Close this search box.

Birds and farming

This page looks at the role of birds in farming. It includes a look at owls, the Red-billed Oxpecker and vultures; avitourism, and where you can out find more.


Decreasing margins in farming enterprises and other issues can lead to farming more intensively – and to farm in new areas. This places pressure on natural systems and the birds and other animals which inhabit these areas.

A large number of birds on a farm does not automatically indicate a healthy bird population. The visible birds might abound on that farm owing to a particular resource or crop. What about the bird species which do not fit into this category? There might be some which occurred naturally in the area whose numbers drop dramatically or completely.


Farms with variety are bird-friendly farms

Whatever type of farming is practiced, there are ways of reducing the impact on bird diversity. Careful planning of new lands or any other developments which will alter the natural habitat is important. A good principle is to maintain a mosaic of different land uses on a farm. Even if a large part of the area of the farm is utilised, a range of different land uses and an intact variety of different micro-habitats will ensure a greater variety of birds can benefit from the farm.


Farm well to reduce habitat change

Alternatives to the establishment of new lands should be sought, such as more efficient farming methods to obtain increased yields from the existing lands. In general, good farming methods promote the wellbeing of the natural resources and are desirable. Even a simple example such as overgrazing of veld and too frequent veld fires will lead to habitat changes, inevitably leading to a reduction in certain bird species.


Birds need corridors too

While birds can fly, many will not fly from one isolated patch of natural vegetation to another, whereas they would move along a natural corridor. Corridors of natural vegetation should be left between lands and between buildings to allow for movement of birds and other animals. Movement to water should also be encouraged by leaving corridors of natural vegetation leading to water sources. While considering bird movement, also look at commonly-used flight paths before erecting high fences, power lines, telephone lines, wind turbines and solar panels. Large birds, including many endangered birds, are often injured or killed when they collide with prominent structures. Where tall structures are erected, visibility aids should be used in areas of increased bird movement, such by marking power lines with flappers of other similar devices.


Use the right control methods right

Plagues, pests and weeds are a fact of farming, and must be controlled for efficient production. Control does not mean eradication, and control at a tolerable level should be considered. Natural, low impact methods should be employed wherever possible. Carefully chosen biological agents are the ideal. Birds may in fact constitute just such a biological management aid, such as the oxpeckers of the bushveld which pick and eat large amounts of ticks off cattle and other large animals in a year. Similarly owls can be used as a biological control method for rodents. Erecting owl boxes will help to attract owls to the property (see next heading).

Where the use of chemicals is necessary, careful research should be done to choose the product which will do the job with the least impact over the long term. Biodegradability, frequency of use, effects on other organisms, and accuracy of application are all important factors to consider in making a choice. Once the product is selected, the instructions of use should be followed closely, and all possible efforts must be made to avoid effects on other organisms, also known as non-target species. Insecticides are particularly dangerous, and suppliers and manufacturers should be quizzed regarding the above issues.


Farming and birds can mix

Just as one must know the life-cycles of the pests to combat them, so by getting to know the birds’ behaviour, feeding and nesting habits, one can design new developments and general farming practices to promote their wellbeing. As custodians of the earth and the biodiversity in it, this is our duty and not a luxury.

Source: Dr At Kruger, Dr Pete Irons, Denokeng Bird Bash, Seringveld Conservancy, Gauteng Conservancy Association

Find Bird-friendly burning and grazing best-practice for grasslands (in English, Afrikaans and Zulu) and other publications at

Three beneficial birds


Farmers are encouraged to look after the welfare of owls, a natural predator of grain pests like mice. Owls (and bats) are an environmentally friendly way of controlling pests at minimal cost. An adult barn owl will take care of two rodents a night and a bat will eat over 50% of its body weight in insects in the same time.

The Problems:

  • Many owls are victims of secondary or accidental poisoning through build up of insecticides in the body of the owl and through the use of rat poisons. The poison in the rats body often ends up killing the owl. It is important to realise that any poison used in the garden or farmyard can affect beneficial animals, such as owls. There are poison blocks which do not result in secondary poisoning.
  • Chicks on the ground should be left where they are so that the parents can continue to look after them. Most owl chicks found on the ground have not been abandoned and the best thing to do in most cases is to leave the bird where it is.

Attracting Owls

  1. Keep the area as natural as possible.
  2. Avoid poisons of all kinds.
  3. Provide safe nesting boxes: this could improve their breeding success. The Barn Owl prefers a closed box with just a small opening for entry, while the Spotted Eagle-Owl prefers a more open box, from which it can scan its surroundings. Two simple models may be found in the book listed below (see source acknowledgement).

