Africa is home to some of the largest, most colorful and varied bird populations in the world. The continent is home to over 2,500 recorded bird species, of which 67 percent are native to Africa.

Birds have been around since the dino-age and fulfill countless different functions in African ecosystems. From feisty little bee-eaters and brightly colored sunbirds to prehistoric shoebills and penguins, African birds come in an almost infinite number of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Selected for their unique appearance and high likeliness of spotting while on safari, here are 12 of the most iconic birds in Africa:

1. Vulture

Vultures are nature’s cleanup crew – they are large, strong birds who scavenge on the flesh and bones of carcasses left by large predators. While they will never say no to picking at a fresh kill, they often times consume flesh that is so decayed that it has become toxic to mammals.

Vultures have no feathers on their head and neck which helps to protect against the infectious parasites and bacteria that are rife on a decaying carcass.

12 of the most iconic birds in Africa
White-backed vulture swooping down near a carcass | Zimanga Game Reserve, South Africa

Having evolved an incredible sense of sight and smell, vultures are often able to seek out carcasses from over a mile away and are readily seen circling the skies in numbers, waiting for the most opportune time to approach. Once on the ground, a large group of vultures can strip a buffalo carcass in a matter of hours.

There are 11 vulture species found in Africa, with the most common being the: White-backed vulture, Cape vulture and Lappet-faced vulture.

Today all species are endangered due to habitat destruction and human conflict, however they can readily be seen in national parks through Southern and East Africa.

2. Grey Crowned Crane

Crested Cranes, or Grey Crowned Cranes, reach a height of almost 1 metre, with a wingspan of around double that. They are among the easiest African birds to identify thanks to their attractive crown of bright gold feathers, blue eyes, white face, and bright red throat pouch.

Like several other bird species, these cranes have an elegant mating dance characterized by various hopping, twisting, jumping and wing movements. However, they don’t only display this during mating season – you might notice this performance all year round, so keep your camera available!

Grey Crowned Crane at Dusk | Maasai Mara, Kenya

Widespread throughout southern and east Africa, the Grey Crowned Crane is often seen in South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya, and is the national bird of Uganda – characterized as the centre piece of the national flag.

Unfortunately this iconic species also finds itself on the endangered list due to habitat loss and human conflict.

3. Marabou Stork

Often referred to as ‘The Undertaker’ thanks to its ominous appearance, the Marabou Stork was once believed to be the largest bird species in the world with a wingspan of over 3 metres.

Characterized by a lanky, curved posture, evil-looking features and cloak-like wings, the Marabou Stork is a scavenging species often seen picking on the carcasses of dead animals.

12 of the most iconic bird species in Africa
Marabou Stork wading through the shallows with spread wings | Lake Naivasha, Kenya

Relatively easy to spot due to its size, the Marabou Stork features a feather-less head and neck which protects against the build up of bacteria.

Keep an eye out for this unique looking birds while on safari in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania or Uganda, and don’t be surprised if you spot them digging in and dustbins!

READ NEXT: THE UGLY FIVE ANIMALS OF AFRICA

4. Red-Throated Bee-Eater

With 26 different types of bee-eater on the continent, the red-throated bee-eater is among the most popular birds in Africa. Like the Sunbird, they’re easily noticed for their colorful plumage and long, sharp beak.

As their name suggests, they primarily prey on wasps and bees. To avoid a painful sting, the bee-eater grabs its prey by the wing and rubs or strikes the insect against a hard surface. This causes it to secrete all its venom.

The most iconic birds of africa
The red-throated bee-eater

Recorded by IUCN as being of ‘least concern’, there is currently a thriving population of bee-eaters in Africa and they’re not at all difficult to spot when visiting tropical regions of Cameroon, Ethiopia, Togo, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Senegal, and Uganda.

5. Rosy-Faced Lovebird

Extremely popular in the pet trade, you might be surprised to hear that one of Africa’s most beautiful birds, is actually a desert dwelling species.

Living up to its name, the Rosy-faced Lovebird is a social species that lives in large flocks. Within the larger flock dynamic, Lovebirds build extremely strong bonds with a single mate and often stick together for the duration of their lives.

A mating pair of Rosy Faced Lovebirds

Despite being primarily known as a pet species, Lovebirds still thrive in the wild and there are about nine different species in Africa. Lovebirds occupy a variety of habitats like the dry southwest and the Namib desert.

The Rosy-Faced Lovebird is easily identified by a bright green body, blue rump and pink feathers near its face.

6. Common Ostrich

The Ostrich is an enormous, flightless bird and one of the most iconic species on earth. Too heavy to take off, the ostrich makes up for its lack of flight by being the quickest animal on two legs, reaching speeds of more than 70 km/hour, covering around 5 metres in a single stride.

Armed with dinosaur like talons, their lanky legs can also be mighty weapons, able to kill a would-be predator with a single kick.

12 of the most iconic birds in Africa
Ostrich running across a dry plain | Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Widespread throughout Africa, Ostriches can be found from South Africa all the way up to Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia in the north. They generally spend winter periods living solitary or in pairs and come together to form large flocks during the mating season, where a single male can live with a harem of 7 or more females.. Ostriches lay the largest eggs of any bird species, with a single egg being the equivalent to a dozen chicken eggs.

