Bird Habitats in Zambia
Some of the birds inhabiting woodlands are the doves, pigeons, parrots, cuckoos. owls, nightjars, kingfishers, hornbills and the Broad-billed Roller. Barbets, honeyguides, woodpeckers, swallows, the Fork-tailed Drongo and flycatchers. See the bird checklist for a full list of species found in Zambia.
Lying at the centre of the miombo zone of south-central Africa, Zambia has a greater variety of miombo birds than any of its neighbours. Miombo is the commonest woodland type in Zambia and many areas have an undisturbed avifauna.
Many of the birds of the miombo woodland join mixed-species bird parties. A typical bird party may contain members of ten or twenty species, mainly of territorial insectivorous birds. The party travels slowly through the woodland and membership changes as the route leaves and enters individual territories. A party is often first noticed where one of its more conspicuous members is seen or heard – a Fork-tailed Drongo or Arnot’s Chat, for example. The following are some of the birds that, where they occur, usually join mixed-species bird parties in miombo woodland. Scimitarbill Hoopoe, barbets, honeyguides, woodpeckers, pipits, cuckoo shrikes, eremomelas, Miombo Barred Warbler (E), hyliotas, flycatchers, Chinspot Batis, tits, Spotted Creeper (E), orioles, Brubru, Southern Puffback, Grey-headed Bush Shrike, Fork-tailed Drongo, Violet backed Starling, Yellow-throated Petronia, Chestnut-mantled Sparrow-weaver (E) (n), Weavers, Seed-eaters, Cabanis’s Bunting (E).
More independent birds found here are the Pale-billed Hornbill, Central Bearded Scrub Robin, Trilling Cisticola (n) and many of the sunbirds.
In addition to those birds found in any woodland type, mopane has several species, listed below, that in Zambia are largely or entirely confined to this habitat. All are easily noticed because they are vocal, numerous and/or conspicuous, while in the case of the sparrow-weaver the nests cannot be missed. The Black-cheecked Lovebird is of particular interest because it has a very small range and is considered endangered. Among the threats to its continued existence in the wild are drought and the possibility that illegal capture for the cage-bird trade might resume. Others are the Three-banded Courser, Red-billed Hornbill, Southern Long-tailed Starling, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow and the White-browed Sparrow-weaver.
In places, the natural woodland is open, such as on the edges of plains and dambos. Elsewhere light woodland has been created by human activity. Among the characteristic birds of such areas are the Black Shouldered Kite, Black-bellied Bustard, Namaqua Dove (m), Grey Lourie (s), Bare-faced Go-away Bird (n), Little Bee-eater, Lilac-breasted Roller, Flappet and Fawn-coloured (w) Larks, Red-backed Cisticola (m), Fiscal Shrikes and the Yellow-fronted Canary.
Trees and bushes of one species or another in the Acacia group occur in much of Zambia, particularly south-west. Among birds associated with these are the African Mourning Dove, Acacia Pied Barbet, the migrant Tit Babbler, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Cape Glossy Starling, Burchell’s Starling, Scaly-feathered Finch, Black-faced Waxbill, Shaft-tailed Widow and in sub-montane areas, Brown Parisoma.
In baobabs, the Red-billed Buffalo Weaver often builds nests. Hollows in the same tree may be used for breeding by the Mottled Spinetail.
Several birds are associated with one or more species of palm tree. Thus the Palm-nut Vulture normally occurs in the vicinity of Raphia or Elaeis palms. Dickinson’s Kestrel, Red-necked Falcon, African Palm Swift and Collared Palm Thrush often nest in palms such as Borassus.
Large spreading sycamore fig trees in otherwise rather open country are a conspicuous feature of parts of southern Zambia. Numerous species eat the fruit or make hole nests in dead branches. One bird that does both is Chaplin’s Barbet. It occurs in a limited part of Zambia centred on the Kafue flats and is Zambia’s only endemic bird. This striking white and black species is considered near-threatened.
Extensive bamboo thickets occur in scattered parts of Zambia, notably on the Copperbelt and along the edges of the Luangwa Valley. At rare times when bamboo seeds are available, the Pied Mannikin can be extraordinarily common in such areas, but at other times it is scarce, local and partially nomadic.
Or ‘old man’s beard’, Usnea is an essential component of the habitat of two uncommon and poorly known insectivorous weavers of miombo woodland – Bar-winged Weaver west of the Luangwa Valley and Olive-headed Weaver to the East. The Usnea lichen is used in nest construction.
