Friday, May 27, 2011

Flamingos, ostriches, and other big birds of East Africa

Big birds capture the imagination, amaze the eye, and sometimes appear to defy physics. Even non-birders tend to be impressed by the big, especially brightly-colored birds. They are featured in literature (think Alice in Wonderland), in art (cranes in Asian art especially), and in urban legend/mythology (storks bringing newborns, owls having wisdom, etc.). Zoos often feature these birds not only because they can be easily seen by visitors but for conservation reasons. Big birds are easily found and hunted in the wild and are often heavily impacted by habitat alteration. Some birds, such as the lappet-faced vulture, the southern ground hornbill, and the ostrich, have suffered heavily declines due to hunting by humans. Other birds, such as the grey-crowned crane, are celebrated (national bird of Uganda) and kept as domestic pets; habitat loss and capture from the wild has subsequently decreased wild populations by up to 50%. Big birds are important contributors to their ecosystems and inspiration to many cultures; hopefully, they will remain visible in the wild in East Africa and on Planet Earth.

Although the greater flamingo is much bigger, the lesser flamingo, Phoenicopterus minor, is a  big, goofy, pink bird with a very interesting bill. We counted nearly 3000 individuals at Arusha National Park in Tanzania.

The common ostrich, Struthio camelus,  has a mass ranging from 90 to 130 kg (up to  286 lb) and stands tall at 2 meters.  Ostriches eat mostly plants and require up to 3.5 kg of food a day. They are the largest living birds on Planet Earth, although larger birds of Madagascar and New Zealand went extinct in very recent times due to hunting (in the last few hundred years). The ostrich itself has been extirpated from Southwest Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and Northern Africa. Pictured in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania.

The lappet-faced vulture, Torgos tracheliotis, is tied for the largest vulture in Africa. This species' wingspan can beat 2.8 meters; imagine its wingtips touching the ground and nearly reaching the rim of a basketball goal. While it is mainly a scavenger, this species can hunt live prey like flamingos! It has suffered heavy declines to due accidental (when it eats poisoned carcasses of carnivores) and deliberate poisoning. Pictured in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania.

Kori bustards, Ardeotis kori, are the heaviest flying birds in Africa; males can weigh up to 19 kg (over 40 lb). Although I have never heard the Kori bustard in the wild, it once captivated me at a younger age with its strange "vooomp"  boast at the Kansas City Zoo and consequently was at the top of my "have-to-see" list . Seeing them in the wild, pictured above in the Serengeti plains, is one of my favorite memories of birding in Africa so far.

The secretarybird, Sagittarius serpentarius, is a unique bird of prey that stalks arthropods, small mammals, and reptiles by looking for movement and then striking or chasing after them. While its wingspan ranges from 1.2 to 1.35 meters, giving it much longer wings than martial eagles and Kori bustards, it is only about half the wingspan of the lappet-faced vulture. Picture in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Depending on age, genetics, and other factors, the martial eagle, Polemaetus bellicosus, competes with African crowned eagles and Verreaux's Eagles for the title of Africa's largest eagle. Although it generally sticks to smaller prey like hares, wild cats, hyraxes, and chicken-sized birds, martial eagles can and do successfully hunt monkeys, baboons, and even small antelope. Picture from Tarangire National Park, Tanzania.

The goliath heron, Ardea goliath, is the largest of all living herons.  Its wingspan on average is 2 meters, and it prefers to eat big fish (fish measuring, on average, 30 centimeters, longer than my forearm). Although the patterns cannot be seen in this picture, note its thick bill. For a while, blacksmith and crowned lapwings roamed next to the bird, underscoring how large this individual was. Seen in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

The southern ground hornbill is one of two species of ground hornbill, both found in Africa. Bucorvus leadbeateri is very large, and although it does fly, it spends most of its time walking around snatching arthropods and reptiles from the ground. We have seen only two, both at Lake Manyara. This bird is a female, determined by the presence of blue on the neck under the bill (not visible in the picture).

Verreaux's Eagle-Owl is small compared to the other birds on this post, but it is sub-Saharan Africa's largest owl; only two other owls get close. This species, Bubo lacteus, was seen awake at Tarangire National Park in Tanzania just before sunset. 

This page does a poor job of showing the storks of East Africa. I have seen black storks, white storks, yellow-billed storks, and African open-billed storks, all of which are big birds. Marabou storks, however, can get to be the largest of them all. The marabou stork, Leptoptilos crumeniferus, is also probably the least attractive of the storks, though beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Picture at Akagera National Park, Rwanda.

Grey crowned cranes, Balearica regulorum, can be found in East and Southern Africa. These individuals were seen in Lake Manyara National Park, in Tanzania, but I have seen them several times in Rwanda as well. Despite having wingspans up to 2 meters and standing around a meter high, they only weigh 3 to 4 kilograms (about 7-8 lb). 

Other birds that belong on this page that I have seen but do not have pictures are the great white pelican and the pink-backed pelican. Birds that belong here that I have not yet seen are the saddle-billed stork, Denham's bustard, and the shoebill. Also, I could include a number of herons, perhaps the sacred ibis, the white-backed vulture, and Rueppell's griffon vulture. Another day...

Works Cited

  • Anderson, M. 2008. Lappet-faced vulture” (On-line), ARKive: Images of Life on Earth. Accessed May 26, 2011.
  • Bible, J. and T. Root. 2007. "Ardeotis kori" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 26, 2011
  • BirdLife International (2011) Species factsheet: Balearica regulorum. Downloaded from on 27/05/2011. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2011) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 27/05/2011.
  • Donegan, K. 2002. "Struthio camelus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 26, 2011
  • Fanshawe, J. and Stevenson, T. Birds of East Africa. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. 
  • Krause, B. and P. Rasmussen. 2009. "Bucorvus abyssinicus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 27, 2011
  • Overholt, W. 2011. "Polemaetus bellicosus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 26, 2011 at
  • Ryan, P. and Sinclair, I. Birds of Africa south of the Sahara. Struik Nature: Cape Town, 2003.
  • Shirley, E. 2011. "Ardea goliath" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 26, 2011 at
  • Sherman, P. and P. Rasmussen. 2007. "Sagittarius serpentarius" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 26, 2011
  • Thairu, M. 2011. "Balearica regulorum" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 27, 2011 at

1 comment:

  1. Whatev, lesser flamingos are the super models of the bird world and they'll probably come after you for calling them "big, goofy, pink birds." Watch out for those "interesting bills" while you sleep.