Category Archives: South African Wildlife

The inhabitants of South Africa’s wild places

Little Swift

Apus affinis

In South Africa, the Little Swift is a resident bird that has actually experienced a population boom and rapid range expansion in the last century, thanks to its propensity to use buildings and other human-made structures for breeding. As a result, the IUCN considers it to be of least concern. It occurs all over South Africa, and also most of sub-Saharan Africa, the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. pockets of the Middle East and much of India.

Little Swifts are not at all picky about their habitat though they do require easy access to a water supply and usually avoid high altitude terrain. Little Swifts will often form mixed flocks with other swifts and swallows, hunting for a wide range of flying insects.

As mentioned already, Little Swifts build their nests, often in colonies of up to 30 monogamous pairs, in shelter provided by man-made structures like buildings, bridges and silos, though naturally they would utilise rocky overhangs and cliffs for the purpose. These nests are untidy conglomerations of feathers and plant material glued together with saliva and often used for several consecutive years. They breed in spring and summer, with both parents sharing the duty of incubating the clutch of 1-4 eggs over a 3-4 week period. The chicks stay in the nest until they’re almost 6 weeks old, but become independent very quickly thereafter. Fully grown Little Swifts weigh around 25g and measure only about 13cm in length.

As beautifully elegant as they are in the air, Little Swifts are almost entirely helpless when they are unfortunate enough to end up on the ground, which seems to happen surprisingly often when they swoop after prey close to the ground; their short legs and long wings make it almost impossible to launch from the ground.

Dung Beetles

Family Scarabaeidae

It is estimated that South Africa is home to almost 800 species of Dung Beetles, varying in both size and colour. As manure is the chief source of food for both adults and larvae (some also feed on carrion), Dung Beetles perform a vital ecological function by clearing away the droppings of large animals and at the same time fertilizing the ground, planting seeds contained in the dung and keeping pest and parasite populations under control.

When it comes to breeding, Dung Beetles employ one of four strategies. Best known are those that roll the manure into perfect balls (sometimes 50 times their own weight!), roll it to a suitable location using the hind legs (with the female often sitting comically atop the ball), lay eggs inside and then bury the ball. Other kinds “steal” the ball after it was meticulously formed and deposited. Yet another strategy involves burrowing beneath a dung-pile, depositing some of it at the end of the tunnel and then covering it after the eggs are laid inside. The final option is to live and breed in the dung just where it fell. In South Africa, Dung Beetles are most active in the warmer and wetter months with most spending the winter in hibernation. They may live for up to 3 years.

The Addo Flightless Dung Beetle (Circellium bacchus) is a large beetle found only in and around the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province and one of only a few Dung Beetle species incapable of flight. If it wasn’t for the proclamation of the national park this species would have become extinct, as it feeds on and breeds in only the dung of elephants and buffaloes, both of which were almost exterminated from the Eastern Cape before the national park was proclaimed. It is a slow breeder, females lying a single egg on each dung ball and breeding but once annually. The Addo Flightless Dung Beetle is still considered vulnerable.

Black-winged Stilt

Himantopus himantopus

The very elegant Black-winged Stilt is one of the most widespread birds on the planet, occurring on every continent except Antarctica (though some authorities consider it to actually be as many as five different species). As a result it is listed as being of least concern by the IUCN. It is also widely distributed over all of South Africa, even occurring in the arid west of the country where its habitat requirements are met – basically any open wetland habitat, whether fresh or brackish, natural or man-made (even sewerage plants and salt works), is to their liking. They are nomadic birds, regularly moving from one body of water to the next. As is probably to be expected, Black-winged Stilts feed on aquatic invertebrates, tadpoles, frogs, small fish and fish- and frog-eggs.

