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the web of life in southern Africa

Aves (birds)

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora

See classification of birds

Origin of birds

Fossil evidence has provided abundant evidence that birds evolved from within the theropod dinosaur clade Maniraptora. So the little white-eyes flitting around in the trees of your garden are dinosaurs and quite close relatives of the fearsome Velociraptor (also in the Maniraptora) that is portrayed in Jurassic Park! The size difference between a white-eye and the largest dinosaurs (the sauropods) is not all that unbelievable when you consider the difference in size and appearance between the Blue whale and a mouse, both of which are mammals.

Of all the animals alive today, birds are unique in having feathers. However, it gets a bit more complicated when you examine the fossil record because it appears that feathers were present in quite a few groups within the Maniraptora dinosaurs and it was from one of these groups that the birds emerged and radiated.

It is usually stated that the ealiest known bird is Archaeopteryx, which is known from about 10 fossils in 155-150 million year old (Jurassic Period) rock strata in southern Germany. Archaeopteryx clearly did have feathers similar to those of modern birds but it also had some primitive theropod dinosaur characters such as teeth. Some define birds as only the modern forms (the Neornithes). Others define birds as including modern birds and Archaeopteryx. It is thought unlikely that Archaeopteryx is the direct ancestor of modern birds but it is certainly closely related.

Archaeopteryx lithographica - cast of the 'Berlin specimen'. [photo H. Robertson, Iziko]

Bird diversity

Birdlife International recognises 9990 species of birds (download checklist from here; excludes fossil species, includes recently extinct species [e.g. Dodo]) but it could be as high as 10105 species if you include those that Birdlife International has currently under review. These latter species include a number recognised in the new Roberts (Hockey et al. 2005) such as Forest buzzard, Carp's tit, and Karoo thrush. This list of species under review also includes Yellow-billed kite (Milvus aegyptius), which is not recognised in the the new Roberts, but which probably is a separate species from the Black kite (Milvus migrans).

It is amazing for such a well-known group of organisms that there are still new species of birds being described: See Bird species new to science described in the 2000s (Wikipedia). Most of these have been discovered in tropical regions of the world. In addition, there are old established species that are being re-evaluated on the basis of new genetic evidence, resulting in them being split into two or more species. In southern Africa this splitting of old species has happened particularly in the larks.

Roberts Birds of Southern Africa  lists 951 species from the southern African subregion (i.e. south of the Cunene and Zambezi rivers), which amounts to 9.5% of the world total and 41% of the approximately 2300 species recorded from Africa. This is slightly more than the 925 species recorded from the much large region of the USA and Canada and a little less than the 1000 or so recorded species from the whole of Europe. However, it is overshadowed by the impressive bird diversity in the Neotropics (South America). It is within this region that the highest bird diversity of any country in the World has been recorded, namely in Colombia where the bird list stands at 1895 species (see List of birds of Colombia - Wikipedia). This is all the more impressive when you consider that the land area of Columbia is 15% less than that of South Africa (1038700 km2 vs 1219912 km2)! 

So while southern Africa can't boast of having the highest bird diversity in the world, it still does pretty well compared to some other regions of the World. The bird list includes 98 endemic species (i.e. only found in southern Africa), five breeding endemics (i.e. only known to breed in southern Africa but non-breeding range extends out of the region) and 62 near-endemics (distribution extends only slightly out of southern Africa) (Hockey et al. 2005). There are also two endemic families, namely the sugarbirds and rockjumpers

Contributing to the diversity of birds in southern Africa is the wide range of habitats that are available. These range from oceanic and coastal marine through to freshwater pans and rivers, deserts, semi-deserts (Nama Karoo and Succulent Karoo), fynbos, thicket, grassland, forest, savanna, and woodland (which is an extreme form of savanna).

This site

This site presents a page on each of the species of birds that have been recorded from southern Africa. Duncan Robertson has spent hours finding, editing and inserting images of the different species and has also contributed text for many pages. We are most grateful to the numerous bird photographers that have generously allowed us to use their images. The photographer is acknowledged below each photograph (except thumbnails) and there is a link to his/her website or web page.

The coverage is still not complete. Most of the species are illustrated by photographs but there are many pages still requiring text.

The information presented for each species is derived mainly from the new Roberts Birds of Southern Africa (Hockey et al. 2005) simply because it is the most authorative text available. We have focused particularly on interactions with other organisms so that we can put each bird species in its ecological context and link to taxa presented elsewhere in Biodiversity Explorer that are predators, prey, parasites or fullfil some other role such as plants that provide nest sites or nesting material. 


This introduction to birds does not go into too much detail because there are some excellent resources elsewhere, some of which are listed below:

  • Bird (Wikipedia). A useful introduction to birds.

  • Origin of birds (Wikipedia).

  • Bird Evolution (Wikipedia).

  • Bird anatomy (Wikipedia).

  • Birdlife International. "BirdLife International is a global Partnership of conservation organisations that strives to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity, working with people towards sustainability in the use of natural resources. BirdLife Partners operate in over one hundred countries and territories worldwide." One of these partners is Birdlife South Africa (see below).

  • Birdlife South Africa. The lead organisation in South Africa for everyone interested in birds and their survival. There are about 8000 members in 40 branches and affiliates throughout South Africa.

  • Birdinfo. Articles and news about birds, especially those in southern Africa. Articles feature rare species and the biology and ecology of particular species - very interesting reading with excellent photographs.

  • Bird Families of the World. Really nice review of bird families of the world, showing photographs plus bird sounds plus info. on life histories. 

  • Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology. Includes a huge sound and video archive that includes many African bird species.

  • Fatbirder. A comprehensive site on birds and birding, including book and web resources, information on bird watching equipment, and news on birds - especially bird conservation.

  • Birding on the net. Good place for links to bird web sites.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG (eds) 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.

Text by Hamish Robertson