Readily farmed for their meat in Southern Africa, you can get up close and personal with an Ostrich at one of South Africa’s famous farms. But if seeing them in the wild is more your thing then there’s no better place than the Maasai Mara or Serengeti National Park.

7. Lilac-Breasted Roller

One of the most commonly spotted birds while on safari in Southern Africa, the Lilac-Breasted Roller is easily spotted thanks to its vibrant colours and propensity for perching on tree branches.

With its bright lilac breast, the roller is named so due its habit of rolling mid-flight while defending territory or courting a mate, and despite its stunning appearance, this species does not possess an equally impressive voice. Instead its call is more of a harsh squawk.

the most beautiful birds in Africa
Lilac Breasted Roller perched on the very tip of a branch

Plentiful across southern and eastern Africa, the Lilac-Breasted Roller inhabits bushy savannah and open woodland where they can easily be photographed perched on a branch, seeking out a juicy insect or beetle.

8. Sunbird

A prime example of ‘convergent evolution’ the Sunbird is Africa’s equivalent to the Hummingbird. This natural wonder occurs when two completely separate species have evolved to become extremely similar due to commonalities in their habitat and behavior.

Contrary to us humans, the male is the fairer of the 2 sexes when it comes to Sunbirds. They boast an incredible coloration, while females are much drabber. This is because it is the male’s responsibility to attract a mate during the breeding season, and the stunning coloration makes it all that much easier.

Red-chested Sunbird | Lake Victoria. Uganda

Sunbirds have a lengthy, curved beak that helps them reach deep into a flower to extract nectar. When the flower is just that much too deep, Sunbirds can be seen using their beak’s pointed tip to cut it open in order to reach their sweet prize.

There are approximately 80 sub-species of Sunbird in Africa, with the most commonly seen being the Collared Sunbird and Southern Double-collared Sunbird. Your best chance of seeing a Sunbird is in around tropical regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, where they frequent flowered areas.

9. African Penguins

They might not be the first species that comes to mind, but not list of Africa’s most iconic birds would be complete without the African Penguin.

The second and last flightless bird on our list, African Penguins are relatively small – around 60 to 70cm in height. As with all penguin species, they are extremely charming and make up for their awkwardness on land, with a remarkable finesse in the water.

12 of the most iconic African Birds
African Penguins at Boulders Beach | Cape Town, South Africa

Affectionately known as ‘jackass penguins’ due to their high, donkey-like call, African penguins are only found in the south of the continent, in South Africa and Namibia specifically.

The best place to see these endangered birds is in Cape Town at either Foxy or Boulders Beach, not far from the city centre.

10. Shoebill

The Shoebill is one of the most prehistoric looking birds in the world. Its striking appearance leaves no questions as to how birds are the dinosaur’s closest descendants.

Also known as the Shoebill Stork, and aptly named after is colossal bill, the enormous species stands at around 1.5 metres in height and boasts a wing span of around 2.5 metres.

12 of the most iconic bird species in Africa
The prehistoric looking Shoebill Stork wading through a wetland

Largely silent, the shoebill can at times be heard clattering its bill together as a means of communication with other birds. They are a solitary species, which moves alone through muddy swamps and wetlands, preying on snakes, fish and frogs. They are known to remain still for hours on end, waiting patiently for a prey item to cross its path.

Today there are only between 5,000 and 8,000 of these incredible birds left in Africa, most commonly found throughout east and central Africa.

11. Flamingo

One of the most recognizable birds in the world, Flamingos are a prominent species in Africa.

Renowned for their brilliant pink coloration and tendency to stand on a single leg, they are a lanky species with the longest neck and legs of any bird, proportionate to their size. Adults can stand between around 1.3 metres tall and weigh no more than 5 kilograms.

Flock of Flamingos | Lake Nakuru, Kenya

There are 2 different flamingo species native to Africa: the lesser and greater flamingo respectively.

Feeding on small crustaceans, plankton and shrimp, flamingos get their brilliant pink coloration from their diet.

Generally flamingo herds are found in and around salt lakes and some of the most notable places to find them are: Lake Nakuru in Kenya, Kamfers Dam in South Africa and Lake Natron in Tanzania.

12. African Fish Eagle

Eagles are one of the most dominant birds of prey on earth and Africa is home to a variety of these feathered predators.

They are large, strong birds with unparalleled eyesight – at least eight times greater than that of a human being – which allows them to spot small the smallest of prey from over a mile away.

African Fish Eagle fishing | Lake Naivasha, Kenya

The African fish eagle is among the most iconic of all African predators, let alone the birds. As the name suggests, their diet primarily consists of fish, which they catch using strong talons that allow a vice-like grip on slippery food items. With a wingspan over up to 2.4 metres, they are lethal predators, often seen swooping down and grabbing fish straight out of dams and lakes.

Common all over sub-Saharan Africa, the Fish Eagle is the national bird of both Zambia and Namibia, and can readily be seen around perched high in a tree around a river, dam or lake.