Scrub consisting of low bushes, small thickets or regrowth separated by stands of grass occur both naturally and on land formerly cleared. Several of the species of this habitat are very common and include: Laughing Dove, Red-faced Mousebird, Common Bulbul, Thrush Nightingale, White-browed Scrub Robin, Marsh Warbler (m), Common Whitethroat, Rattling Cisticola, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Arrow-marked Babbler, White-bellied Sunbird (s), Brown headed and Black-crowned Tchagras, Tropical Boubou, Red-billed Quelea, Yellow Bishop, Red-collared Whydah, Red-billed and Jameson’s Firefinches, Blue (s) and Violet-eared (w) Waxbills and the Village and Dusky Indigo-birds.
Extensive areas of deciduous thicket occur in the low-lying area between Lakes Mweru and Tanganyika. Typical birds include the migrant African Pitta and the resident White-throated Nicator. The same species occur in similar habitats in the middle Zambezi and Luangwa Valleys, alongside the Natal Francolin, Barred long-tailed Cuckoo, Sombre Bulbul, Eastern Bearded Scrub Robin and Livingstone’s Flycatcher.
Generally smaller areas of thicket occur over much, but not all of the plateau. These thickets as well as those at lower altitudes are the habitat of migrant Red-capped Robin and River Warblers, and such residents as Crested Guineafowl, African Broadbill, Yellow-bellied and Terrestrial Bulbul, Bleating Bush Warbler and the Melba Finch.
Forest habitats cover a small part of the surface of Zambia, however, they have a diverse avifauna that is largely different from that of the neighbouring woodlands. In forest, as in miombo woodland, many of the smaller birds gather into mixed-species foraging bird parties.
Some birds occur regularly at forest edge or in such near forest habitats as dense woodland, well developed thickets or rich vegetation on termite mounds. These include Blue spotted Wood Dove (n), Schalow’s Turaco, Lady Ross’s Turaco (n), Emerald Cuckoo, Speckled Mousebird (n), Narina Trogon, Brown-headed Kingfisher, Black-backed Barbet (n), Yellow-breasted Apalis, Dusky Flycatcher (n), Collared Sunbird, Brown and Blue-billed Firefinches, Black-tailed Grey Waxbill (n) and Black-faced Canary (n).
Riverbanks often support a growth of riparian forest. Even if only a few meters wide or discontinuous, this habitat and the water it overhangs may be occupied by White-backed Night Heron, Green-backed Heron, Hadeda, African Black Duck, African Finfoot, Pel’s Fishing Owl, Half-collared and Giant Kingfishers, Bohms Bee-eater (n) Olive Woodpecker (n) Grey-olive Bulbul (n), Cassin’s Grey Flycatcher (n), Black-throated, Wattle-eyed and Spectacled Weaver.
North of about 14 degrees latitude, patches of wet evergreen forest, often called mushitu, grow on moist ground along rivers or at their headwaters. This rich habitat is more widespread at plateau levels than in low lying country between lakes Mweru and Tanganyika and it does not occur in the northern Luangwa Valley. Mushitu birds that are relatively widespread in northern Zambia include Woolly-necked Stork, Golden-rumped Tinkerbird, Purple-throated Cuckoo Shrike, Little and Cabanis’s Greenbuls, Yellow-throated Leaflove, West African Thrush, Bocage’s Robin, Evergreen Forest and Laura’s Warblers, Grey Apalis, Blue-mantled Flycatcher, Olive Sunbird, Many-coloured Bush Shrike, Square-tailed Drongo, Splendid Glossy Starling (m), Dark-backed Weaver and Black-bellied Seed-cracker. Less widespread mushitu species include Cinnamon Dove, Margaret’s Batis (w) and Green Twinspot.
Dry evergreen forest in northern Zambia is generally less well developed than mushitu but, where rich enough, supports many of the same birds. The dry Cryptosepalum forests of the north-west support an additional species, the Gorgeous Bushshrike.
The Marsh Tchagra is one of a number of birds that occupy the dense, tangled bracken-briar at the outer edge of forest in northern Zambia.
Despite the few montane forests in Zambia, a large number of montane forest birds occur here. They include the Red-breasted Sparrowhawk, Rameron Pigeon, Pink-breasted Turtle Dove, Mountain Nightjar, Scarce Swift (m), Bar-tailed Trogon, Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Moustached Green Tinkerbird, Eastern Mountain Greenbul, Yellow-streaked Bulbul, Olive and Orange Thrushes, White-chested Alethe, Starred and Olive Flanked Robins, Sharpe’s Akalat, Yellow throated Warbler (Mafinga only), Chestnut-headed Apalis, Slaty Flycatcher, Cape Batis, African Hill Babbler, Eastern Double-collared Sunbird, Fulleborn’s Black Boubou, Waller’s Red-winged and Slender-billed Chestnut-winged Starlings and the Red-faced Crimsonwing.
