Best bird guides for Africa


bird-books1024Keith Betton, Chairman of the African Bird Club, uses his expertise to help you find the best bird guides available for your next safari.

Birds of Western Africa
Christopher Helm Publishers, £29.99
With Nik Borrow’s detailed illustrations, Ron Demey’s descriptions of 1282 species and almost 1100 maps, this book is excellent. A paperback version, which features less text but all the illustrations, is available and much more useful in the field. In addition there are specific cut-down versions for Ghana (including Togo), Senegal and The Gambia.

Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania

Christopher Helm Publishers, £29.99
Dale Zimmerman, Don Turner and David Pearson joined forces with artists Ian Willis and Douglas Pratt to produce this mighty tome. It describes and illustrates 1114 species including many from Uganda and Ethiopia. The original hardcover weighs in at 2kg, so go for the soft cover version!

Field Guide to Birds of East Africa

Christopher Helm Publishers, £35
Covering Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi it describes an impressive 1388 species. The text by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe is concise but sufficient. A great advantage is the positioning of the text and maps facing the illustrations.

Birds of the Horn of Africa
Christopher Helm Publishers, £35
By taking many of the illustrative plates from the Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa and adding new material, Nigel Redman created a book which has over 2600 illustrations of around 1000 species from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Socotra. The layout of text facing illustrations is again a great advantage.

Birds of Africa south of the Sahara
Struik Nature, £29.99
Never before has a single volume covered so many African birds – 2129 species to be exact. Socotra and the Gulf of Guinea islands are included, but Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands are not. This is a monumental work, bringing together a huge amount of information, but at 760 pages it isn’t ideal for the field.

SASOL Birds of Southern Africa

Struik Nature, £19.99
The text by Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton and Peter Ryan is accompanied by colour plates illustrated by Peter Hayman and Norman Arlott. The 4th edition has been improved by the addition of group introductions, calendar bars showing species’ occurrence and breeding periods, and sonograms depicting the calls. Distribution maps show the relative abundance of a species in the region and also indicate resident or migrant status.

Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands
Struik, £18.99
Covering Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, Rodrigues, the Seychelles and the Comoros Islands, this book describes 338 species. All the usual descriptive details are given opposite the illustrations and plenty of space is devoted to each painting. Each species has its own map on the text page, although these do not indicate seasonal differences.

Birds of Madagascar: a Photographic Guide
Pica Press, £33.95
Written by Pete Morris and Frank Hawkins, this is a superb photographic guide with over 500 images of 280 species. The text is excellent and gives a description of all known plumages likely to be encountered, vocalisations, habitat and behaviour, range, status (including taxonomic notes where relevant) and where to find the species, together with an invaluable identification section. There is also a short section detailing the best birding sites.

Birds of Seychelles
Christopher Helm Publishers, £29.99
There are two books of this name – both by Adrian Skerrett and Tony Disley. The first appeared in 2000, co-authored with Ian Bullock. It is out of print now, but copies are easily available second-hand. Containing 320 pages it proved a great source of information. The second book appeared in 2011 – at just 176 pages and with 65 colour plates it includes all of the same species, but here the text has been considerably reduced and rewritten.

Short on space? There are ideal for your pockets…
If you are looking to save space and money these three small paperback guides written and illustrated by Ber Van Perlo offer great value but much less detail. They are ideal for those who are keen but not obsessive! Some errors in earlier editions remain uncorrected though.
• Collins Illustrated Checklist: Birds of Eastern Africa
• Collins Illustrated Checklist: Birds of Southern Africa
• Collins Illustrated Checklist: Birds of Western and Central Africa

More in-depth reviews of these books are available on the African Bird Club website (

This article was first published in Travel Africa edition 61, 2013