Big Six birds of Kruger Park: everything you need to know

big six birds of the kruger park martial eagle
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Of all the African safari destinations, Kruger National Park in South Africa is the most famous for its variety of animals.

In case you didn’t know, it has more species of large mammals than any other park in the world.

And, of course, the biggest attraction is always the “big 5”, which consists of the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo.

The big five and other popular animals such as cheetah and wild dog usually hog the limelight.

But the lesser known, yet equally interesting category, is that of the big 6 birds.

Comprising of the saddle-billed stork, pel’s fishing owl, ground hornbill, lappet-faced vulture, martial eagle, and Kori bustard, the big six birds of Kruger Park are among the largest bird species – not just in South Africa, but in the world.

Their majestic size, coupled with their unique sets of characteristics, makes them favorites among tourists.

Here’s a look at each:

Authors note: All images are my own other than the Pels Fishing Owl – licensed from Shutterstock with thanks.

Saddle-billed Stork

big six birds of the kruger saddle-billed stork

Out of all the species of storks, the saddle billed stork is perhaps the easiest to identify.

It has a striking red and black bill, which features a small yellow “saddle” at the base.

This distinctive appearance is what makes it easy to spot even without reaching for your favorite bird guide.

It helps that the saddle-billed stork is quite literally the giant of the stork species.

Adults can grow to a massive 59 inches in height and weigh anywhere between 11 and 16.6 pounds.

With a wingspan of 7.9 to 8.9 feet, it’s one of the largest and most colorful African birds.

Its wings, lower back and head feature a shimmery shade of black while the stomach, chest and upper back are white.

Of all the big six birds, the saddle-billed stork is the one you’re almost guaranteed to see on your Kruger Park safari.

One of the rarest of the big six, there are only between 25 and 30 breeding pairs of saddle-bills in the Kruger.

Habitat and diet

The saddle-billed stork occurs throughout Kruger National Park either alone or in pairs.

It mostly prefers open and wooded wetlands, particularly where there’s a rich supply of fish, frogs and crabs.

This bird also feeds on other small birds and reptiles.

With a bit of patience, you may find it stalking for food in shallow, large watercourses and rivers around the park.

Breeding and life cycle

Despite its large size, the saddle-billed stork doesn’t lay its eggs on the ground.

Instead, it prefers to create a stick nest high in trees where it can lay one to three eggs.

Both the female and male sit on eggs to incubate them. This takes anywhere between 30 and 35 days before they hatch.

Fun fact: the saddle-billed stork is one of the birds that appear in hieroglyphs from Ancient Egypt.

Pel's Fishing Owl

big six birds of the kruger park pels fishing owl

With a weight of up to 5.2 pounds, pel’s fishing owl can reach lengths of 20 to 25 inches.

It’s wingspan of 60 inches makes it one of the biggest owl species in the world, not just in Kruger Park.

It’s also a very elusive bird that mostly comes out only at night.

Still, if you are lucky enough to see it, you can distinguish the pel’s fishing owl from other birds by its appearance.

It has tan-brown feathers with spots all over. The throat area is whitish while tail feathers feature dark stripes.


Habitat and diet

A nocturnal feeder, pel’s fishing owl is mostly found in wooded areas that are located close to bodies of water.

Your best bet is Kruger’s woodlands in the very far north of the park; particularly those that have streams and ponds of water.

Still, it’s the most elusive and secretive member of the big six birds and is seldom seen.

In fact, nowadays it occurs more in Mozambique than South Africa and so is an even far rarer sighting than in the past.

This owl preys on fish and frogs.

Breeding and life cycle

Pel’s fishing owls breed during the dry season.

Females create nest holes in tree trunks, where they lay one or two eggs. Although the female incubates eggs alone, she is often fed by the male during all the 30 to 32 days of incubation.

Fun fact: pel’s fishing owl is named for Hendrik Severinus Pel, who was the governor of Ghana in the 1840s.

Ground Hornbill

big six birds of kruger park

One bird that you probably won’t struggle to see is the ground hornbill, so it may surprise you to learn that they are far rarer and more threatened than you may think.

They are currently classified as endangered.

It is a massive bird that grows to a length of 50.8 inches in adulthood – more or less the size of a turkey. The wingspan of a ground hornbill measures anywhere between 19.5 and 24.3 inches.

You can always tell it apart from other birds by its bright red throat, yellow eyes and jet-black feathers.

Females often have a bright blue stripe that runs under the chin.

Habitat and diet

The ground hornbill is native to sub-Saharan Africa.

A largely terrestrial bird, it prefers open grasslands that have few trees.

