Birdwatching is fast becoming a very popular pastime among nature lovers. Once thought to be exclusively the interest of old or upper-class men, it has now spread to millions of people around the world, especially in the last 40 years or so, creating a global community. Cape Town is a major epicentre for birders in South Africa. Even the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology has its offices at the University of Cape Town!
While Cape Town lacks the bird-rich savannas and forests of Limpopo or Kwa-Zulu Natal, it is home to a large number of unique and endemic species and a range of iconic land and seabirds. Alongside the veteran birders, more and more people are becoming inspired to pick up a pair of binoculars or a camera and go in search of these birds.
Luckily, in Cape Town, you don’t need to travel far to visit birding hotspots like Kirstenbosch Gardens or Strandfontein. Even visiting a local park, a stretch of coastline or sitting in your own backyard can offer some memorable birding moments. The bird species in Cape Town are well adapted to their particular environments, but many have also managed to cope with the changes brought about by urbanisation. So the birds are now coming to the birders.
- Look for greenspaces in your neighbourhood (parks, rivers, wetlands, plantations, fynbos)
- Listen out for bird calls, as many species can be located by following their calls
- Try to make your garden as wildlife-friendly as possible (indigenous vegetation, areas of thicket, wood piles)
- Be mindful when installing bird feeders. While these are great at attracting birds to your garden, they can also have negative effects. For example, the wrong mixture in a sunbird feeder can kill the visiting birds. In addition, don’t rely solely on bird feeders to attract birds
- If a bird has made a nest, be very careful not to disturb the birds when observing it
- Try and make a list or keep notes of the birds you see in your garden and your area
14 beautiful common birds in Cape Town
These are some of the best native birds to watch for in the city – they can be found in gardens, along the coast, and on the slopes of the expansive Table Mountain National Park.
Looking for more? Check out our post on the best bird-watching spots around Cape Town!
Endemic to the fynbos biome in the Western and Eastern Cape, the Cape sugarbird is one of the most easily recognisable birds that can be seen in the Table Mountain National Park. The long tail feathers of the male birds are used in the display flights that they do to impress the females, showing their strength and vigour.
They rely heavily on mature fynbos to survive, so they can feed on the nectar of specific protea species (including the King Protea, South Africa’s National Flower), but they do visit gardens in the suburbs close to the mountains, including Kalk Bay and Noordhoek.
In my opinion, this species is the most extravagantly coloured of all the sunbirds in Southern Africa. Like the Cape sugarbird, they are also endemic to the fynbos biome and feed on the nectar of certain species of ericas and proteas. In fact, several species of erica are specifically designed to be pollinated by these sunbirds!
It is not common to see these sunbirds in gardens, due to them being more reliant on healthy fynbos than other sunbird species, but they do enter gardens close to the foot of the mountains. The best time of year to see the orange-breasted sunbird is at the start of spring, when pincushion proteas flower, and in the first months of the year when a number of key erica species flower.
One of South Africa’s most iconic birds, the African penguins of Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town have become one of the biggest drawcards for tourists visiting South Africa. With up to 2000 resident breeding pairs, Boulders Beach is one of the most important colonies for this increasingly endangered species.
With space often limited, a number of the houses surrounding the beach are now visited by penguins looking for places to nest. It’s not uncommon to see groups of penguins crossing the roads in Simon’s Town (look out for penguin crossing signs). When not on land, these birds travel far out into the open ocean in search of the fish they hunt and can dive to depths of over 100 metres.
African Black Oystercatcher
The African black oystercatcher is another iconic bird of South Africa’s shorelines. Jet black with a strikingly red bill and eye-rings, they are easily recognisable. Formerly endangered, they’ve been making an impressive comeback thanks to conservation efforts.
Oystercatchers can be seen foraging for shellfish in any place along Cape Town’s coastline and they nest in the dunes on certain beaches, which need to be protected from people, dogs and cars.
A favourite bird among photographers, this tiny bejewelled kingfisher is a common sight across South Africa’s wetlands and waterways. While they prefer natural wetlands, they can also be seen deep in urban areas in places like Greenpoint Park and the Liesbeek River. When in flight, these birds look like tiny blue darts and it is a special moment when you get a close look at one perched on a reed.
