And so we are back from our stay in Kruger National Park, which offered us much in the way of rest and reflection. Here is the first in what is likely to be a short series of posts on observations that captured both my camera lens and my attention.

Nature can be characterized as being ‘red in tooth and claw’ where survival is all about unrelenting competition for food, territory and mating rights (as can human societies if one chooses to be so cynical).

But a charming pair of ring-necked doves (Streptopelia capicola) reminded me that social bonds between individuals are also part of the fabric of animal lives. Relationships may be between male and female in a breeding pair, between mother and baby (or babies), or between members of families or larger collectives. Animal social systems are various and so we refer not only to families and herds, but also to harems, prides, packs, troops, crèches (for groups of juveniles), bachelor groups, and so on, using terms that distinguish different social groupings.

My immediate reaction on seeing this pair of ring-necked doves (displaying what is hard not to describe as affection) was that this is a breeding pair. Ring-necked doves (also known as Cape turtle-doves) form monogamous pairs for life. When breeding the female builds the nest using material brought to her by the male. They take turns incubating the eggs and both parents feed the nestlings and both care for the fledglings for nearly two weeks after they have left the nest.

That the attention conferred on each other was reciprocal makes it unlikely that the pair was a parent with a fully-fledged (adult) youngster

Watching these doves an old song came to mind:

You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by

From ‘As Time Goes By’ by Herman Hupfeld, (1931)

By now you will be getting the picture – these doves dote on each other.

Inspired by the doves I looked through the photos I had taken on this trip to Kruger National Park to see if I had (quite randomly) captured any other images featuring social relationships between animals.

First up is a pair of green-winged pytilia  (Pytilia melba), which I still think of by their former name  ‘melba finch’. This pair is making the most of bathing in a rain puddle on the side of the road after a recent storm. Like the ring-necked doves, these birds form monogamous pairs.

Southern Ground-Hornbills (Bucorvus leadbeateri) usually live in small groups of on average 3–5 birds, comprising the dominant breeding pair and helpers and juveniles.  The pair in the photo and one other adult flew up into a lone marula tree and a juvenile remained on the ground for some time before also flying up into the tree, but only after the pair in the picture had mated while perched on a branch. This photo was taken just prior to the pair mating. According to Roberts, mating “is preceded by violent preening of head and neck of female by male, female being forced into crouching position” but we saw no such violent preening and the whole process seemed amicable.

At quite some distance I photographed a large male chacma baboon (Papio cynocephalus ursinus) sitting companionably with two female baboons as they suckled their very young babies. Other members of the troop where foraging nearby. This troop was spending the morning not far from the Luvuvhu River in the north of the Kruger National Park.

Chachma baboons are a subspecies of savannah baboons. Baboon troops are complex societies where social relationships are influenced by many factors, including gender, ranking of individuals in a dominance hierarchy, alliances between individuals, and by immigration and emigration by dispersing males. Within a troop both males and females compete to maintain or attain rank.

At the core of a troop are family groups of females and their offspring, but additionally females may form alliances with males who are not necessarily dominant males. As noted by Estes, in his book The Safari Companion, each female may have 1–3 favourite males that she roosts with at night, socially grooms with and stays near while foraging. Such social bonds can benefit males, especially immigrant males, in improving their dominance status and reproductive access. In addition to social companionship females also benefit from such males protecting their juvenile offspring – even when they are not the biological father.

While we were in the central section of the Kruger National Park, we saw these baboons on the move, foraging as they went with older baboons keeping an eye on the youngsters.

Also in the central region of the park we saw a group of four cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus). At first I assumed they were a mother with three nearly adult offspring. The one that I assumed to be the mother took off momentarily after some distant impala, while the other three stayed put. Two of them sat close together watching  the brief hunting attempt and then looked back at the queue of about eight cars (our car among them) that had stopped lined up on the road for some cheetah watching.

But now when I look at the photos I realize it is possible that rather than a family group of mother and youngsters, the group might be a coalition of adult males. Female cheetahs live alone except when raising cubs that remain with the mother until they are 18 months to 2 years old. Males, usually but not always brothers, typically form coalitions, enabling them to hang onto territory and assert breeding rights and also improve their hunting possibilities.

This zebra foal was staying close to its mother in their family group.  Plains zebra (sub species Equus quagga burchellii at Kruger National Park) mares live in stable groups of up to 6 mares in a harem family system with a dominant stallion. The mares are ranked according to the order in which they joined the harem, which occurs when the stallion abducts a filly in oestrus from another family group. The bond between mother and foal is close and they benefit from the association with other mares in the family group and the protection that the stallion confers on his harem. Foals stay with their mothers and continue to suckle until they are about 16 months old.

In another group of zebras there was quite a lot of socializing going on. This was a group of mares with youngsters. We did not spot the stallion. Colts leave their family group when they are 1 to 2 years old and join a bachelor grouping. Groups of bachelors may number 2 to 15 males. These groups are stable and are led by a young adult. At about 5 years old male zebras are mature enough to start their own harems. Large herds of zebras are aggregations of separate harem and bachelor groups.

A small warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus) family – a mother with her three babies who were taking a break from some boisterous games involving some good natured sparring and running around in crazy circles.

A baby impala (Aepyceros melampus) kept close to its mother in the relative safety of the herd.

In addition to spending time close to their mother’s for suckling or protection, baby and juvenile impalas group together within the herd, like the curious young impalas in the photo. Juveniles can often be seen lying down and resting close together, or moving together in close-knit groups with the adults nearby.  It is common to see them grooming each other or indulging in play.

Mostly when we saw francolins taking dustbaths they did so on their own. However, these two crested francolins (Dendroperdix sephaena) enjoyed sharing a prolonged dust bath in close proximity. We can only assume that they had a really close bond or simply enjoyed each other’s company. Crested francolins are another bird species where breeding pairs are monogamous.

In these pandemic times when so many families are kept separated and social distancing has become the necessary norm for our own protection, perhaps these photos of animals and birds being social provide a welcome bit of escapism.

Sources: Estes, Richard. 1993. The Safari Companion a Guide to Watching African Mammals. Halfway House: Russel Friedman; Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa: PC Edition.  1997-2016 Southern African Birding. For details go to

Posted by Carol