NDEGE WETU: A Tribute to the Birds of Kenya (Part 1 – Your Everyday Birds)

There are birds that you see everyday. They’re a normal part of your everyday life. For anyone interested in bird watching and learning how to identify birds, these are the ones you should start with. Even if you don’t know their names, you are familiar with them because you see them on a daily basis. So it will be easy to remember their names once you learn them.

To begin the Ndege Wetu series, let’s take a look at some of these ‘everyday birds’. The list below is in no particular order. I will mainly focus on the birds that are easy to distinguish.

At the end I’ll also share a few resources and tips that you can use to learn how to identify the birds around you.

Here are some of the everyday birds in the lives of Kenyans:

Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus). This huge unmistakable bird is now very common in many towns and cities, including Nairobi. Interestingly, these birds did not breed in Nairobi a few decades ago (Lewis and Pomeroy 1989), but today they breed in huge numbers there. They get a good percentage of their food through scavenging, so are they a sign of Nairobi’s increasing amounts of waste/garbage dumps? Perhaps.
Yellow-billed Kite (or Black Kite) (Milvus [migrans] parasitus). I consider this to be the most adaptable bird of prey in Kenya. You can find them in almost all habitats except the driest parts of northern Kenya. But they are especially fond of human settlements and are a common feature of towns and villages.
If you’re in any part of Nairobi and you look up at the sky, you’ll almost always see this shape. The forked tail is a giveaway. A Yellow-billed Kite. They’re extremely common in the city. Sometimes you will see them in big numbers. If you happen to be holding some food or a snack and see this bird, you’ll probably want to hold your food carefully. Anyone who’s been to an event where food is served outdoors knows what happens when you don’t keep a close eye on your food and there are kites around!
Augur Buzzard (Buteo augur). Anyone who lives in the highlands, above 1500m, has probably seen this bird before. The orange tail and broad wings make it distinctive from the other birds of prey. They are good at catching small mammals like moles, other rodents and hares so are helpful birds to have in your farm as pest controllers.
This is also an Augur Buzzard, but the dark version (dark morph). Many birds have different color morphs.
African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla aguimp). Everyone knows this little bird. They’re very common on roofs, electricity wires and the ground. And they wag their tail up and down almost constantly, hence the name.
Pied Crow (Corvus albus). This is a bird that almost every Kenyan has seen before. Just like most birds that do well around people, Pied Crows are opportunistic generalists. They can eat a wide variety of food, are more than happy to scavenge and live in a wide variety of habitats.
House Crow (or Indian House Crow) (Corvus splendens). This bird was introduced from India in the 1890s to the East African coast where it has spread and become a serious menace. It is considered an invasive species as it is displacing many native birds, including Pied Crows. It is now one of the commonest birds along the coast and is slowly spreading inland. Some measures to control it in Kenya are being worked on and should hopefully be initiated soon.
Hadada Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash). These noisy birds are common around fields, lawns, gardens and the edge of wetlands, where they poke their beaks into the soil in search of worms and other small grubs to eat. They use the sense of touch to find their food, as their beaks are extremely sensitive.
Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus). Close relative of the Hadada, but mainly found around swamps and water bodies. They are quite common in the wetter parts of the country. Unlike the Hadada though, they are very silent!
Speckled Mousebird (Colius striatus). Flocks of these long-tailed birds are fairly common in farmland, gardens and open wooded or bushy habitats, mainly in the cooler/wetter parts of the country. In dryer areas they are replaced by other mousebirds (Blue-naped and White-headed).
Bronze Sunbird (Nectarinia kilimensis). This one is mainly in the highlands, but very common there in many different habitats. At very high elevations, above 1900m, there are other long-tailed sunbirds that you might confuse it with (e.g. Tacazze or Malachite sunbirds), but if you’re keen it’s quite easy to distinguish them. The one in this photo is a male. Females are a little trickier.
This one is very familiar to most people. The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). It only lives in human settlements and doesn’t occur in natural habitats. It’s actually not native to Kenya. It is from Europe and Asia. It was introduced to Mombasa in the early 20th century and has spread inland gradually along highways and towns. It doesn’t seem to compete well against our native sparrows in the wild so has carved a niche for itself in the urban environment. For this reason, it’s not considered an invasive species. The best way to distinguish this species from the other sparrows is by using the color of the eyes and head/face pattern. Habitat also helps: if you see a sparrow in the middle of a city, it’s probably a House Sparrow.
Another common bird of towns and cities, though mostly absent from the coast, is the Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio). In the wild, these birds nest along cliffs. The tall buildings in towns seem to make good substitute cliffs for them, so they are quite happy to live among the hustle and bustle. In flight, their wings show a bright red color which is almost concealed when not flying (like in this photo).
Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus). This very beautiful bird is common in savannahs and other open habitats, as well as several towns, throughout most of the country. You will often see them in groups on the ground. They can be easily confused with the similar Hildebrant’s Starling, but that species has red eyes.
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). You see these white birds following cattle and wild large herbivores like buffalo and elephant around. They feed on the insects disturbed by the herbivores as they walk. They roost in big numbers in several towns across Kenya, though they tend to be more on the outskirts than the interior of towns.
Close-up of a Cattle Egret
Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca). These big noisy geese are hard to confuse with any other bird. They are very common and can be found pretty much anywhere there is a water body. In fact if there is a pond with only one duck on it, it’s probably an Egyptian Goose.
Red-billed Firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala). The Kikuyu name for this bird is “Kanyoni ka nja”, which means the “bird of outside” – reference to the fact that it’s a common bird outside of people’s homes. This tiny brightly-colored bird can be found almost anywhere in Kenya except the very dry areas of the east and north.

Those are just a few of the ‘everyday birds’ that most Kenyans encounter in their daily lives. There are many more of course. If you would like to get to know the birds around you better, here are a few tips:

  • Join a local bird-watching group/club. If you live around Nairobi, the best group to join is Nature Kenya, which holds weekly bird walks around Nairobi and also does trips to further parts of the country. Other groups that hold birding activities include A Rocha Kenya at the coast and several local university clubs across the country. Birding with others who are good at bird identification is a very effective way of learning to identify birds.
  • Go on a birding tour/safari with a professional birding guide. Most safari guides are good with the big mammals, but there are a few who are additionally very knowledgeable about birds. Some operate locally in their home area (local guides), others work freelance throughout the country and others work with a specific tour company. A good birding guide can help you to learn about birds very quickly. And on a wildlife safari, birding can add an exciting new dimension to the overall experience. Feel free to contact me if you would like recommendations for good birding guides in Kenya.
  • Buy the basic tools. A good pair of binoculars and bird guidebook are two fundamental tools that any good birder should have. I recommend Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania (Zimmerman et al) or Birds of East Africa (Stevenson and Fanshawe) as great guidebooks for anyone interested in Kenya’s birds.
  • Once you start getting good at identifying birds, I highly recommend that you join the Kenya Bird Map project. It is a citizen science project aimed at determining the current distribution and status of birds across Kenya. Taking part in the project has helped many people improve their birding skills. If you take photos of birds and cannot identify them, you can submit them to the Virtual Museum, where an expert will identify them for you (and the photos will also contribute to the Kenya Bird Map project).

I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of Ndege Wetu. Look out for Part 2 next Thursday!

Feel free to leave any questions/comments/suggestions in the comments section below.

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About Sidney Shema

Sidney is a Kenya-based ornithologist and photographer specializing in the birds of Africa, with an especially keen interest in the birds of prey (raptors) of Kenya.
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