Several further birds occurring only at montane altitudes like in the dense bracken briar at the edge of montane forest: Red-tailed Flufftail, Cape Robin, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Churring and Black-lored Cisticolas, Baglafecht and Bertram’s Weavers, Swee Waxbill, African Citril and Streaky Seed-eater.
On the generally flat plateau, rivers are fed principally by dambos, where water seeps out into grassland and drains into the watercourse running through the centre of the dambo. On the upper parts of the dambo, close to the woodland edge, scattered trees are occupied by the White-winged Black Tit. The driest areas of sometimes extensive short grassland are inhabited by Temminck’s Courser (m), Red-capped Lark (m) and the Dessert Cisticola. The dry montane grasslands of the Nyika Plateau have populations of Red-winged Francolin and Common Quail.
The intermediate levels in typical dambos are permanently spongy and have short grass. This habitat is common enough in northern Zambia but does not occur in many other parts of Africa. Consequently many of the birds found here are uncommon elsewhere or have a localised distribution. They include Blue Quail (m), Long-toed (n) and Streaky-breasted (m) Flufftails, Black and Rufous Swallow (m) (n), Yellow-throated (e), Fulleborn’s (w) and Grimwood’s (nw) Longclaws, Pectoral-patch, Black-tailed (nw) and Stout (n) Cisticolas, Yellow-mantled and Marsh (n) Whydahs, Fawn-breasted Waxbill (n), Locust Finch and Black-chinned Quailfinch (n), Croaking Cisticola and Red-billed Quelea (m).
The centre of a dambo consist of a series of different wetland habitats. In reedbeds there may be Little Bitterns, Red-chested Flufftail, African Water Rail, Little Rush and Lesser Swamp Warblers and Chirping Cisticola. Where sedges are common, there may be Lesser Black-backed Cisticola (n) or in a few areas, Great-crested Grebe. Where reeds overhang water, weavers such as Bocage’s (nw), Large Golden or Yellow-backed (ne)occur. In water-lily covered pools African Pygmy goose, White-backed and Yellow-billed Duck and African and Lesser Jacana are to be found. On bare ground or mud, Hamerkop, Senegal Wattled Plover and Cape Wagtail occur.
Zambia has a number of major wetlands. On the plateau, there are huge wetland areas along the Chambeshi River, at Bangweulu, in eastern Kawambwa District, on the upper Kafue and Jiwundu Rivers, at Lukanga and Busanga Swamps, on the Kafue Flats and Barotse Floodplain and on the Zambezi along the Namibian border. At lower levels, major wetlands exist on the lower Luapula Rivers, at Lake Mweru Wantipa, on the Luangwa River, at Lake Kariba and on the Zambezi below Kariba Gorge. Those that have been declared Ramsar sites – internationally important wetlands – are Lochinvar and Blue Lagoon on the Kafue Flats and Chikuni in the Bangweulu area.
On the periphery of many of these wetlands are floodplains, which may be occupied by Abdim’s (m) and White (m) (e) Storks, Montagu’s Harrier (m), Secretary Bird, Red-billed Francolin (sw), Wattled Crane, Denham’s Bustard, Common Pratincole, Caspian (m) and Crowned (m) Plovers, Ruff (m), Marsh Owl, Natal Nightjar, White-cheeked (n) and Blue-cheeked (m) Bee-eaters, Rufous-naped Lark, White-throated Swallow, Richard’s Pipit, White-rumped Babbler and Quail Finch.
Shallowly inundated vegetation is usually rich in both the number of birds and the variety of species, which include Common Squacco and Rufous-bellied Herons, Yellow-billed Egret, Saddle-billed Stork, Sacred and Glossy Ibises, Fulvous and White-faced Whistling Ducks, Spur-winged Goose, Knob-billed and Yellow-billed Ducks, Red-billed and Hottentot Teals, Southern Crowned Crane, Painted and Ethiopian Snipes, Black-winged Stilt, Long-toed Plover, Malachite Kingfisher and Sedge Warbler.
Another important wetland habitat is bare or poorly vegetated mud, often at the water’s edge. This habitat is most extensive when water levels are falling towards the end of the dry season. Among birds occurring here are Little Egret, Grey Heron, Ringed (m), Three-banded and Blacksmith Plovers, Marsh (m), Wood (m) and Common (m) Sandpipers, Greenshank (m) and Little Stint (m).
