Red-knobbed Coot

Fulica cristata

A denizen of rivers, wetlands, lakes, lagoons, estuaries, dams, ponds and pans with still water and surrounded by dense vegetation, the Red-knobbed Coot follows an omnivorous diet of aquatic plants, algae, molluscs, crustaceans, insects and the eggs of other waterbirds. Adults can weigh up to 1kg.

Red-knobbed Coots are solitary breeders, pairs establishing a territory in which to raise their young. They are very aggressive, both towards their own kind and other species of waterfowl. in South Africa they breed at any time of the year. Nests are platforms built of aquatic plant material on open water or among emergent vegetation. When not breeding they are more gregarious, occasionally congregating in flocks that number more than a thousand birds.

The Red-knobbed Coot has a wide distribution in East and Southern Africa and a population estimated at over a million, though declining mostly through habitat loss, and considered of Least Concern by the IUCN. There is an isolated, threatened population in Morocco and Southern Spain. They can be found commonly all over South Africa where suitable habitat exists, including on farm dams and rivers in the arid west of the country, expanding their range in response to the building of suitable artificial waterbodies.

African Fish Eagle

Haliaeetus vocifer

If there is one sound that is symbolic of Africa’s waterways, it must be the call of the African Fish Eagle. It is the national bird of several African countries, and the South African presidential jet carries its Zulu name Inkwazi. They occur over almost all of Sub-Saharan Africa in close association with rivers, lakes, dams, swamps, estuaries and lagoons. As can be deduced from their name, African Fish Eagles subsist mainly on a diet of fish (weighing up to 2kg) snatched from the water in flight, though they will also catch baby crocodiles, terrapins, small mammals and other birds (up to the size of flamingos), scavenge the catches of other waterbirds like storks and herons and feed on carrion. Adults can weigh over 3kg and have a wingspan of almost 2.5m.

African Fish Eagle pairs are monogamous, pair for life and maintain their territories year-round, nesting in tall trees or on cliffs near water. Their nests are large, built of twigs and reeds. In South Africa the breeding season coincides with the drier months of the year, when fish are easier to catch in dwindling pools. Clutches contain up to three eggs, and are incubated mostly by the female for about 6 weeks. The parent birds are usually successful in raising all their chicks to fledging at about two-and-a-half months of age, whereafter the young stay with their parents for another three months or so. Newly independent juveniles often congregate in flocks that can number as many as 75 birds. African Fish Eagles have a life expectancy of up to 24 years in the wild.

The IUCN lists the African Fish Eagle as being of Least Concern, siting its large, stable population estimated at about 300,000, wide distribution and no real threat from humans. They can be found in all South Africa’s provinces – even penetrating the arid west along the course of the Orange River and its tributaries.

Red-winged Starling

Onychognathus morio

The Red-winged Starling is an omnivorous species feeding on a wide range of seeds, fruits and berries, nectar, invertebrates (even pecking parasites from large mammals), small vertebrates (such as the hatchlings of other birds) as well as carrion and human waste.

These large starlings (30cm long, weighing up to 150g) are closely associated with cliffs and rocky hills and mountains, occurring in a wide range of mesic vegetation types wherever these favoured breeding sites are to be found. They have also adapted to built-up environments, where they use buildings as artificial nesting sites. Monogamous pairs of Red-winged Starlings stay together for years, are territorial when breeding and aggressively protect their nests, even against humans. The nest is built of mud, twigs and grass on a ledge, and the female is responsible for incubating the 2 to 4 eggs over a period of about two weeks. Hatchlings fledge at about a month old. Outside of the summer breeding season they are highly gregarious and congregate in large flocks.

The Red-winged Starling commonly occurs in a band stretching from Ethiopia to South Africa and is considered of least concern by the IUCN, with a growing population as it continues to exploit man-made habitats. In South Africa this species can be found in the south, east and north of the country, being entirely absent from the arid parts of the Northern Cape. It is regarded a pest in orchards.

Yellow-billed Duck

Anas undulata

The Yellow-billed Duck is a common and widespread species of dabbling duck, found on or near almost any fresh water habitat, including farm dams, flooded grasslands, slow-flowing rivers and seasonal pans, and sometimes in brackish environments like estuaries. They avoid fast-flowing rivers. These ducks are omnivorous, feeding on terrestrial and aquatic plants, including crops, as well as insects, crustaceans and molluscs. Adults weigh around 1kg.

During the moult (which lasts for about 4 weeks at the end of the summer) or in times of drought they can congregate in flocks of up to 5,000, dispersing again at the onset of the rainy season to then be seen mostly as pairs or in small groups. Yellow-billed Ducks are mostly nocturnal, feeding from dusk to dawn.

Breeding takes place at any time of year, with a peak in summer. Nests are built of plant material lined with down, near to the water and on the ground in dense vegetation. Clutches contain up to twelve eggs. Only the female incubates the eggs and cares for the chicks. The eggs hatch after about a month and the female then leads the ducklings to the water. The ducklings can fly by the time they are two months old.

