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7 Fascinating Facts About the Black-faced Sandgrouse of Africa

The Black-faced Sandgrouse, also known as Pterocles decoratus, is a fascinating species of bird that resides in the deserts and semi-arid regions of Africa. In this article, we will cover the identification, plumages, molts and behavior of the bird.


The Black-faced Sandgrouse is a medium-sized bird that weighs about 250g and measures 30 to 35cm in length. Males and females have distinct plumage, with their most notable characteristic being the black face of the male.

The upperparts of the male’s plumage are brown, with white underparts that are marked in black. In contrast, the female is grayish-brown with a barred chest and red eye-ring.

Both male and female sandgrouse have long and pointed wings, with a narrow and pointed tail. Field


The Black-faced Sandgrouse is a ground-dwelling species that prefers to live in open habitats, which provide them easy access to water sources such as streams, springs, and pools.

They forage in groups, and their flight pattern is highly distinctive, with their wings producing a whistling sound.

Similar Species

The Black-faced Sandgrouse can be distinguished from other sandgrouse species by its black face and predominantly brown upperparts. Its nearest relative is the Burchell’s Sandgrouse (Pterocles burchelli), which has a buff-yellow face and white underparts.


The Black-faced Sandgrouse has three basic plumages:

Juvenile Plumage: The Juvenile Plumage is grey-brown overall, with barred underparts. The head is covered in dark markings, and the face is conspicuously patterned with black and white stripes.

Basic Plumage: The Basic Plumage is similar in color to the Juvenile but with less conspicuous feather markings. The bird loses its juvenile plumes after about two months after hatching.

Alternate Plumage: The Alternate Plumage is displayed during the breeding season and is characterized by bold markings on the chest, black face, and distinctive black and white stripes around the eyes.


Black-faced Sandgrouse undergoes an annual full body moult in late summer, during which they replace all their feathers with fresh plumage. It takes almost a year for the birds to develop their full breeding plumage, consisting of black and white bars around the eyes.


Black-faced Sandgrouse are highly social birds, and outside the breeding season are gregarious, roosting in large flocks of up to 50 birds. They venture out to feed in groups of around 10 individuals, foraging on the ground for seeds and insects.

One of the most notable behaviours of the bird is its ability to carry water to its young. The bird is characterized by the highly specialized feathers located beneath its wings, which act like sponges to absorb water.

The moistened feathers are then transferred to the dry, thirsty chicks, which suckle the water directly from the feathers. In conclusion, the Black-faced Sandgrouse is an intriguing and unique bird with some fascinating behavior.

Its black face and distinctive call make for easy identification, and it is well adapted to living in arid environments. To fully appreciate the beauty of the Black-faced Sandgrouse, it’s important to observe their behaviour, particularly their water-carrying abilities, which are nothing short of remarkable.

Systematics History

The Black-faced Sandgrouse (Pterocles decoratus) have been extensively studied by ornithologists and have undergone several taxonomic revisions over the years. The bird’s systematics history traces back to its first discovery by the English explorer and naturalist, William John Burchell, who recorded bird specimens from Botswana in the early 19th century.

Its classification history books can be dated back to the early 19th century, based on Burchell’s descriptions.

Geographic Variation

The Black-faced Sandgrouse are found in several geographical regions, and their distribution is widespread, encompassing parts of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.


The Black-faced Sandgrouse have been classified into three subspecies based on their habitat, geographic location, and morphology. These subspecies are:


Pterocles decoratus guttatus – Found in Namibia and Southern Angola, this subspecies is characterized by its pale grey and brownish-grey plumage. 2.

Pterocles decoratus decoratus – Found in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, this subspecies is characterized by its chestnut and brownish-grey plumage. 3.

Pterocles decoratus neglectus – Found in the southern portion of South Africa, this subspecies is characterized by its darker chestnut and brownish-grey plumage.

Related Species

The Black-faced Sandgrouse belongs to the family Pteroclididae, which is composed of 16 species worldwide. They are closely related to a number of other sandgrouse species such as Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse (Pterocles lichtensteinii), Burchell’s Sandgrouse (Pterocles burchelli), and the Namaqua Sandgrouse (Pterocles namaqua).

Historical Changes to Distribution

The distribution of the Black-faced Sandgrouse has undergone significant changes over the years, mainly due to habitat loss. In the 1800s, the bird was more widely distributed across southern Africa, but its numbers have decreased over time due to human activities such as conversion of natural habitats to agriculture and overgrazing.

Habitat fragmentation has been a significant factor in the decline of the bird’s population, particularly in South Africa, where the population has dwindled considerably. In the past, the Black-faced Sandgrouse was found in the grassy plains of the Karoo and Kalahari regions of southern Africa.

