The Importance of Birds

Birds are one of nature’s most magnificent creatures which is why bird watching is a popular activity in the Garden Route. These feathered friends make the world a better place in more ways than one. This includes playing a massive cultural and ecological role in our lives.  Here are only some of the ways in which birds positively impact the environments we inhabit:

#1 They Assist in Plant Reproduction & Seed Dispersal

Bees and butterflies aren’t the only organisms that help pollinate plants – birds assist in the seed dispersal and pollination of plants too. Birds, such as sunbirds and sugarbirds, make a large contribution in the pollination of plants, as well as the life cycle of certain plant species. Other bird species with omnivorous diets, that adjust to whatever food is readily available, have been known to contribute to seed dispersal of fruiting trees.

A number of these species have also been known to consume nectar seasonally when it is readily available. This behavior also influences the number of plants that are pollinated. While birds probe various flowers for nectar, pollen is effectively rubbed off onto the feathers of the forehead and the plumage surrounding the base of the bill and the bill itself. This allows for effective pollen transportation and transfer between flowers.

A tiny Cape white eye perched on a thick stemmed flower

#2 They Assist in Keeping Coral Reefs Alive

Marine birds, such as seabirds, play a vital role in fertilising marine ecosystems and coral reefs. These birds travel long distances out to sea, where they feed on various matter. When they return, they deposit many layers of droppings at their nests that are often close to coral reefs.

Both the plants and fish found in coral reefs benefit when these droppings end up in the ocean. The droppings act as a fertiliser and provides nutrients to the ocean’s precious coral reefs. Our coral reefs are under threat due to climate change, so it’s great to know that birds (however unwittingly) do their bit to help these struggling ecosystems.

#3 Birds Assist in the Control of Pests

Birds eat a monumental number of insects every year.They eat a wide variety of creepy crawlies too, including spiders, worms, and crickets – all of who are commonly found in gardens. They can also reduce your use of pesticides, which are harmful to the environment.

Birds have a high metabolic rate which means that they need to consume a lot of food to survive. This allows them to make a large dent in the population of pests and insets that feed off plants. Population booms of certain insect species can have a devastating effect on environments, as insects severely defoliate plants and trees.

#4 They Assist in Keeping Precious Landscapes Alive

The world is full of ecosystems that are vital to the planet. These ecosystems store carbon, provide oxygen and convert pollutants into nutrients. Birds also do their part to help keep ecosystems alive. They help control population levels by maintaining the balance of prey to predators and plants to herbivores within these ecosystems. They also provide food for scavengers and decomposers after death. With the ever-increasing worry of climate change, birds are a welcome sight to help maintain the many ecosystems in South Africa and the world.

#5 Birds Help to Prevent Deadly Diseases

When travelling by car in South Africa, and the world, you will undoubtedly come across roadkill. Or perhaps, if you’re a safari-goer, you’ll know all about the circle of life, where the predator kills the prey. When animals are killed and they decompose, birds and other smaller animals will feed off the carcass, getting rid of any remains. This helps to prevent diseases from developing and spreading. Birds such as vultures are scavengers and feed off the remains of animals. They are usually not too far away from a kill site, which helps with the quick consumption of remains.

Birding in South Africa

Birding is the act of observing birds in their natural habitat. Conservationists and bird lovers alike are joining in on this activity at a rapid rate and we can totally understand why. In South Africa alone, there are about 856 recorded species of birds. According to BirdLife, 68 of these species are endemic or near-endemic and a whopping 132 are threatened or near-threatened. These statistics are from a 2018 report based on South African birdlife.

Monitoring by bird watchers and research by ornithologists help us to better understand bird distribution, their ecology and historic traits. South Africa’s birds are incredibly diverse and are found in many habitats and biomes across the country.

At Shamwari Private Game Reserve, located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, there are a host of beautiful birds that call the reserve home – a whopping 275 bird species to be exact.  This is because the reserve includes five of the eight biomes found in the country. Shamwari’s elevation differs from as low as 197m in the south of reserve to as high as 650m in north.  The difference in altitude contributes to different climates, plants and animals. The five diverse biomes bring about a wide variety of animal, bird and plant life.

A large grey bird standing in the tall grass

Birds found in South Africa’s Biomes

Biomes are found all around the world. They are biological communities that are influenced by a shared climate and altitude. These biological communities consist of organisms, such as animals and plants, that share common characteristics for the environment that they exist in. There are eight biomes found in South Africa.

