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All 6 Cuckooshrikes in Kenya

cuckooshrikes in kenya
Black Cuckooshrike (female) in Kenya: Photo by Peter Steward

Introduction

Cuckooshrikes are some of Kenya’s prettiest and most sought-after birds for serious birders. With some species being fairly and others being extremely rare in Kenya, they offer a great challenge for explorers. In this article, we’ll look into the family Campephagidae, the cuckooshrikes in Kenya.

Cuckooshrikes in Kenya

Jump to a species!

Grey Cuckooshrike (Coracina caesia)

  • Features: The male bird is mostly a smooth grey, with lighter shades on its forehead and around the eyes. It’s got a black patch near the eye with a white ring encircling it. Its wing feathers and primaries are black with grey edges, and its tail starts off black but lightens towards the tips. Underneath, it has a light gray hue. Its eyes are a dark brown or black, and its beak and legs are black too. What makes it stand out from White-breasted and Grauer’s Cuckooshrikes is its grey underparts, not white like the others. When it comes to the females, they’re a tad lighter than the males, especially on the chin and throat, with a greyish area by the eye. Juveniles have got a distinct dark brown coloring with grey-white fringes up top and white with dark grey-brown bars below, plus a black tail with a touch of white on the edges. Researchers are still working on fully describing the immature birds of this species.
  • Behavior: These birds have a varied diet, feeding on insects like caterpillars, crickets, grasshoppers, termite alates, and beetles. They’re not picky eaters, also going for spiders. They do their foraging up in the canopy, either snatching insects while perched or hopping around to pick up prey from trunks and branches. They’ll often sit on branches and check the undersides of leaves, flying up to grab any prey they spot and then returning to their perch to feed. You’ll often find them hanging out with mixed-species groups.
  • Habitat: You can spot these birds in evergreen forests, forest patches, and cool, wooded streams with tall trees. They’re also known in areas with scattered trees between forest patches. Sometimes, you might even find them in old pine and wattle (Acacia) plantations, or in suburban gardens.
  • Range: In Kenya, Grey Cuckooshrikes (of the pura race) are semi-uncommon birds in forests in the country’s central and western areas.

White-breasted Cuckooshrike (Coracina pectoralis)

  • Features: The males have a black spot near the eye and a white ring around it. They’re mainly gray on the head and upper parts, with a lighter shade from the chin to the upper chest. Their wings have black feathers with gray edges, and their tail feathers are mostly dark brownish-black, with a grayish central pair. Below the lower chest down to the tail area, they’re white. Their eyes are black as are their beak and legs. As for the females, they’re similar to the males but with a white chin and upper throat, blending into a soft gray on the upper chest. Sometimes, there are faint gray bars on their lower chest and sides, and they usually have less black around their eye area. When it comes to the juveniles, they have a white cap with dark brown arrow-shaped markings on the top of their head. Their upper parts are dark brown with white fringes on the feathers, and their underbelly is white with dark brown spots. Some of their wings have a white edge, and some have a black band on the wing coverts. We’re still learning more about the immature ones.
  • Behavior: They’re big fans of insects, particularly caterpillars, but they’ll also go for orthopterans, hymenopterans (including ants), termites, and mantids. They do most of their hunting up in the canopy and upper parts of trees. They’ll check out trunks, branches, and leaves, moving with long hops and pausing to scope out potential prey spots. Sometimes, they’ll even catch insects, like termite alates, mid-air. Every now and then, they’ll snatch up prey from the ground too. You’ll often find them hanging out with mixed-species flocks.
  • Habitat: North of the equator, you’ll find these birds in mature savanna woodland and bushy savanna areas with open groves of tall trees, especially acacia. In the south, they prefer hanging out in tall, broadleaf woodlands like Brachystegia, Baikiaea, and mopane. They usually stay below 1500 meters in elevation. Where they are sympatric with Grey Cuckooshrikes, you’ll typically find White-breasted in lower-altitude woodland areas.
  • Range: Of all six species in this list, White-breasted Cuckooshrikes are arguably the rarest in Kenya. Out of about a dozen confirmed records for the country, most have been in the northwest, near Kisumu and Kanyarkwet (most recently in 2023). There was also one random record in Makindu in the early nineties.