However, the expansion of agriculture in these areas has led to habitat loss, which has reduced the bird’s population and fragmented their habitats. The bird has struggled in Mozambique, where their habitat has been adversely impacted by human activities such as logging and charcoal production.

In some areas, the bird’s habitat has been partly converted for crop production. Nevertheless, the bird has managed to adapt to the changing environment in some areas.

In Botswana, the bird has thrived in areas that have been converted for agriculture, such as communal pastures and crop fields. Some conservation measures have been implemented in Mozambique and other southern African countries to help protect the bird and preserve its remaining habitat.


In conclusion, the Black-faced Sandgrouse is a fascinating species that has gone through several taxonomic revisions over the years. The bird is widely distributed across southern Africa, with some of its subspecies showing distinct morphological characteristics.

However, habitat loss has been a significant threat to the bird’s population over the years. Nevertheless, conservation measures have been implemented to help protect the bird and preserve its remaining habitat, particularly in areas where the bird’s population is still thriving.


The Black-faced Sandgrouse is adapted to living in arid and semi-arid habitats, and its distribution is constrained to these regions. The bird is commonly found in open grasslands, savannas, and sparsely vegetated deserts.

They avoid dense vegetation but rely heavily on the availability of water sources such as streams, springs, pools, and artificial water holes. The bird is highly adapted to hot and dry environments and can survive without access to free-standing water for days or up to a week.

Movements and Migration

The Black-faced Sandgrouse inhabits areas that experience extreme temperature fluctuations, with temperatures reaching up to 45C during the day. Therefore, their behavior is highly adapted to managing these severe environmental conditions.

They are mostly sedentary and remain within their territories throughout the year, except when they need to search for water. During dry spells, the birds undertake nomadic movements and migrate to areas with more abundant water resources.

In Botswana, for example, the birds have been observed to move from their natural habitats to forage in crop fields and communal pastures in search of water. During these movements, the birds travel in groups of around ten individuals during the early morning or late afternoon and return to their natural habitats before dark.

The Black-faced Sandgrouse engages in a unique activity that involves carrying and delivering water to their young. Contrary to their nomadic behavior, the birds exhibit highly directed movements when it comes to this activity.

They know their watering sources well and have well-established feeding and watering areas that they visit daily. The birds are highly efficient at collecting and delivering water to their chicks.

A female sandgrouse can carry up to 20 ml of water at a time, and in a single trip, they can carry water over a distance of two kilometers.

Sandgrouse Migration

The Black-faced Sandgrouse exhibit clear seasonal movements in response to rainfall, which is unpredictable in arid areas. In Namibia, the birds move dynamically through the landscape and congregate in large flocks around waterholes during the breeding season.

As the dry season progresses, the birds disperse into smaller groups in search of food and water, but they remain within their territory. Another sandgrouse species that exhibits more pronounced migrant behavior is the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (Pterocles alchata), which is also found in Southern Europe and Northern Africa.

This species migrates across the Sahara Desert, covering a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers, in search of water and food during the dry season. They travel in large flocks and have been known to fly non-stop for up to 24 hours.

In contrast to the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, the Black-faced Sandgrouse is mainly a sedentary bird, with nomadic movements based on the availability of water sources.


In conclusion, the Black-faced Sandgrouse is a highly adapted bird that inhabits arid and semi-arid habitats where water resources are limited. They are capable of surviving long periods without access to water and undertake frequent movements to locate and transport water to their young during the breeding season.

While the birds are mainly sedentary, they still undertake nomadic movements to find resources, particularly during dry spells. This behavior allows them to cope with the harsh climatic conditions prevalent in the region.

Diet and Foraging


The Black-faced Sandgrouse feeds mainly on seeds and insects that it forages on the ground, using its long and pointed beak to probe the soil. They gather in groups of around 10 individuals to forage, and their foraging behavior is highly synchronized, with the birds moving in a line across open grasslands.

The individuals take turns to probe the soil, allowing for efficient use of resources and minimizing competition.


The Black-faced Sandgrouse feeds mainly on the seeds of grasses and other plants, including those of Cynodon and Panicum species. They also consume insects such as termites, which they capture with their beaks as they fly or forage on the ground.

During the breeding season, the birds require a diet that is higher in protein to support the growth and development of their young.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Black-faced Sandgrouse has evolved unique physiological adaptations to survive in arid and semi-arid habitats. These adaptations include an efficient metabolic process and the ability to regulate its body temperature effectively.

The bird’s unique metabolic process involves the ability to extract water from food, which enables it to survive for long periods without access to free-standing water. To regulate its body temperature, the bird has the ability to dissipate heat efficiently.

