The sombre greenbuls that visit our garden all year round are mostly evident from their loud and penetrating contact calls as they forage while concealed in dense vegetation or high up within the tree canopies.

Due to their dull – or sombre – colouration and their predilection for keeping within cover, sombre greenbuls (Andropadus importunus ) are not easy to see even when they are calling loudly.

However, they do emerge from cover to visit the birdbaths but usually only when they are not obviously observed by humans. I have managed to take some photos of them at the birdbaths by using a makeshift ‘bird hide’ or by sitting very still behind a screen of plants.

When out in the open sombre greenbuls can be seen to be rather neat in appearance, with their very pale eyes being their most distinguishing feature. Juvenile birds have darker and browner eyes than fully mature adult birds.

Sombre greenbuls (also known as sombre bulbuls) are handsome birds with olive-green colouration on their backs and wings, with their undersides being slightly greyer. They prefer well-vegetated habitats and occur in natural forests, thickets and dense woodlands, and in some regions they have adapted to gardens in suburbs where there are plenty of trees and suitable vegetation.

Sombre greenbuls find food by climbing around in trees and shrubs, sometimes coming down to the ground to forage in leaf litter. They also hawk insects on the wing, returning to cover to eat their catch. In the above photo a bird is clambering around the branched fruiting inflorescences of a cabbage tree (Cussonia sp.) in our garden.

The bird spent quite some time selecting and eating fruit in the cabbage tree. The strong bills of sombre greenbuls are adapted for an omnivorous diet, which includes fruits, flowers and buds, succulent leaves, insects, snails and aloe nectar.

I took the above photo in 2016 when we were staying in the small and densely vegetated Spekbook Tented Rest Camp at the Addo Elephant National Park. In the camp several species of birds have become habituated to people and are fairly tame. This sombre greenbul was perched near to our tent.

The two-syllable ringing contact call of the sombre greenbul, sounding something like ‘willie’, is reflected in its names in isiZulu (iWili), isiXhosa (inkwili) and Afrikaans (gewone willie). For recordings of the contact call and the more jumbled sounds of its song go to

Also at this link, a distribution map shows that the sombre greenbul is an African species. There are four subspecies occurring mostly down the eastern side of Africa from southern Somalia and Kenya in the north, down to South Africa with distribution extending on down along the inland regions adjacent to the southern coastline.

Back at one of the garden birdbaths, this sombre greenbul had just arrived and was busy scrutinizing the bathing spot. Like the dark-capped bulbuls and terrestrial brownbuls that also visit our birdbaths, the sombre greenbuls are enthusiastic and energetic bathers. All three species belong to the Pycnonotidae or Bulbuls family.

After some energetic dunking it doesn’t take long for the normally sleek sombre greenbul to look fluffy and dishevelled. Their style of bathing includes dramatic plunges into the water, rising out immediately in flight then settling down again to preen for a while before plunging in again.

Preening can be almost as energetic as plunging, involving much fluffing and shaking of wing and tail feathers.

By the end of the bathing session this sombre greenbul was well soaked.

Who would think that such a normally sedate and sombre bird can become so transformed while bathing!

Sombre greenbuls form monogamous pairs. When breeding, only the female incubates the eggs and the male brings her food. Both parents feed and raise the young.

Nests are made from twigs, rootlets, grass, lichen and other plant fibres. The cup-shaped nests are lined with finer grasses, small roots and other fine plant fibres and sometimes hair. The nests are secured to supporting branches or foliage by spider web, and nests are usually situated between 1.5–2.5 metres (5–8 feet) above the ground in slender trees or shrubs.

Bird-friendly gardens are alive with interest and possibilities that well-manicured spaces sadly lack. More natural gardens that include at least some indigenous plants and secret undisturbed corners are attractive to birds and provide potential for shelter, diverse materials for making nests and food too.  

This close-up of a sombre greenbul was also taken at Spekboom camp at Addo. What a pleasure to be surrounded by natural bush and the bustling sounds and calls of birds foraging and going about their business. Such places are inspirational for those of us lucky enough to have gardens. We can learn how to make our gardens more natural and more diverse places one plant at a time.


Xeno-canto Foundation. 2005-2021. Sombre Greenbul – Andropadus importunus.; Chittenden, Hugh, Davies, Greg & Weiersbye, Ingrid. 2016. Roberts Bird Guide: Illustrating nearly 1,000 Species in Southern Africa (2nd edition). Cape Town: Jacana; Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa: PC Edition.  1997-2016 Southern African Birding. For details go to

Posted by Carol