Pairs of Black-winged Stilts are monogamous and usually nest alone, though occasionally up to 10 pairs may nest in close proximity. Their nests are mounds of mud and plantmaterial built by both partners at the edge of the water. They breed at anytime of year, but there’s a distinct peak in nesting behaviour in the spring months in our part of the world. The female is responsible for incubating the clutch of up to 5 eggs for almost 4 weeks. The chicks leave the nest within 24 hours of hatching to follow the parents around and feed themselves. By the age of a month they start flying and become fully independent by the time they are two months old. Black-winged Stilts are active both by day and during the night.

With probably the longest legs in relation to its body of any bird, adult Black-winged Stilts weigh in at about 165g and measure 38cm from tip-to-tip.


Black-crowned Tchagra

Tchagra senegalus

The Black-crowned Tchagra is a shy bird of the shrike-family that inhabits wetter savanna and woodland-type habitats and feeds mainly on insects and other small prey, which occasionally includes lizards, snakes and frogs. They are also quick to utilise well-planted parks and gardens.

Black-crowned Tchagras form monogamous, territorial pairs, nesting in cup-shaped constructions they build together in bushes and trees during an extended breeding season that spans most of spring, summer and autumn. The female takes most of the responsibility for incubating the clutch of 1-4 eggs over a two-week period, with the chicks fledging when only two weeks old but staying with their parents for quite some time after. Fully grown Black-crowned Tchagras weigh around 50g and measure about 21cm in length.

In South Africa, Black-crowned Tchagras are found from the Eastern Cape, through most of Kwazulu-Natal and into Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng and North West. They’re also widely distributed over sub-Saharan Africa, with isolated populations along the Barbary Coast of North Africa and the southern reaches of the Arabian Peninsula. The IUCN lists the species as being of least concern.

Variable Skink

Trachylepis varia

The Variable Skink is a lizard found in grassland and savanna habitats, and especially rocky areas there-in, and distributed (in South Africa) from the coastal Eastern Cape through Kwazulu-Natal, the Free State and Gauteng to the North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. They feed on insects and other invertebrates. Females give birth to as many as 10 babies in the summer months. They grow quickly; maturing at about 8 months of age (when they measure around 6cm in length, tail excluded) with a life expectancy of only about two years, or even less.

Green Wood-Hoopoe

Phoeniculus purpureus

The Green Wood-Hoopoe, also known as the Red-billed Wood-Hoopoe, is a bird renowned in these parts for their “crazy cackling” call, often given in a choir by the whole group. They occur widely in South Africa, being absent only from most of the Northern and Western Cape Provinces, and are also widely distributed over much of sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of the equatorial forestsThe IUCN lists the Green Wood-Hoopoe as being of least concern, whilst noting that the loss of prime habitat is causing a decline in certain populations. Some introduced starlings compete with the Green Wood-Hoopoe for nests, especially in urban settings where these exotics flourish.

Green Wood-Hoopoes are common in suburban gardens and parks, but their natural habitat preference ranges from open savannas to dense woodlands and riverine forests. Green Wood-Hoopoes mostly forage in the trees and occasionally on the ground or termite mounds, poking behind loose bark and inside crevices for insects and small reptiles or amphibians and, irregularly, snacking on nectar, seeds and fruits.

Moving around in territorial family groups of up to 14 consisting of a dominant pair and several helpers, Green Wood-Hoopoes breed in holes in trees (usually abandoned by other birds and never created by themselves) at any time of year, with the dominant female incubating a clutch of 2 to 5 eggs over a 3 week period. Both she and the chicks are provided food by the rest of the group, who is also very protective of the nest and will fearlessly attack any intruders. The hatchlings leave the nest when they’re about a month old but are cared for with great dedication by the other group members until they’re about four or five months old. Adult Green Wood-Hoopoes measure around 35cm in length and weigh about 80g.