The Black-faced Sandgrouse is known to modify its body posture to increase the surface area of its body that is exposed to the cooling effects of air currents, thereby facilitating heat loss.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


The Black-faced Sandgrouse is a vocal bird, with their sounds serving different purposes such as communication, courtship, and warning to potential predators. The birds produce a variety of calls, including a nasal “wee-wee-wee” and an attention-getting “chak-chak” call.

The vocalization of the Black-faced Sandgrouse differs between sexes, with the males producing more varied and complex notes as compared to the females. The bird’s vocalization has been studied extensively due to its unique ability to carry water to its young in its specialized wing feathers.

The whistling sound that is made by the wings during flight serves as a warning signal to other birds and potential predators, indicating that the Black-faced Sandgrouse is on a mission to collect water. The vocalization behavior of the Black-faced Sandgrouse is also used during courtship, where the males produce complex notes to attract the females.

During this time, the males put on elaborate displays that involve puffing out chest feathers, raising their tails, and strutting around in front of the females. The vocalization of the Black-faced Sandgrouse has also been used to study the bird’s population and distribution.

The calls of the bird can be easily identified and recorded using sound-recording devices, enabling researchers to study their behavioral and ecological patterns.


In conclusion, the Black-faced Sandgrouse is a highly adapted bird that has evolved unique physiological and behavioral adaptations to survive in arid and semi-arid habitats. Their diet mainly consists of seeds and insects that they forage on the ground, while their vocalization behavior serves different purposes such as communication and courtship.

The bird’s metabolic process and ability to regulate body temperature are critical to their survival in harsh climatic conditions. The Black-faced Sandgrouse is truly a remarkable bird, with fascinating adaptations that allow it to thrive in arid and semi-arid habitats.



The Black-faced Sandgrouse is adapted to living in an arid and semi-arid habitat and has evolved the ability to move efficiently and easily in these environments. Their locomotion methods include walking and running as well as taking short flight spurts.

However, they are poor fliers and can only fly for short distances.

Self Maintenance

The Black-faced Sandgrouse spends a significant amount of time each day maintaining its feathers. It uses its beak to preen and clean its feathers, keeping them in good condition.

The bird moults once a year, replacing all its feathers, which is a critical process that helps to maintain the bird’s body temperature and insulate it against extreme weather conditions.

Agonistic Behavior

The Black-faced Sandgrouse is a social bird that lives in groups. The birds often engage in agonistic behaviors, particularly during the breeding season when territorial disputes may arise.

The birds defend their territories by performing displays that include puffing out their feathers, erecting their tails, strutting around, and vocalizing.

Sexual Behavior

During the breeding season, the Black-faced Sandgrouse engages in elaborate courtship displays. The males puff up their feathers, raise their tails, and strut around in front of females while producing complex vocalizations.

Once a pair has formed, they engage in elaborate copulatory behavior that includes nuzzling, head-tossing, and wing-flicking.


The Black-faced Sandgrouse is monogamous and forms pair-bonds that last for a breeding season. The breeding season begins in August and lasts until January, with the birds laying their eggs in October and November.

They nest on the ground, often in rocky outcrops, where they use a shallow, scrape-like depression to create the nest. The female lays one or two eggs, which she incubates for approximately 24 days.

Once the chicks hatch, they are able to walk and forage within a few hours. The young initially feed on a liquid secretion that is produced by the crop of the parent that contains highly nutritious crop milk that the parent regurgitates into their beaks.

Crop milk is produced by the cells lining the crop and has high levels of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, making it an ideal food source for the fast-growing chicks.

Demography and Populations

The Black-faced Sandgrouse has a patchy distribution across southern Africa and is more common in Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The populations in Mozambique and South Africa have declined significantly due to habitat loss and degradation.

While there is limited data on the size of the Black-faced Sandgrouse population, there is evidence to suggest that their numbers are declining, particularly in South Africa. A study conducted in the Karoo region of South Africa found that the Black-faced Sandgrouse population had declined by more than 25% over a ten-year period, with habitat loss being the primary cause.

In Namibia, the bird is still relatively common, with the majority of the population found in communal lands where their habitats are better protected. The Black-faced Sandgrouse is not considered to be globally threatened but is listed as a species of conservation concern in South Africa since it has undergone a significant population decline in the region.

There is a need for increased research, monitoring, and conservation efforts to help protect the bird and ensure its long-term survival in the wild.


In conclusion, the Black-faced Sandgrouse is a remarkable bird with a complex behavior and unique adaptations that allow it to survive in harsh arid environments. The bird is social, engaging in elaborate courtship displays, and is monogamous, forming bonds that last a breeding season.

The bird’s populations are declining in some

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