Find information at (the source of some of the information above). Role players like the EWTEcoSolutionsCS VetOwl Rescue Centre, the Urban Raptor ProjectRadical Raptors and the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary can also help you. Find contact details under the “Role players” heading.

Source: A Beginner’s Guide to Owls. The booklet is available from the Delta Environmental Centre.

Red-billed Oxpecker

Find out about oxpecker-friendly dips on the market.

The red-billed Oxpecker can be one of the farmer’s greatest natural allies on game and cattle farms, making it very important to employ farming practices which offer the bird the best chance of survival by managing tick infestations with the correct products and management protocols.

Dipping against ticks almost eradicated the red-billed Oxpeckers in South Africa. Fortunately, the introduction of environmentally-compatible chemicals, pyrethroid and amidine acaricides brought new hope for oxpeckers. For more information on (i) how to phase in oxpecker-friendly dips, then lessen dip-dependence by phasing in the oxpecker, and (ii) to order the Oxpeckers, Ectoparasiticides and Farmers Manual please contact the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).



Vultures play a critical part in maintaining the ecological health of the planet. Their digestive systems mean that they can absorb cholera, rabies and prevent disease from spreading. Unfortunately they are one of the fastest declining groups of animals in the world. Members of the public are encouraged to report vulture fatalities to the EWT. The Vulture Conservation Programme of South Africa (see Vulpro under “Role players”) assists with vultures or other large birds which need help.

Download “The Sasol Guide to the establishment and operation of supplementary feeding sites for vultures” from the EWT website at

South African birds in trouble

In South Africa, birds that require particular attention include:

  • The Wattled Crane (Bugeranus carunculatus), the most severely threatened crane on the African continent and found on the country’s grasslands;
  • The Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum);
  • The Taita Falcon (Falco taita) , found on the Drakensberg escarpment in Mpumalanga and Limpopo;
  • The South African Blue Swallow population (Hirundo atrocaerulea) is locally classified as critically endangered;
  • The White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi), regionally critically endangered and dependent on good quality available wetland habitat across its distribution;
  • The Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) and White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) are critically endangered;
  • Southern banded snake eagle (Circaetus fasciolatus), found in northern KZN;
  • Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii) and Denham’s Bustard (Neotis denhami), threatened by collisions with transmission power-lines, and the Blue Korhaan (Eupodotis caerulescens), Southern Black Korhaan (Afrotis afra) and White-bellied Korhaan (Eupodotis senegalensis), grassland dwellers, are in trouble;
  • The Red Lark (Calendulauda burra)Rudd’s Lark (Heteromirafra ruddi) and Botha’s Lark (Spizocorys fringillaris);
  • Yellow-Breasted Pipit (Hemimacronyx chloris);
  • The endemic Southern Bald Ibis (Geronticus calvus), found across  the grasslands of South Africa and dependent on good land use practices for its survival;
  • The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius);
  • Tristan albatross (Diomedea dabbenena), found on the West Coast is globally critically endangered;
  • Other coastal birds on the list are the Knysna Scrub Warbler (Bradypterus sylvaticus) Leach’s storm petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa), Crozet shag (Phalacrocorax melanogenis) and the Damara tern (Sterna balaenarum).

Further reference:

Local business environment

Avitourism, the travel for the purpose of bird watching, is reputed to be one of the fastest growing nature-based tourism activities worldwide. Some of the key findings of the study, done by the then Department of Trade and Industry (the dti) to investigate the value and growth potential of avitourism, indicate that:

  • the total size of South Africa’s current Avitourism market range between 21 000 and 40 000 avitourists annually, of which between 13 000 and 24 000 are domestic avitourists;
  • avitourists generally offer higher than average trip spend, longer trip lengths and a greater tendency to visit multiple provinces than mainstream market segments; and
  • South Africa has attractive core birding assets compared to competitor destinations, particularly in areas of species diversity, endemism and rarity.

Find the Department of Trade and Industry study, Avitourism in South Africa (Niche Tourism Markets) on the internet.

Role players

Note: Click to expand the headings below.  To get a free listing on our website like the ones below, visit here for more information or place your order hereDisclaimer: The role player listings are not vetted by this website.

