Common Bird Sounds Of The Bushveld

The Morning Chorus

Waking up in the bush has its very own alarm clock: the birdsong. We bet that before you’ve even thought about raising your head to greet a new day, the melodic sounds of the bush have ushered you awake. And if you’re yet to experience it, our advice would be to leave the alarm clocks at home because, like it or not, you’re in for an early start. 

Knowing who of the feathered flock is starting the day in a high crescendo helps to appreciate a 4.30am wake-up, plus it’s great for game drive brownie points. If you’re just starting out as a twitcher (the collective noun for someone that is an avid bird identifier) or are a first time visitor to Thornybush, in winter or summer, you will no doubt hear the common dawn breakers of the morning chorus that start another day in Africa, loud and proud. Let’s wax lyrical about birds!

What makes a birdsong?

A birdsong to the untrained ear can sound like a smorgasbord of sounds, but if you start to pay attention to each call you’ll begin to understand that it can be defined as a series of notes that form a recognisable pattern. Just like each beat in a song, so do birds have different pitches that identify them.

But how do birds know how to sing these individual calls? Instinct. And a little learning. 

Birds generally make a noise when they lay claim to territory, need to attract a mate or signal a threat. Each of these can trigger vastly different sounds from birds of the same species. However, in the early hours of the morning as the world wakes up, most birds, particularly males, are using their courtship chorus which makes it easier to identify who is singing which love song. 

There are some birds, which as a first-time-birder may cause confusion – robins, robin-chats and forktail drongos, common birds found in the African bushveld, are really good mimics. These particular birds are able to incorporate the calls of many other birds into their repertoire and can have up to eight different recognisable songs. Luckily their common appearance allows you to identify them by sight rather than relying on sound.

Why do birds start singing early in the morning? 

Dawn has barely cracked and the birds are signalling the day, but why do they need to do this an hour before sunrise? As science has said, early mornings are too dark to search for food and too dark to be spotted by a predator, so to get ahead of the wife-calling, birds sing. There is also less background noise against the still air, making their sound travel 20 times further than it would any other time of the day. This enables them to woo a female counterpart and mark their territory audibly. 

Common birds of the summer morning chorus

There are many birds of the summer bushveld that can be heard in the morning, but the most common, (and loud) are these summer singers. 

  • Woodland kingfisher – the rapper of the woodlands – it’s flash of blue and ringing call is a summer mascot. 
  • Red-chested cuckoo – it’s call sounds like it’s saying “Piet-my-Vrou” which is why it also goes by that name. These are super shy birds in nature, but boy do they have a voice to make up for it. 
  • Green-backed camaroptera – Once you hear one, you’ll know. The click-click-click of their call is undeniable. 
  • Gorgeous bushshrike – as gorgeous as its name, but rare to see – try and imagine a sound of whistling water droplets, it’s a beautiful sound. 
  • Black-crowned tchagra – this consistent sound of the morning is like a warbling whistle of single notes that become slower and slower but higher in pitch.

Photos by: Getty Images, Bird Org and creative commons

Common birds of the winter morning chorus 

It may be a chilly start to the day during the winter months, but this doesn’t stop the winter woo’ers from singing their song. Albeit a little later than 4 am, their morning song is strong. 

  • Southern yellow-billed hornbill – the whistle and the wave of them in flight is a sure sign you’re in the bush. 
  • Black-headed oriole – a fluorescent yellow bird with a black head and a song to boot – the rising and falling of their rich, liquid sound is just terrific. 
  • Black-collared barbet – often found in a duet which sounds like “ two puddy, two puddy”. 
  • White-bellied sunbird – the high pitched “tweep” sounds as small as they are, but make for a definitive sound of the morning. 
  • Purple-crested turaco – a shy, beautiful bird most commonly recognised by its red wings in flight has a recognisable call that starts off quietly and builds up into a repetitive yet musical ‘kok kok kok’

Photos by: Getty Images, Bird Org and creative commons

Iconic birds calls of the bush 

Not just packed into your morning wake up call, are two other iconic sounds that, in Africa, tell you that you’re here. These are:

  • African fish eagle – the majestic call of Africa, with a sound that travels distances, is a sight to see by a sound that makes memories. 
  • Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove – is the king of the blues and a noticeable sound, however mournful. Its song sounds a lot like ‘my father’s dead, my mother’s dead, oh oh oh’ 

Waking up to a morning song sung by your own personal orchestra is just another reason that makes going on a safari so memorable. Now just to learn all the notes and conduct your very own birdsong lesson on your next game drive.

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