You can always spot it in small family flocks as they stalk for food with slow, deliberate movements.

It feeds on a variety of animals, including snails, insects, small mammals, frogs, snakes and lizards.

Breeding and life cycle

When breeding, ground hornbills often walk in groups of at least three pairs.

So, if you happen to come across a flock consisting of six or more birds – especially in the rainy season – chances are they are breeding.

Females lay between one and three eggs.

Must know: upon hatching, either the mother or other siblings usually kill all but one of the young ones. Perhaps this low survival rate is why the ground hornbill is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN.

Lappet-faced Vulture

big six birds of the kruger park

An effective scavenger, the lappet-faced vulture can devour close to 1.5 kg of a kill in one go.

It should come as no surprise that it’s the most powerful vulture in Africa.

It is large, too – as you would expect. The bird can grow to 45 inches long and its wingspan can be as wide as 9.5 feet, only coming second to the wandering albatross in that regard.

When fully grown, the lappet-faced vulture weighs up to 14 pounds.

You can identify it by its distinctive pinkish head and neck.

The rest of the body is covered with brownish black feathers, although you may see some white hue on its upper legs.

Habitat and diet

The lappet-faced vulture is widespread in Kruger Park, but generally prefers the central grasslands of the reserve.

As a scavenger, it mostly feeds on carcasses that it finds lying around the dry savannas.

It’s extremely rare outside the park, so chances are you won’t see it on other safari destinations outside the Kruger.

Breeding and life cycle

Despite spending most of its time on the ground, the lappet-faced vulture nests in trees.

Females build their nests atop acacia trees, where they lay their eggs between May and January.

One egg is typical, and is usually incubated by both parents over a period of 54 to 56 days.

The chick generally fledges after about 125 days.

Must know: the lappet-faced vulture is considered “endangered” because it’s highly vulnerable to unintentional strychnine poisoning from carcasses of animals like jackals that have been poisoned by farmers.

Martial Eagle

african birds martial eagle

Arguably the most powerful of the big six birds, the martial eagle also happens to be the largest eagle in Africa.

It can measure a whopping 38 inches when fully grown. With a wingspan of 6.2 to 8.6 feet, this massive bird weighs anywhere between 6.6 and 13.7 pounds.

Adult martial eagles have a chocolate-brown head coupled with a black-spotted chest.

Thanks to their backward facing crest, these birds are quite easy to distinguish from other eagles.

Habitat and diet

Inside the park, these large African birds prefer open savanna areas that have some tree cover.

They are prolific hunters and typically feed on birds, small mammals and reptiles.

Given their sheer size and power, martial eagles can swoop down and snatch prey as large as 30 kg.

Breeding and life cycle

Martial eagles mostly breed between November and April.

They are not the most prolific breeders; females only lay one egg every other year. Perhaps this is why the martial eagle is listed as “vulnerable”.

Incubation takes 45 to 53 days, and is mainly done by the female.

The young one takes up to 20 days to become active, and even then, it won’t feed itself until after 9 to 11 weeks. They typically fledge after 96 to 109 days.

Must know: Martial eagles are so powerful that they are capable of knocking a grown man off his feet.

Kori Bustard

big six birds of the kruger

The Kori bustard earns a spot among the big six birds because it’s the largest flying bird in the world.

But this grey neck and dark crest beauty barely takes flight, instead preferring to spend most of its time on the ground.

You can spot it in Kruger Park’s woodland and grassland, gracefully swinging its head back and forth as it walks.

Large and striking in appearance, a Kori bustard can achieve a height of 3 feet 11 inches and wingspan of up to 9 feet. It can weigh anywhere between 14 and 40 pounds.

Habitat and diet

Although the Kori bustard is found all over South Africa, it’s generally easier to spot inside Kruger Park.

It prefers the sandy soil and low precipitation of Kruger’s grasslands.

The bird mostly lives on a diet of insects, small mammals, other birds, small reptiles, berries, seeds and grass. This makes it an opportunistic omnivore.

Breeding and lifecycle

Kori bustards breed during the rainy season.

Whether you are a seasoned or new birdwatcher, this is the best time to spot the species.

Groups of males often put up a show to entice females into breeding with them.

They inflate their esophagus so that their necks appear massive. Whoever wins gets to mate.

A clutch of one to two eggs is typical. The female lays them on the ground, and incubates them for 23 to 24 days.

Fledging period for the young ones is about five weeks. But they won’t be ready for reproduction until they reach three to five years of age.

Must know: the Kori bustard flies looking down rather than up. For this reason, it’s known to frequently fly into power lines.

Additional Reading

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