- Cape Grassbird
 - Cape Grassbird
 - Cape Grassbird
 - Cape Grassbird

Cape Grassbird Sphenoeacus afer Scientific name definitions

David Pearson
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated January 19, 2013

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Editor's Note: This is a shorter format account, originally published in HBW Alive. Please consider contributing your expertise to update and expand this account.


19–23 cm; 27–34 g. A large warbler with streaked back, warmly coloured head and wings, and long, ragged-looking well-graduated tail with pointed feathers. Nominate race has top and side of head rufous-brown, lores and eyering buffy white; upper­parts, upperwing-coverts and tertials blackish with pale buff feather fringes, rump and uppertail-coverts variable, from plain rufous to streaked with blackish shaft streaks of varying depth and width; flight-feathers black with broad tawny-brown edges, tail tawny-brown; chin and throat buffy white, black malar stripe; underparts warm buffy brown, breast with short blackish streaks, flanks and undertail-coverts with long broad streaks; iris brown; bill blackish, paler base; legs olive-brown to greenish. Sexes alike. Immature is lighter brown above and paler and less heavily streaked below than adult. Race intermedius has crown paler than nominate, rump and tail less tawny; natalensis is like previous but larger, and lacks streaking below; excisus is paler than last, with dark feather centres on upperparts narrower, flanks more olive-buff.

Systematics History

Editor's Note: This article requires further editing work to merge existing content into the appropriate Subspecies sections. Please bear with us while this update takes place.

Four subspecies recognized.



Sphenoeacus afer excisus Scientific name definitions

E Zimbabwe highlands and adjacent Mozambique.


Sphenoeacus afer natalensis Scientific name definitions

NE South Africa (Limpopo and E North West Province S to N and E Free State and KwaZulu-Natal), W Swaziland and N Lesotho.


Sphenoeacus afer intermedius Scientific name definitions

E South Africa (extreme S KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape S to former Transkei); probably also S Lesotho.


Sphenoeacus afer afer Scientific name definitions

Western Cape and SW Eastern Cape (E to about R Gamtoos), in SW and S South Africa.


Editor's Note: Additional distribution information for this taxon can be found in the 'Subspecies' article above. In the future we will develop a range-wide distribution article.


Rank vegetation with long grasses, restios or ferns; montane grassland with scattered proteas (Protea) and other bushes; forest edge; coastal macchia scrub. Avoids habitat with a high or dense woody component. From sea-level to over 2000 m (Drakensberg escarpment); above 1200 m in Zimbabwe.



Diet and Foraging

Mainly insects, especially caterpillars and other larvae; also grass seeds. Feeds on ground under vegetation.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

Song a short jumbled medley of musical notes, usually beginning quietly and increasing in volume before ending in drawn-out trill, “chew chi chi chewdly chewdly chitty chitty chree-chreeeeeeeee”; alarm a cat-like “meeew”.


Breeds mainly during rains: Oct–Feb in Zimbabwe; in South Africa Sept–Mar in Northern Province, Oct–Feb in KwaZulu-Natal and Jul–Dec in SW Cape. Monogamous; territorial. Nest a deep cup of coarse dry leaves and grasses, lined with finer grass and fibres, concealed within 0·5 m of ground in grass tuft, low bush or herbaceous growth. Clutch 2–3 eggs; incubation by both sexes, period 14–17 days; chicks fed by both parents, nestling period 14–16 days.

Not globally threatened. In South Africa, common in Western Cape and locally common in Northern Province, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. Densities of up to 1 bird/ha in W part of Western Cape. Numbers reduced in some areas by habitat destruction caused by bush encroachment and degradation of grassland; thrives where habitat protected.

Distribution of the Cape Grassbird
  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding
Distribution of the Cape Grassbird

Recommended Citation

Pearson, D. (2020). Cape Grassbird (Sphenoeacus afer), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.capgra1.01