Shallow open water is used by a number of larger waterbirds, including White-breasted and Reed Cormorants, White and Pink-backed Pelicans, Goliath Heron, Yellow-billed and Open-billed Storks, African Spoonbill, Whiskered and White-winged Black (m) Terns and Pied Kingfisher.
Deep open water is usually lacking in birds, though on Lake Tanganyika the occasional group of Lesser Black-backed Gulls can be seen.
A large number of waterbirds use tall swamp for breeding or roosting. Others occupying this habitat more permanently include Purple Heron, Shoebill (n), African Marsh Harrier, Purple Gallinule, Common Moorhen, Coppery-tailed Coucal, Swamp Boubou (w), Southern Brown-throated Weaver (w), African Masked Weaver (race katangae) (n) and Red-shouldered Whydah.
Large stands of papyrus swamp occur in northern Zambia and are the habitat of the Greater Swamp Warbler, Swamp Flycatcher and Papyrus Yellow Warbler. Conservationists consider the last of these to be vulnerable. The Zambian race of this species is found in papyrus only at the mouth of the Luapula River, where it enters Lake Mweru.
Slow-moving sections of major rivers such as the Luangwa and Zambezi provide two further ornithologically important habitats: horizontal sand bars and vertical sand cliffs. Among the birds associated with sand bars are the Egyptian Goose, Water Dikkop, White-crowned and White-fronted Sand Plovers and the African Skimmer. Those making extensive use of sand cliffs for breeding include Horus Swift, White-fronted and Southern Carmine Bee-eaters and the African Sand Martin.
Rocks exposed in rivers are the habitat of the migrant Rock Pratincole and, in some areas, of the Mountain Wagtail. Forbe’s Plover may breed where exposed rocks are adjacent to a river, as at the Zambezi Rapids.
Miombo woodland on rocky ground occurs patchily over much of Zambia, though not in areas of Kalahari Sand. It is typical of escarpments, such as those flanking the Luangwa and Middle Zambezi Valleys. This is the habitat of a number of somewhat localised birds such as Shelley’s Francolin, Freckled Rock nightjar, Striped Pipit, Familiar Chat and Rock-loving Cisticola. In south-eastern Zambia the Boulder Chat and Cape Bunting occur in similar places where there are also large boulders.
Extensive rock exposures, including precipices, are of limited occurrence and often difficult of access. Their specialised avifauna includes the Black Stork, Augur Buzzard, Black Eagle, Taita and Peregrine Falcons, Mottled, African Black and Little Swifts, African Rock Martin, Mocking Chat, White-necked Raven and Red-winged Starling.
The Yellow-billed and Red-billed Oxpeckers are dependent on large game animals, where they occur, or, in western Zambia, on cattle and even donkeys. Hooded, White-backed, Lappet-faced, and White-headed Vultures feed at the carcasses of dead animals, including domestic cattle. They are joined by the Marabou Stork, which may also be present at abattoirs. The Cattle Egret (m) and Wattled Starling (m) frequently feed around cattle or game animals. Ground trampled by cattle or other animals may attract the Yellow Wagtail (m) or Groundscraper Thrush.
When winged termite alates emerge after rains, many birds congregate to eat them, even such primarily vegetarian species as whydahs and waxbills. Among species that are particularly likely to appear at such emergences are certain migrants – European Hobby, European Swift and European Swallow.
In Zambia the European Swift (m) occurs only in the sky, often near rain. The same is usually true of the House Martin (m), though at times it perches on trees or wires. Both species apparently sleep in flight. The same is doubtless true of the Alpine Swift, a dry season visitor to the skies of eastern Zambia.
Among other species that feed principally in the sky irrespective of the habitat below are European Bee-eater (m) and European Swallow (m).
Many of the larger diurnal raptors are most frequently seen overhead. Some, such as Vultures, Black-breasted Snake Eagle and Bateleur, spend much of the day soaring. Others, such as the Yellow-billed Kite, Common Buzzard and Lesser-spotted Eagle, pass over on migration.
Many species of birds are attracted to bush fires by the fleeing or roasted insects and other animals. Almost always present are the Fork-tailed Drongos, often in large numbers. Others often present include Marabou Stork, Yellow-billed Kite (m), Dickinson’s Kestrel, Rollers, Hornbills and Swallows.
The Dusky Lark (m) is attracted to fiercely burning bush fires. It may begin singing before smouldering has stopped and it breeds in the ashes. Likewise, the Bronze-winged Courser (m) often appears shortly after the ground has been burnt. Among other partial dry-season visitors requiring bare open ground that may become available only after the passage of fire are Crowned Plover, Temmink’s Courser, Hoopoe, Red-capped Lark, Grey-rumped Swallow, Buffy Pipit and Capped Wheatear.