Black Cuckooshrike (Campephaga flava)

  • Features: The male (above left) is black with a greenish-blue gloss and often has yellow lesser upperwing-coverts forming a patch at the wing bend. Its bill is black with a yellow gape, and its legs are black. Distinguished from similar species by its smaller yellow gape and lack of purple gloss on face and neck. The female (above right) is olive-green to olive-brown above, with black bars on gray or brown rump and upper tail-coverts, and a white underside with blackish bars. Juvenile and immature birds resemble the female.
  • Behavior: Their diet mainly consists of insects, particularly lepidopterans like caterpillars (including hairy ones), as well as termite alates and orthopterans, including katydids. They also munch on spiders and ants, and occasionally snack on fruit and tree seeds. You’ll typically find them foraging within and at the edge of the canopy, with occasional ground foraging. They move swiftly from tree to tree and often hang out with mixed-species groups. Their foraging style involves searching through leaves, bark, and lichens, catching prey with fluttering hops or short flights. Sometimes, they’ll hover to pluck prey from leaves.
  • Habitat: They can be found in various woodland or forest habitats, from acacia, mopane, and brachystegia woodland to riparian forest, the edges of evergreen forest, and secondary growth. Less frequently, they’re spotted in savanna, scrub, semi-arid bush, gardens, and exotic plantations.
  • Range: Kenya’s most common and widespread cuckooshrikes, Black Cuckooshrikes are found in appropriate habitat throughout western, central, and southern Kenya, all the way to the coast.

Petit’s Cuckooshrike (Campephaga petiti)

  • Features: The male (above left) is mostly black with a greenish-blue gloss, distinguished by its large yellow or orange wattles at the gape. It lacks the purple gloss found on Purple-throated Cuckooshrike and the colored “shoulder” patch of Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike. The female (above right) is different, with olive-green upperparts barred black, and rich yellow underparts with variable dark barring. The juvenile resembles the female but with darker green head markings.
  • Behavior: They dine on caterpillars, along with flying insects and grasshoppers. You’ll often find them quietly foraging in the foliage of the higher and middle canopy, occasionally venturing into the undergrowth.
  • Habitat: They prefer moist primary and secondary forests, including secondary growth, gallery forests, and forest patches in savanna regions. They’re typically found between 1000 and 2000 meters above sea level, but they can also be spotted near sea level. They tend to stick to different forest habitats from Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike in areas where their ranges overlap.
  • Range: In Kenya, these birds are only found in Kakamega Rainforest in western Kenya. Though highly localized, they are not uncommon birds in Kakamega.

Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike (Campephaga phoenicea)

  • Features: The male (above left) sports a glossy black plumage with a red, orange, or orange-yellow patch on the upper-wing-coverts, distinguished by its larger size compared to similar species. Females (above right) are brown to grey-brown with black barring on the rump and uppertail-coverts, a pale grey supercilium, and yellow-fringed flight-feathers and wing-coverts. Juveniles resemble females but with heavier black barring on the upperparts and underparts.
  • Behavior: They feed on caterpillars and various other insects, with a preference for orthopterans and true bugs. You’ll often find them in the upper or middle storeys of vegetation, occasionally venturing lower in West Africa or into bushes and small trees in East Africa, flying between them in low undulating flights. They forage quietly within the foliage, gleaning prey from leaves, twigs, and branches, sometimes capturing prey on the ground or during flycatching sallies. They might also join mixed-species flocks from time to time.
  • Habitat: They’re typically found in forest patches, including edges and clearings, gallery forests, moist secondary growth, wooded grasslands, and thickets in savannas. They tend to occupy thicker vegetation compared to Black Cuckooshrike in East Africa, although both species are recorded in various habitats. In areas where their ranges overlap with Petit’s, they’re ecologically separated by their preference for woodland and forest edges rather than true forest habitats.
  • Range: Also very rare in Kenya, Red-shouldered Cuckooshrikes have been recorded about a dozen or so times, all in western Kenya, including Kakamega.

