The Big 5 represent the 5 game species that were most desired as hunter’s trophies in times gone past. They now represent the 5 species that visitors to classic African wilderness areas most want to see. The Kruger National Park set about establishing the ‘Big 6 Birds’ in an attempt at mirroring what the traditional big 5 mammals do for public eagerness to spot species.

Aimed at the layman birder, all 6 birds are large, easy to identify and instantly recognizable. These species are also limited substantially in their distribution and have had their ranges negatively impacted upon by human encroachment; habitat degradation and other pertinent conservation issues.

It is hoped that by making the public aware of these 6 bird species that they can be recognized and so some kind of pressure will be put on the conservation bodies to conserve the areas that house these species.

The Big 6 birds are:
Kori Bustard
Martial Eagle
Lappetfaced Vulture
Pel’s Fishing Owl
Saddle-billed Stork
Southern Ground Hornbill

5 out of these 6 can be seen at Londolozi.

Just yesterday on drive, I discovered that a pair of Saddle-billed Storks appear to be nesting at Londolozi. It is estimated that there are only between 25 and 30 breeding pairs of Saddle-billed Storks in the greater Kruger area. These numbers make them far rarer and more threatened than animals such as cheetah and wild dog, not to mention the big 5.

The males have a dark eye with two small yellow wattles (hidden in this photo) at the base of the bill, while females have a yellow eye. These birds can also be individually recognised by the details of the front edge of the black band across the red bill.

Saddle-billed Storks are classified as Endangered in South Africa and the Endangered Wildlife Trust does a lot of work to try ensure their survival. The question as to why they are struggling is still not completely known, although here area a couple of thoughts.

The demographic profile of the bird is poor. It is a big bird that occurs in isolated, widely spread pairs. It also breeds very slowly and irregularly. Secondly, it has quite specific resource requirements; needing large trees for nesting and fresh water as a source of descent sized fish. Thirdly, it is thought to be very sensitive to human disturbance and will not nest if under any stress. Another issue is that the stork’s dependence on wetlands, and in particular large rivers, means that it is exposed to the effects wrought by dams, soil erosion and silting, and to the chemical pollution of these systems.

Male (right) and female at the edge of a seasonal pan

So all in all this bird is exceptionally rare in the area and any sighting is a real treat. If, on your safari, you get lucky enough to see a Saddle-billed Stork (or any of the Big 6 Birds for that matter), take a moment to reflect that even though they may not be as glamerous as the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino or buffalo, they are in fact under the hammer and in dire need of our time and effort!

A map of the Kruger National Park showing the positions of members of the 'Big 6 Birds' after a census. You can see how scare the Saddle-billed Stork is (green triangle);- photo courtesy of the South African National Parks website

Southern Ground Hornbill investigating nesting sites - Rich Laburn

Written and photographed by Adam Bannister

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Adam Bannister

Guest contributor

Ranger at Londolozi Game Reserve

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on Saddle-billed Stork and the ‘Big 6 Birds’

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Very interesting article, and does make us aware how vulnerable a lot of species really are in Southern Africa.

As a family we take as much excitement in spotting a Big Six Bird as one of the Big Five mammals.

The Census stats you provide from KNP are not really convincing, as I know over the past six Months, of travel in the park, there are a few pairs of SBS I see in the same areas, in the SW and SE of the Park.
Perhaps the Census was a snapshot of a particular day of reported sightings?

Anyhow, thank you for a wonderful article and the effort taken to share with us your knowledge and appreciation of the bushveld.

Adam Bannister

Hi Gavin. Yes the census I placed in the article was taken from the SANParks website and I think it was done during a certain period. I inserted it to show the scarcity of these wonderful birds. Thanks for your comments and Im glad you enjoyed the piece.

Lesley Sawyer

Hi Adam,

I work for Advantage tours and charters at their Whale office in St Lucia. You have some amazing pics!!
The reason for my mail apart from complimenting you on you photos, is that I would like to ask your permission if I could perhaps “borrow” you photo of the pair of Saddle-Billed Storks, obviously I would give the credit to you. I do more or less what you would term “light educational” articles for our FB site, and your photo is just so totally stunning, that I just had to ask, thanks.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Warm regards,

Deon Cuyler

Hi Adam,

Me and my wife is currently working in Katavi National Park in Tanzania where the saddle-bills caught my attention. In the Helm Field Guide book on birds of East Africa, the illustration show the female also with the yellow wattles. At first, I thought this was incorrect as I am very aware of the differences between the male and female. I studied a lot of photographs on the internet and actually found a female with wattles (and yellow eyes!) Is this perhaps a breeding ‘thing’ same as the change in colour of the bare spot on the chest?

Keep it up!
Deon & Crystal

beaded animals

We love the saddle billed stork! So much so that we had our African crafters make us a 70cm tall beaded version to offer to our customers!

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