CS Vets – Find the “Owl project” option on the website. Farmers participating in the project testify that they have success in attracting owls and getting rid of rats.
Urban Raptor Project – “Arnold Slabbert and his wild allies have the expertise and the equipment to handle or solve any animal or bird problem without resorting to poison or gimmicks”
EcoSolutions – EcoSolutions runs an Owl Box programme and supply non-toxic pest control options

BirdLife South Africa – The website is an essential source of information with details of national projects, contact details of bird clubs across the country, online bird guides etc.

Birdlife South Africa – Birdlife South Africa runs an avi-career entrepreneurial programme, contributing “bird guides” to the eco-tourism industry
North-West University (NWU) – Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society (TREES)
Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre – Injured, poisoned and unwanted wildlife are cared for. Information is shared with the public on each animal at the Centre and the problems that wildlife face.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife – Included in Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s mandate is the development and promotion of ecotourism facilities within the province’s protected areas.
Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre – Injured, poisoned and unwanted wildlife are cared for. Information is shared with the public on each animal at the Centre and the problems that wildlife face.
Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) – Relevant Programmes include the African Crane Conservation Programme (EWT-ACCP), Birds of Prey Programme (which include owls, Ground Hornbills, Secretary birds) and Vultures for Africa
Vulpro – “Saving Africa’s vultures”

Further reference:

  • Find the contact details of conservancies on the “Conservancies and farming” page.
  • Several Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA)-accredited companies offer birding courses e.g. Africa Nature Training, EcoTraining South Africa and Limpopo Field Guiding Academy.
  • Other universities relevant to this page include Rhodes UniversityUniversity of the WitwatersrandUniversity of KwaZulu-Natal.

Websites and publications

Visit the websites listed earlier on this page, like

  • Harrison, J. & Young, D. 2010. Farming for the future: farming sustainably with nature. Cape Town: Animal Demography Unit. The book includes attractive and useful notes on birds. Download it at
  • Find “Bird-friendly burning and grazing best-practice for grasslands” at
  • African Birdlife, published by Birdlife SA every two months. Find details here.
  • Barnes, K. N. (Ed.). 2000. The Eskom red data book of birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Johannesburg: BirdLife South Africa.
  • Die Voëlgids van Suider-Afrika (Ulrich Oberprieler, Burger Cillié) can be ordered at The English version is entitled The Bird Guide of Southern Africa. Order it at Another book by Burger Cillié is Eagles of Africa (available in Afrikaans too, Arende van Afrika).
  • The Sasol bird books can can be ordered at (i) Sasol Birds of Southern Africa (ii) Sasol Voëls van Suider-Afrika (iii) Sasol Larger Illustrated Guide to Birds of Southern Africa IV, Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton, Peter Ryan (iv) Sasol Checklist of Birds in Southern Africa, Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton, Peter Ryan. Read more about the books at Ian Sinclair has written several books on birds. Find these also under Struik Nature at
  • Also at is 500 common bird calls in Southern Africa, a CD-guide combination by Doug Newman, and Newman’s Birds by Colour at Read about the available app at
  • Find information on the different Roberts Birds books at These are also a multimedia app now. Titles include: (i) Roberts Birds VII (ii) Roberts Bird Guide (iii) Roberts Voëlgids (iv) Roberts Bird Guide Kruger National Park (v) Kruger National Park Bird Checklist.
  • Visit Roberts Online Birds of Southern Africa,
  • Southern African Birdfinder and Essential Birding, Western South Africa by Callan Cohen and Claire Spottiswoode. Linked to the latter book is the website,
  • Voëls van die bosveld SC Kidson, HL van Niekerk ISBN 978-1-875093-88-5. To order, visit or
  • Remarkable Birds of South Africa by Dr Peter Milstein, published by Briza. Visit
  • Adventures With Nature stocks several books on birds e.g. Sasol Birds, Newman’s Series and the Roberts Series. Call 011 954 4675 or visit
  • Peter Ginn and Geoff McIlleron’s two volume set The Ultimate Companion for Birding in Southern Africa can be ordered at
  • Visit the Indicator Birding, for updates on birding courses, birding tours etc.
  • – Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2, “Mapping the distribution and abundance of birds in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland”
  • – World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) is a global initiative devoted to celebrating migratory birds and for promoting their conservation worldwide.
  • Southern Africa Birding, Birding Multimedia for Southern Africa –
  • The International Crane Foundation –
  •, website of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds
  • Find information on owls at
  • Find details of Ostrich Journal of African Ornithology at
  • Bird Watchers’ Digest

Some articles

Table of Contents