The Cape Spurfowl has become a common sight in the streets and parks of a number of neighbourhoods in Cape Town. Endemic to the Western Cape and part of Southern Namibia, it is in fact the largest species of spurfowl in Southern Africa. While they are adaptable, they need to have enough areas of vegetation in which to roost and nest. As is typical with ground birds, they have incredibly well-camouflaged eggs and their chicks are also very cryptically coloured. And just like any spurfowl, they have a very loud and recognisable call!
One of the smallest birds you will see in Cape Town, swee waxbills are some of the most endearing garden birds. Almost always seen in pairs, the males have black faces while the females have grey faces, and both sexes have prominent red rumps.
These birds naturally occur in forests, so any well-wooded garden can attract them. Being seed eaters, they are also one of the species Cape Town birders can expect to see visiting their bird feeders, especially in the Constantia and Newlands areas.
This raptor is now probably the most common and widespread in Cape Town, due to the presence of large areas of heavily wooded suburbs and plantations. Before the spread of Cape Town, they were rare in the area, as they rely on areas of forest in which to build their nests and hunt. Their usual prey is birds like pigeons, doves and other smaller species, which they either ambush among the trees or in people’s gardens. There are two colour morphs in this species, all-black and white-chested. Cape Town is unique in being the only place where the black colour morph is the more common of the two.
Perhaps the most recognisable waterbird in the world, flamingos appear simultaneously elegant and ungainly. Both of Africa’s flamingo species can be seen in Cape Town, with the larger Greater flamingo being by far the most common. Aside from natural wetlands and estuaries, they also gather in great numbers in artificial pans (including Strandfontein) and even in the polluted Black River. Greater flamingos are filter feeders, using their sieve-like bills to filter out microscopic plants from brackish water.
The most widespread and adaptable of Southern Africa’s owl species, the spotted eagle-owl can be found from the deserts of the Kalahari to the suburbs at Sea Point. They are generally hard to spot during the day unless you are lucky or know where a particular bird is likely to roost. At night, they are usually seen as a silhouette on a rooftop or lamp post, hooting in the darkness.
They can be seen right across Cape Town, in the mountains and wetlands as well as in golf courses, urban areas and the suburbs. They also hunt a wide range of prey, including rodents, moles, guineafowl chicks, frogs and insects. However, they are at risk from vehicle collisions as they are attracted to road lights to hunt for insects.
All three species of Southern Africa’s mousebird can be found in Cape Town, but the white-backed mousebird is the species I have seen the most (and in the most gardens). They have very small bodies, in comparison to their long tails, and they often clamber around in the branches of trees in a very mammal-like way.
These mousebirds have striking black and white striped backs, which are usually only visible when they fly. However, they are very grey in colour in comparison to the speckled and red-faced mousebirds, and they also have white beaks. They’re fruit eaters, so are often attracted to gardens with natural fruiting trees, as well as to those gardens where people leave out fruit for them.
One of the most common garden birds across the Western Cape, the Cape bulbul tends to get overlooked (in fact, bulbuls in general do). With quite dark brown plumage, this bulbul’s most distinctive feature is their white eye ring. They are very adaptable and are regular visitors to many gardens across Cape Town, especially those where fruit or sunbird feeders are left out for birds. This makes them a great bird for beginner birdwatchers to start learning to identify.
The Southern boubou is heard far more often than it is seen, especially since it has a range of calls. These birds skulk around in dense thickets in search of prey, and often only emerge into the open when crossing between these thickets. Their hooked beaks are perfect tools for catching prey like geckos, locusts, chameleons and bird nestlings. The males have jet-black backs and very white chests, while the females tend to have brown backs and more orange chests. Despite their secretive nature, they are nonetheless frequent visitors to gardens in Cape Town.
Voted ‘South Africa’s favourite bird’ on several occasions, the Cape robin-chat is definitely one of the most endearing birds that live in Cape Town. With their orange chests and white eye stripes, they are also quite distinctive birds. They are common visitors to gardens, hopping through flower beds in search of food, which can include a variety of insects and fruits. They tend to prefer areas of thick vegetation and are quite hyperactive, so if you see one perched in the open for more than a minute, then you are lucky!