#1 Nama Karoo

The Nama Karoo is the third-largest biome in South Africa. It is a vast, open region dominated by low-shrub vegetation and an abundance of rock. Birds found in this region include:

  • Ostrich (largest flightless bird)
  • Guinea fowl
  • Pale chanting goshawk

#2 Succulent Karoo

As the name suggests, this biome has the greatest diversity of succulent plants in the world. It is found in South Africa and Namibia and is a rather arid region. Birds found in this region include:

  • Ludwig’s bustard
  • Burchell’s courser
  • Black harrier

#3 Fynbos

The fynbos biome is situated predominantly in the Western Cape, however it also occurs in the Eastern Cape. It is an important habitat for avian species in South Africa, as it hosts a rich variety of endemic South African and passerine bird species. Birds found in this region include:

  • Sugarbirds
  • Orange-breasted sunbird
  • Yellow-rumped widow

#4 Forest

The forest biome is sporadically distributed across five of the country’s provinces and requires a large amount of rainfall to truly thrive. It is an area identified by tall trees, creating a constant canopy that covers the area. There are several endemic and endangered bird species found in this ecosystem, namely:

  • African paradise flycatcher
  • Knysna turaco
  • Crowned eagle

#5 Albany Thicket

This biome is limited to the coastal provinces of Kwa-Zulu Natal, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape. This ecosystem sustains several populations of bird species, such as:

  • Knysna woodpecker
  • Cape siskin
  • Knysna warbler

#6 Savannah

The savannah biome is the largest biome in South Africa. It is easily identifiable as a grassy landscape with widely spaced trees. This biome is incredibly important to raptor species in South Africa. Bird species typically found within this biome include:

  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Secretary bird
  • Lappet-faced vulture

#7 Grassland

This biome is represented in several provinces within South Africa and has a particularly large diversity of fauna and flora.  In terms of flora, the ecosystem is dominated by, as the name implies, vast grasslands. Birds found in this region include:

  • Red-winged francolin
  • Melodious lark
  • Blue crane (South Africa’s national bird)

#8 Desert

The harsh environment of the desert biome is found predominantly in Namibia, however there is a small percentage that is found elsewhere in South Africa. This biome typically experiences the emergence of plants and grasses after rare abundant rainfall. Many insects and reptiles are found in this arid biome. Bird species typical of this biome include:

  • Rufous-naped lark
  • Gray’s lark
  • Karoo long-billed lark

A small brown bird calling from atop a shrub

The Bird Watching Experience at Shamwari

Shamwari is a birders paradise, with several bodies of water located throughout the reserve providing the ideal opportunity to catchsight of the teeming birdlife. Our rangers are knowledgeable of the various bird species residing in the reserve and will happily share their insights with guests.

A bird watcher on the lookout at Shamwari during a guided walk

Whether you set out on a game drive, go on a guided walk or simply watch from your balcony, bird watching is such a relaxing activity. In order to get the most from your safari experience, we highly recommend that you come fully prepared with these items:

  • Binoculars to better identify the bird species
  • A bird reference book and personal notebook
  • Camera and lenses to capture the sights
  • Warm clothing, as the early morning and late afternoon safaris can get quite chilly

Indigenous Birds of South Africa spotted at Shamwari

Within South Africa, there are a plethora of unique and endemic species. If you’re a keen birder, make sure to look out for them on your next birding trip:

  1. Blue crane – South Africa’s national bird, the elegant blue crane also mates for life.
  2. Knysna turaco – The turaco is the only bird that contains the pigmentsturacan and turacovaden, which is the true green pigment.
  3. Cape sugarbird – This is one of the eight bird species indigenous to the fynbos biome.
  4. Pale chanting goshawk – A stunning medium-sized bird of prey with a distinct whistling call, heardfrequently during mating season.
  5. Bokmakierie – The name of this beautiful bird comes from its melodious call often uttered from treetops.
  6. Secretary bird – This long-legged bird gets its name from its crest of long feathers that look like quills traditionally used by office workers.
  7. South African shelduck – This species of bird uses abandoned mammal holes to breed in.
  8. Pied kingfisher – With black and white plumage, it’s hard to miss this striking bird. They are found near sources of water.
  9. African penguin – This endangered species lives in colonies along the coast of Southern Africa and are capable swimmers.
  10. African fish eagle – This large raptor species has an iconic call known as “the voice of Africa” and can be seen near bodies of water

A Knysna turaco sitting on a shaded branch

Make sure to look out for these spectacular feathered friends on your next birding expedition!