Birds of a Feather: Quantitative Assessments of the Diversity and Levels of Threat to Birds Used in African Traditional Medicine

  • Vivienne L. Williams
  • Anthony B. Cunningham
  • Robin K. Bruyns
  • Alan C. Kemp


This chapter reviews the richness of bird use for traditional medicines across Africa. At least 354 species from 205 genera, 70 families, and 25 orders are used for traditional medicine in 25 African countries. Most birds are in the order Passeriformes (108 species used and 82 species traded), with the starlings (Sturnidae) the most commonly used family of passerines (nine species). Of all the bird families in trade, the Accipitridae had the most number of recorded genera (26 genera; 37 species; including kites, hawks, eagles, vultures), followed by the Ardeidae (11 genera; 15 species; including herons and egrets). The Bucerotidae (hornbills), Cuculidae (cuckoos) and Strigidae (owls) were the next most specious families in trade. The Ostrich was the most widely used bird species (11 African countries), although it was only recorded as sold in markets of four countries. Barn owls were the most widely sold. Using a widely accepted method for grouping species according to commonness or rarity, we show that 24% of traded bird species are very common and locally abundant in several habitats over a large geographic area. Ten percent of traded species are, however, rare, occurring in low numbers in specific habitats over a small geographic area. The order with the highest proportion of rare species was the Bucerotiformes (hornbills). Excluding non-breeding Palearctic (PAL) migrants, based on the 2011 IUCN Red List, 12 traded bird species are Threatened (three Endangered; nine Vulnerable) and eight are Near Threatened.


Bird Species Traditional Medicine Kentish Plover African Traditional Medicine Traded Species 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We would like to thank the many traditional healers we have worked with over the years, most of whom preferred to stay anonymous. TC would like to thank Siyabonga Zondi for his good company and assistance in surveying traditional medicine markets in the 1980s. We also appreciate the permission from Peter Howard to use some of his photographs taken in Morocco and Togo. VW was provided funding for this research by the University of the Witwatersrand SPARC Prestigious and URC Postdoctoral Fellowships. RB acknowledges funding from the National Research Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Vivienne L. Williams
    • 1
  • Anthony B. Cunningham
    • 2
  • Robin K. Bruyns
    • 1
  • Alan C. Kemp
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Animal, Plant and Environmental SciencesUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa
  2. 2.School of Plant BiologyUniversity of Western AustraliaNedlandsAustralia
  3. 3.Research Associate, FitzPatrick Institute of African OrnithologyUniversity of Cape TownRondeboschSouth Africa

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