Sandgrouse are desert birds, well adapted to life in the desert. But because they eat dry seeds, they desperately need regular access to fresh water. The chicks are particularly vulnerable. However, male sandgrouse have a solution - bringing back water every day in their belly feathers.

Did you know?

Each sandgrouse can eat between 5 000 and 80 000 seeds in a day.

You’re close to a waterhole in the Kalahari Desert. It is around 9am, and the day is warming fast. Suddenly the air fills with hundreds or thousands of dove-sized birds, twittering the sweetest desert song.

These are sandgrouse, and at this time of day, it can only be Namaqua sandgrouse in their neat, cryptic colours, with their characteristic call of ‘kelkiewyn, kelkiewyn’ ('cocktail wine, cocktail wine').

Were it before dawn, it would be the double-banded sandgrouse. After 10.30 in the morning, it would only be Burchell’s sandgrouse. In the desert, there is no need for watches. You can tell the time by the birds and their habits.

There are few desert birds more finely attuned to living in arid zones than sandgrouse. They feed on air-dried seeds, which are in plentiful supply.

It’s a very dry diet though, so they need to drink fresh water twice a day, and will fly up to 60 kilometres to get it.

They baffle scientists by being able to predict which days are going to be especially hot and adjusting their schedules.

Baby sandgrouse are precocious when they hatch. The day they come out of the egg they are able to walk, run and forage for seeds like their parents. They instinctively respond to their parents’ alarm calls, staying motionless and almost undetectable in their carefully camouflaged fluff.

The only issue is water, since they can’t fly.

No problem. The male sandgrouse has specially adapted belly feathers with many more barbules than ordinary feathers. Weight for weight, they hold more water than a kitchen sponge. You’ll often see male sandgrouse wade into the water with a dreamy look in midsummer, and rock vigorously while the moisture is absorbed – over 20 millilitres at a time.

Once they get back to the nest, the chicks drink their fill from the wet feathers, a little like kittens nursing from their mother.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Make enquiries for accommodation in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park via SANParks:
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
Cell: +27 (0)82 233 9111

How to get here

Your best chance of seeing sandgrouse is to be at a Kalahari waterhole in the morning or late evening. One of the best places would be the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, but they can be seen at a number of Northern Cape parks.

Best time to visit

If you want to see sandgrouse males soaking up water with their belly feathers, come in summer – November to February. Be warned, though. It can be extremely hot at this time, with temperatures sometimes around 40 degrees Celsius.

Get around

You’re likely to see sandgrouse while driving yourself around a reserve, or while in a game drive vehicle.

What to pack

Whenever birdwatching, your essential equipment will always include a good pair of binoculars and a local bird book.

Where to stay

Stay in a game reserve such as the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Kalahari, and ask rangers where the sandgrouse like to come for water. Not all waterholes are liked by the birds – they prefer high-quality, fresh water.

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