What Is the Most Abundant Wild Bird in the World?

Found in sub-Saharan Africa, Red-billed Queleas are so plentiful that a single colony can span hundreds of acres.
This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.

In Africa, south of the Sahara, there’s a bird that roams the countryside in flocks—hordes, really—of two million or more. They fly in such tightly synchronized masses they can be mistaken at a distance for clouds of smoke.

The birds are Red-billed Quelea. It’s estimated there are 1.5 billion of them — making them the most abundant of all wild birds.

The sparrow-sized Red-billed Quelea, which is in the weaver family, has a stout, seed-cracking bill. The birds are mostly brown, but breeding males have red and black feathered heads.

Quelea nest in enormous colonies. A single tree may be hung with hundreds, even thousands, of carefully woven nests. Single colonies can cover hundreds of acres, totaling tens of millions of birds. 

Unfortunately, their tastes include cultivated crops, like millet.

In fact, the increased planting of cereal crops over the last fifty years may have dramatically increased the number of quelea.

But setting aside their taste for crops, the sight of a couple million Red-billed Quelea swirling in unison and creating ever-changing patterns in the air is one of nature’s most amazing spectacles.

For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.

Support for BirdNote comes from the Port Aransas Tourism Bureau. Home to hundreds of species of birds and the Whooping Crane Festival in February. More at VisitPortAransas.com.


Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by Linda Macaulay. And by the Xeno Canto Foundation. Recorded by Bram Piot.

BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Producer: John Kessler

Managing Producer: Jason Saul

Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone

© 2018 Tune In to Nature.org   October 2018   Narrator: Michael Stein