Birds, in our gardens and out at sea, are a delight

garden birdsReview: Vivien Horler

Garden Birds in Southern Africa, by Duncan Butchart (Struik Nature)

Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa, by Peter Ryan (Struik Nature)

Poor old hadedas – in his forward to this delightful guide Duncan Butchart says we often forget to appreciate the pleasure birds bring, “although granted, the Hadeda Ibises can be a bit irritating!”

But we’re not as mean as the Australians. The Australian white ibis, which closely resembles our sacred ibis, is known there as a bin chicken, dump chook or trash vulture. Not kind. A skein of ibises flying home to their roosts at dusk is a lovely sight.

If you enjoy seeing little flocks of small grey birds with smart red beaks alight on your grass, but have no idea what they are, this is an ideal book. They are not wild finches as I first thought, but common waxbills, much more charming than their name suggests.

seabirds of SAFor the second summer in a row, a pair of greater striped swallows have spent time perching on a candelabra over my patio dining table, chirring charmingly and giving me much pleasure. I’m learning to live with the resulting mess on the table and chairs.

In a foreword, Mark D Anderson of Birdlife South Africa says the birds in our gardens provide opportunities for observation, education and conservation, and a chance to introduce children to the natural world.

He says as the vastness of the natural world shrinks, urban environments like suburban gardens are becoming increasingly important for the conservation of biodiversity. “Gardens play a small, yet important, role in protecting our heritage.”

So this book not only shows us how to identify birds, it also tells us how to create bird-friendly gardens that will draw them to our spaces. Butchart points out that while we tend to like tidiness and order, birds often prefer dead branches and leaf litter where they can find food.

He also warns about dangers to garden birds, like insecticides and cats – he quotes British studies that show domestic cats catch and kill about 55 million birds a year.

Garden birds are not the sort of creature serious twitchers put on their life lists, but it is a joy to see double-collared sunbirds, wit ogies and Cape bulbuls fluttering about in our spaces.

Garden birds of South Africa tells us what sort of birds we are likely to find in different parts of the country, the food they eat, the calls they make, their breeding habits, and how you can draw them to your garden.

The pictures are excellent.

Seabirds are of course an entirely different matter, and Peter Ryan, director of the FitzPatrick Institute at UCT, who has visited southern ocean islands including the Prince Edward group, Inaccessible, Tristan da Cunha and the Antarctic, is well placed to write about them.

This guide extends to the southern ocean as well as southern Africa, so he includes various varieties of penguins, albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, storm petrels, frigatebirds, gannets and boobies as well as cormorants, gulls and terns.

In his introduction he points out that while seabirds represent just over 3% of the world’s total bird species, they occupy over 70% of the world’s surface. More locally, close to 1 000 species occur around southern Africa and the southern ocean, of which  more than 100 are found nowhere else.

This guide is mainly intended to help with identification – it can be tough for the novice to distinguish between, say a southern royal albatross and a wandering albatross on the wing. Ryan also provides plenty of useful information about the birds’ biology, such as how they cope with salt water, their breeding habits, havens and conservation.

Detailed photographs – birds from above, below, paddling in the water and sitting on their nests – are included. This is an essential guide if you are going sailing, or even better, heading down to the riches of the great southern ocean.



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