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Birding in USA and South Africa, a comparison

Updated on May 12, 2012

Having some experience of birding in the USA during our 6 month road trip and considerable birding experience in South Africa it may be of value to compare the two countries from a birding perspective.

The first interesting thing to note is that both countries have a bird list of somewhere in the 900’s. That includes breeding and seasonal visitors .What is also relevant is that the size of the two countries are however very different. South Africa would fit into a small part of the USA and from any point in South Africa one can travel by car to any other point in a day or a day and a half. In the six months in the USA we listed about 150 birds and we know that we could have seen a lot more if we had birded seriously and got help from the locals. In the USA you can meet up with volunteers in many areas who will help you to find the birds in their area. We did not use this service as our trip was not primarily a birding trip.

In South Africa members of local clubs will also assist you in their area and trained guides can be hired on a daily basis in many areas. These can be contacted through Birdlife South Africa and their web site.( These guides know the birds in their area and where to find them and can often arrange access to private farms. On a visit to Ndumo Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal we were fortunate enough to find the rare (big tick) Pell’s Fishing Owl because of our guides local knowledge.

In the USA as in South Africa there are birding hot spots than will supply a rich days birding. Here in East London where I live the local Bird Club has been known to list over 100 species in a morning outing in summer and during Birding Big Day teams of dedicated Birders in some of the really good birding areas (Kruger Game Reserve or Ndumo Game Reserve) are known to list over 200 in 24hrs.Small areas like Ndumo Game Reserve in Northern Kwa-Zulu has a bird list of over 400 birds.

Knowledge of birds in one country does not help much in identifying birds in the other country as there is very little overlap. Looking at a field guide book for the USA I notice that you have 17 Hummingbirds and in South Africa we have none. In South Africa we have 23 somewhat similar but at the same time different birds called Sunbirds. In South Africa we have 10 kingfishers while in the USA you have only three. Otherwise both countries have similar types of birds such as Eagles, Cranes, Woodpeckers, Weavers, Waders and Ducks to mention just a few. They differ in appearance and names and so one should perhaps start a World Life List if you are inclined to keep lists.

In South Africa a list of over 500 species is used to rate someone as an experienced Birder. Just recently in an excellent bi-monthly magazine called African Birds and Birding ( an article appeared about a youngster of 16 who completed a list of 600, an amazing achievement. On the front page of the April/May issue of the mentioned magazine is a great photo of an African Fish Eagle one of the icons of South African birds and his well known cry is synonymous with the South African bush.

Some bird species are endangered and so we were interested to hear that the Bald Eagle in the USA has made a good recovery in recent times after some insecticides were banned. We saw quite a few on our trip, a magnificent sight! We were also fortunate to see the Whooping Cranes in the Aransas NWR.

Florida and the Everglades were highlights as far as birding went and the rare Snail Kite a good sighting. We also saw several Pileated Woodpeckers along the way.

In South Africa one of the birds that is seriously endangered is the Cape Parrot, due to loss of habitat and capture to sell on the bird black market. This endemic is also under serious threat due to the decimation of Yellowwood Forests. The fruit from the Yellowwood is its main food source and old trees are also used for nesting. To make matters worse the birds in some areas are suffering from beak and feather disease due to an epidemic that had not previously been seen. Research about this is ongoing and several theories have been advanced. The local Bird Club has been assisting in monitoring these birds in our area.

SABAP2 is a bird atlassing programme that involves volunteer birders from all over the country listing the birds in specific areas (5’ by 5’ areas called pentads) in order to measure more accurately the distribution of birds in the country. There are about 1000 so called ‘citizen scientists’ who send their information to the University of Cape Town where it is correlated for further use.

Both countries have a variety of excellent Bird Books varying from the huge Roberts Vl book in South Africa to small handbooks like the Field Guide to Birds of North America put out by the national Wildlife Federation in the USA. Most areas in the USA have excellent information on the birds of their region including birdlists at the Tourist Information Offices. A few areas in South Africa have something similar.

With the advent of digital photography taking photos of birds has become easy and popular in both countries and at our local Bird Club members regularly put on slide shows of birds that are of a high standard.

Bird watching has by all accounts become the fastest growing hobby in the world and both the USA and SA offer great opportunities to become involved in birding or to visit for a birding trip.


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    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 6 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Don't hesitate plan a trip and I will show you around.

      Thanks for the votes and comments!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Voted up and across the board, except for funny. This was a wonderful and delightful comparison between two areas of the world, which I really enjoyed. I have never been to SA, but for every word that I read about the birds there, I would like to go.

    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 6 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Birding does bring a deeper awareness of nature and what is happening in our world. Thanks for your comment!

    • MelChi profile image

      Melanie Chisnall 6 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa

      Interesting hub and beautiful images. I didn't know that about the Cape Parrot - that's really sad... There needs to be a lot more awareness made. I've never really been a huge bird lover, but after visiting Birds of Eden near Plettenberg Bay, I've realize just how beautiful these creatures are. Thanks for sharing :)