It is estimated that there are at least 100,000 Yellow-billed Ducks in South Africa, where they commonly occur almost everywhere except in parts of the arid west of the country. The construction of artificial impoundments has certainly benefited this species, aiding an increase both in their range and populations. North of our borders they occur throughout East and Central Africa, and thanks to their wide distribution and large, stable populations are considered of least concern by the IUCN. Hybridization with feral populations of the exotic Mallard is cause for concern however, especially in South Africa.

Red-billed Oxpecker

Buphagus erythrorhynchus

Red-billed Oxpeckers subsists almost entirely on a diet of ticks and their larvae, maggots and other ecto-parasites, picked from the hides and orifices of large mammalian herbivores. They will however also peck at open wounds to feed on the blood. They are therefore closely associated with savannas and woodlands inhabited by good numbers of these large host animals, associating especially with the hairier game species like giraffes and antelope, as well as cattle and donkeys. Adults are about 20cm long and weigh around 50g.

At night, Red-billed Oxpeckers sleep in small flocks in trees, being especially fond of lalapalms. These birds nest in holes in trees lined with the fur of wild and domesticated mammals, particularly in the wet summer months. Usually there are three eggs in a clutch, incubated by both parents.

Red-billed Oxpeckers occur from Eritrea southwards to South Africa, where they can be found in the provinces of Kwazulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng and Northwest, while an isolated population seems to have become established in the Eastern Cape as well. The eradication of wild game and the dipping of cattle has a detrimental impact on the food supply of the Red-billed Oxpecker, causing their populations outside protected areas to decline and, while the IUCN still views it as being of Least Concern, they are considered Near Threatened in South Africa and regularly reintroduced to reserves in areas from which they were previously exterminated.

Southern Masked Weaver

Ploceus velatus

The Southern Masked Weaver is a common inhabitant of savannas, woodlands, grasslands, riverine thickets in arid areas, and suburban gardens, feeding on insects, nectar and seeds.

The breeding season stretches through spring and summer, when the males don their brilliant black-and-yellow plumage and try to breed with as many females as possible, attracting them with neat nests weaved of grass or palm throngs on thin twigs or reeds (or wires and fences), usually hanging over water. Southern Masked Weavers normally move around singly or in small groups, but breed colonially. Only the female incubates the clutch and rears the chicks.

The IUCN considers the Southern Masked Weaver to be of “least concern” as they are common all over their distribution range, which covers Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia and all of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Black-backed Jackal

Canis mesomelas

Considered a cunning creature of tricks and magic in local folklore and reviled by small stock farmers, Black-backed Jackals are the most common canid occurring in South Africa. Easily recognisable by their black-and-silver “saddles”, these jackals stand between 30 and 48cm high at the shoulder and weigh between 5 and 13kg.

Black-backed Jackals have a very wide habitat tolerance, and can be found from desert coasts to high mountain ranges, though they prefer drier, more open country and avoid forested areas. They are even known to live in the suburbs of many towns and cities. They are equally catholic in their diet and there’s very little that a Black-backed Jackal will not eat. Where they share their range with large predators, like lions, leopards and cheetahs, carrion makes up a large proportion of their intake, though they are quite capable hunters and will prey on anything from invertebrates to fish, reptiles, birds and small mammals up to medium-sized antelope like the springbok and seal pups. They will also eat berries, fruit and rizomes. Black-backed Jackals are independent of drinking water, but will drink when it is available.

Black-backed Jackals are nocturnal animals, usually emerging at dusk and returning to their dens at dawn, though they may at times be active throughout the day, and especially so in overcast weather. By day they sleep in thickets, caves or holes dug in the ground by other animals, The normal social grouping consists of a mated pair with their offspring, often of consecutive litters, defending fairly large territories. Apart from being very clever animals, Black-backed Jackals are quite brave and tenacious, and will even mob lions and hyenas on a carcass.

Black-backed Jackals pairs usually have litters of 3-4 pups born on late winter or spring after a short 2 month gestation. Previous litters help the dominant pair to raise the youngest offspring by bringing food to the den (usually a cave or hole in the ground). Black-backed Jackals often fall prey to larger carnivores (leopards are especially fond of jackal meat), are also very susceptible to mange, distemper and rabies, and have a life expectancy of only 6 to 14 years in the wild.

The IUCN considers the Black-backed Jackal as being of least concern, being common with a stable population over most of its distribution in East and Southern Africa, despite being persecuted as vermin by farmers. They occur all over South Africa, though they are understandably much easier to see in conservation areas than in farming communities. In our experience good places to go looking for Black-backed Jackals are the Kruger National Park (especially around Satara), Addo Elephant, Golden Gate, Marakele and Pilanesberg National Parks, Giant’s Castle in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, and Rietvlei Nature Reserve.