens the thrill of being watched with both huge eyes by a bird that has its back to you.

8. Steppe Eagle

(Courtesy of African Safari Company)

This eagle in flight was found perched on an acacia tree keeping a watchful eye on a sleeping lion. However the big cats are overlarge prey for this migratory raptor, who usually feeds on fresh carrion, small mammals and birds. The Steppe Eagle breeds up in Eastern Europe, all the way east to Mongolia but spend their winters, quite sensibly, in Africa.

9. African White Backed Vulture

(Courtesy of African Safari Company/Kate Sweeney)

This typical vulture, with the bald head and menacing demeanor, was up-listed to Critically Endangered status in 2013. While it’s still widespread, the species has been in very rapid decline over past decade or so due to habitat loss, declines in the populations of their carrion prey, hunting and poisoning. While it can be tough to sympathize with bird that eats the scraps of other predator’s meals, their place in the eco-system is a vital one.

10. Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill

(Courtesy of African Safari Company/Katie Sweeney)

Affectionately known as the Flying Banana, the East Africa cousin of this charismatic bird was made famous by the character Zazu in Disney’s "The Lion King." They tend to hop along the ground while foraging but nest in holes in trees where the female seals herself in with the eggs until they hatch and the chicks are old enough to learn to feed themselves.