One of the most colourfully eye-catching birds with the most vibrant calls to visit our garden is the truly gorgeous Purple-crested Turaco.
Turacos are endemic to Sub-Saharan Africa where 23 species are recognised: 17 colourful forest and woodland species, 5 savannah species (all predominantly grey or brown in colour) and the West African Great Blue Turaco. Although usually regarded as having sister family status with cuckoos recent DNA analysis suggests that the turaco family has no close living relatives.
A Purple-crested Turaco eating fruits from an Umdoni or Waterberry (Syzigium cordatum) tree in our garden. This photo was taken from a window as generally these birds are very cautious and do not like being approached
Turacos are mostly fructivorous and play a role as seed dispersers. In addition to eating fruit, some may eat other plant parts such as leaf buds and flowers, as well as caterpillars, insects and molluscs. As a misnomer, the two so-called plantain eaters do not eat bananas, at least not when in the wild. The forest and woodland species are arboreal and even the savannah species require acacia scrub. All species of turaco need to live in proximity to sources of water.
A shy Purple-crested Turaco at a birdbath in our garden. I had to be quite patient to get this photograph as they are very wary when they come down to drink
The Purple-crested Turaco occurs in dense woodland and in riverine and coastal forest. More so than many other species of turaco it has managed to adapt to utilising alien vegetation and suburban gardens. A few decades ago Purple-crested Turaco were seldom seen (or heard) in our local suburban environment but now they are resident. Perhaps this change is as a result of the destruction of adjacent woodland habitats?
Apart from coming down to ground to drink, Purple-crested Turaco keep mostly to the tree canopy where they are surprisingly agile, running and bounding along branches in a distinctive manner. Despite their striking colours they can be hard to see as they are usually concealed by foliage. It is only when they fly that the brilliant scarlet of their primary wing feathers is breathtakingly obvious.
Like other turacos, the Purple-crested Turaco is an agile climber. This bird was selecting twigs and sticks to break off to carry to where it was building its nest in a nearby tree
Unfortunately for the forest and woodland species of turaco, their brilliant colours have led to them being hunted (historically and currently) for their colourful feathers and they are highly sought after for the captive-bird trade with thousands of wild birds being trapped each year for export. For every wild bird that reaches its destination alive, hundreds of birds die in the process of being trapped or while kept inhumanely confined. Some zoos and aviaries are adopting captive breeding programs for some species of turaco, but the trade is poorly regulated if at all. Some species are also hunted for meat. Habitat destruction is another reason for declining turaco numbers with three species, each occurring in restricted ranges, currently ranked as Near Threatened/Threatened/Endangered.
The Purple-crested Turaco occurs in the wild from the eastern regions of South Africa northwards through several eastern and central countries to Tanzania, with an isolated population existing in Kenya. Because of their widespread distribution, although overall their numbers are diminishing, their status is evaluated as Least Concern. In Kwa-Zulu Natal they are found in suitable habitats at lower altitudes.
A Purple-crested Turaco showing its characteristically muscular stance while foraging for berries
Turacos forage alone, in pairs or in small groups. They are territorial and gregarious and can remain in family groups for a long time. Adults can be combative around the breeding season. They are monogamous, solitary nesters with both parents involved in raising their young.
I have seen (and heard) three other species of turaco in Southern Africa – Livingstone’s Turaco (at Lake Sibaya in Maputaland in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal, although not clearly enough to photograph it); Knysna Turaco (in the mistbelt forests of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands); and the Grey Go-away-bird (in nature parks in Botswana and Zimbabwe and also in Johannesburg gardens. In the late 1970s it expanded its range into suburban areas in Johannesburg and Pretoria).
An elusive Knysna Turaco that I managed to photograph in mistbelt forest in the Dargle area in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Although their presence is often evident from their distinctive calls, sightings are usually just glimpses of them as the flit about in the high tree canopy. The Knysna Turaco occurs only in South Africa
The highly vocal Grey Go-away-bird is so named as its call is a loud and often repeated “g-way”. Known as the Kwévoël in Afrikaans, kwé perhaps better evokes the call of these birds. Also known as the Gray Loerie, it is an example of one the savannah species of turaco. I took this photograph of a bird calling – while it foraged together with its mate in a tall shrub – in the Khama Rhino Santuary in Botswana
Although the name turaco has been adopted officially in South Africa in order to bring the naming in line with international naming conventions, here in South Africa we still tend to refer to turacos as loeries (anglicised to louries). The Dictionary of South African English explains that that origin of the Afrikaans word loerie is “from South African Dutch, from Dutch lori, adaptation of Malay luri (dialectal form of nuri parrot)”. I suppose that back in the day, because of their colourful feathers they were thought to be parrot-like.
Currently, now that it is springtime, the Purple-crested Turacos in our neighbourhood are especially vocal, particularly in the early mornings and the late afternoons. Sometimes birds can get quite excited when calling and when other birds respond by calling back. Last week, I managed to get a photograph of a loerie calling from high-up in a Pigeonwood (Trema orientalis) in our garden.
A Purple-crested Turaco calling from a Pigeonwood tree in our garden
Although the light was not that good on a dull day and although the bird was quite a distance away, I decided to try videoing the bird while it was calling and the result is below. The bird broke off from calling to preen and wing stretch, perhaps to impress the other birds in the vicinity that were calling back.
BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Gallirex porphyreolophus. http://www.birdlife.org; Chittenden, Hugh, Davies, Greg & Weiersbye, Ingrid. 2016. Roberts Bird Guide: Illustrating nearly 1,000 Species in Southern Africa (2nd edition). Cape Town: Jacana; “Musophagiformes (Turacos and Plantain Eaters).”Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/musophagiformes-turacos-and-plantain-eaters; Roberts VII Multimedia PC Edition. 1997-2016 Southern African Birding. For details go to http://www.sabirding.co.za/roberts7/portal.html
Posted by Carol