Tree Creeper Scorpion

Opisthacanthus asper

The large and strikingly coloured Tree Creeper Scorpion occurs in savanna habitats in northern Kwazulu-Natal, through the Lowveld and along the Limpopo Valley into the Bushveld, where they live in trees (being especially fond of the Knobthorn), bushes and fallen logs. By day they hide in the crevices in trees and behind bark and by night they use these hide-outs to ambush passing prey or actively go hunting in and near their home trees. For this reason hanging clothes and shoes from trees where the Tree Creeper occurs is not to be advised – while they are quite docile in nature and their venom is too weak to be medically significant a sting from these 10cm long scorpions, half of which is the tail, can be quite painful (so I hear). Male Tree Creepers tap their pincers on the bark to warn a female that he is not prey and won’t approach closer until it is clear that the female will not attack when they want to mate.

Red-backed Shrike

Lanius collurio

Red-backed Shrikes visit South Africa in our summer months, arriving from late October with the last individuals leaving again by April. While here, they can be seen in all our provinces, though they’re much more common on the eastern side of the country than the arid west. Apart from South Africa, they also spend their non-breeding season over much of the rest of southern, central and eastern Africa, departing back to their northern breeding grounds in Europe and Asia with the onset of warmer weather there. The IUCN considers this species to be of least concern, estimating a total population of at least 24-million.

In our southern climes the Red-backed Shrike inhabits more open habitats ranging from open scrublands and grassveld to a variety of savanna and woodland associations. They are mainly insectivorous in their diet, though they will also prey on smaller birds, rodents and lizards if the opportunity presents itself. Such larger prey is often impaled on a thorn or barbed wire, which is why the Red-backed Shrike (like several others of its family) are also known as “butcher birds”.

Males are more conspicuous than females thanks to their more colourful plumage and preference for more open areas. Adults measure about 18cm in length.


Long-tailed Paradise Whydah

Vidua paradisaea

If it wasn’t for the male’s conspicuous tale, which they wear only in the breeding season, it would be very easy to overlook the Long-tailed Paradise Whydah. Females, and non-breeding males, measure about 12cm in length and are decidedly drab, blending perfectly with their environment. But in the breeding season, which spans the summer and autumn months, males sport high contrast colours and a very fancy tail that can measure more than 20cm in length, which certainly makes them stand out even from a distance.

Long-tailed Paradise Whydahs are seed-eaters, supplementing their diet with only the occasional insect, and inhabit grasslands, savannas and open woodland, also venturing into adjacent agricultural fields and villages.

Male Long-tailed Whydahs are territorial and attempt to mate with as many females as possible in a breeding season. Being brood-parasites the females then lie between 1 and 3 eggs in the nests of, especially, the Green-winged Pytilia, The chicks hatch after 11 days and look almost identical to the chicks of the host birds with which they leave the nest about two weeks after hatching, becoming fully independent at about a month old.

In South Africa, the Long-tailed Paradise Whydah occurs from Kwazulu-Natal through Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng, North West and the Free State to the extreme eastern-most districts of the Northern Cape. Their distribution further stretches from Namibia to Ethiopia and Somalia. According to the IUCN the Long-tailed Paradise Whydah’s conservation status is of least concern.

Sycomore Fig

Ficus sycomorus

The Sycomore Fig, or Cluster Fig, is one of our most striking indigenous trees. They grow to an enormous size – up to 25m high with an equally impressive yellowish trunk supporting a widely spread canopy – in the alluvial soils along rivers and streams. Sycomore Figs flower and fruit throughout the year, bearing figs in huge quantities that sustain an incredible variety of insects, birds and mammals, humans included, and this is solely reliant on pollination by wasps of the genus Ceratosolon, which spend most of its life-cycle inside the fruit.

Apart from the obvious use of the figs, and less so the young leaves, as food, humans also use the bark and latex of the Sycomore Fig medicinally. And although the wood is soft, the Sycomore Fig was held in such regard that some Egyptian mummies were even interred in caskets made of the wood!

In South Africa, Sycomore Figs occur naturally in the north of Kwazulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and beyond our borders throughout central, east and west Africa to Senegal. They’re also found on the Arabian Peninsula and from Egypt to Syria – presumably being the fig tree that is mentioned in several chapters of the Bible. The IUCN lists it as being of least concern.