Purple-throated Cuckooshrike (Campephaga quiscalina)

  • Features: The male (above left) is glossy black with steel-blue tones, distinguished by a strong purple gloss on the face, throat, and breast. The female (above right) has a grey-white supercilium, a black streak through the eye, and yellowish-green upperparts. Both genders have yellow to orange gapes. Juveniles are browner on the head with yellow underparts. The martini race found in Kenya shows dusky grey barring on the female’s upper breast.
  • Behavior: Their diet consists mainly of insects, particularly caterpillars and adult moths, orthopterans, bugs, and hymenopterans. They also consume spiders. They forage discreetly in the canopy, occasionally joining mixed-species flocks. They search through creepers and foliage, capturing prey under leaves and on tree trunks.
  • Habitat: They primarily inhabit moist primary and secondary evergreen forests, particularly edges and clearings. Additionally, they can be found in gallery forests, riparian forests, dry evergreen forests, coffee forests, forest patches within savannas, and regenerating forests with scattered trees, shrubs, and bushes nearby.
  • Range: Birds of the martini race are uncommon in western and central Kenya.

Kenya Birding Resources

Citizen science and list-keeping projects used in Kenya include include eBird and Birdlasser. Both can be used to keep track of the birds you see, as well as contributing to scientific data collection that goes into the conservation of our birds.

Field Guides:

  • Birds of East Africa – Terry Stevenson’s and John Fanshawe’s great book is an extensive field guide covering 1,388 bird species in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, featuring 287 new color plates and concise species accounts. With detailed illustrations and range maps, it offers comprehensive information on identification, status, habits, and more, making it an essential resource for bird enthusiasts in the region. It was recently updated and the newest edition released in 2020.
  • Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania – Zimmerman’s, Turner’s, and Pearson’s guide showcases 124 color plates capturing all 1,114 bird species, including variations by subspecies, age, and sex, complemented by over 800 range maps and concise text covering identification, voice, and distribution. Another good option for the region, but not as recently updated.
  • Birds of Africa South of the Sahara – Written by Peter Ryan and Ian Sinclair, this guide offers unparalleled coverage of African birds in one book, detailing every bird found in Africa south of the Sahara Desert, including Socotra, Pemba, and Gulf of Guinea islands. Given its wider range of countries covered, it is not as compact and not as convenient for use in the field, but still a useful guide to have in your collection.

Phone apps:

  • eBird mobile – Offers a convenient way to record and submit bird sightings anytime, anywhere, even without internet access. Just log your birding location and time, then enter the species you observe. It can even calculate your distance traveled and time spent birding, allowing you to concentrate on enjoying the birds! Free.
  • Birdlasser – Similar to eBird in function but more specific to Africa. Your records in Birdlasser can be directly contributed to the Kenya Bird Map project which aims to map and update the current distribution of Kenya’s birds and can be used in conjunction with the broader Africa Bird Map. Free.
  • Merlin by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – The Merlin Bird ID app helps users identify birds by asking questions about their appearance and behavior, then suggests potential matches along with images and sounds. Users can also explore bird species, learn about their habits, and contribute observations to eBird. It should be noted, however, that the sound ID function is not particularly useful in Kenya yet, due to the lack of recordings. Free.
  • eGuide to Birds of East Africa – The eGuide to Birds of East Africa serves as a digital companion to Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe’s renowned field guide, Birds of East Africa (see above), ideal for birdwatchers exploring Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Packed with special features, this app enriches your birding adventures in the region. It requires a one-time payment of about $38 USD, or 5,000 Kenyan shillings.
  • Birds of Africa – Designed for bird enthusiasts, this interactive app offers a comprehensive resource on African avifauna. With a rich array of photos, sounds, text, and maps, it facilitates bird identification and fosters a deeper appreciation for these species while supporting their conservation efforts. Free.

Conclusion

Kenya’s diverse habitats provide an ideal home for a variety of cuckooshrike species. From the dense forests to the savannas and even the coffee forests, these birds find ample food sources and nesting opportunities. Whether they’re quietly foraging in the canopy or joining mixed-species flocks, cuckooshrikes play an essential role in the ecosystem.