A Sandgrouse has a small, pigeon-like head and neck and have a sturdy body. They grow to a size ranging from 24 – 40 centimetres (9.4 – 15.7 inches) in length and weigh 15 – 500 grams (5.3 – 17.6 oz). The males are slightly bigger and more brightly coloured than the females. They are capable of rapid take off and can fly for long periods of time due to the powerful muscles in their wings. They have a dense layer of under down to insulate them from extremes like heat and cold. The features of their bellies are adapted for absorbing water and to retain it in order to carry water to the chicks that may be many kilometres away from the watering holes.
Sandgrouse (Pteroclididae) is a family of sixteen species of bird that are placed in two groups: Two of that species are from Asia and the other fourteen species are from Africa. In the Northern Cape Province of South Africa you will find three species: The Burchells Sandgrouse (Pterocles Burchelli), the Namaqua Sandgrouse (Pterocles Namaqua) and the Double-banded Sandgrouse (Pterocles Bicinctus).
When birdwatching in the Kalahari Desert in the Northern Cape, especially in the summer months, 2 – 3 hours after sunrise (about 9am), you will get to see the Namaqua Sandgrouse coming to the waterhole. After 10:30 am you will be able to see the Burchell Sandgrouse coming for water and then just before dawn you will find the Double-banded Sandgrouse at the waterhole.
Sandgrouse are gregarious, feeding in flocks of up to 100 birds. They also tend to spend the night in groups, congregating about an hour before dusk and then split up during the day into much smaller groups to feed.
Sandgrouse granivores and feeds on the seeds of dicotyledonous annual plants in the arid and semi-arid areas of the Northern Cape. Because of their very dry diet they need to drink water regularly from surface-water sources. In these arid environments water sources tend to be limited and therefore Sandgrouse are capable of flying up to 60 kilometres to get to fresh water from their feeding sites.
Breeding takes place any time of the year depending on rainfall. The nests is a slight depression in the ground, scantily lined with dried plant material. Two to three eggs are laid over a few days and incubation starts after the last egg has been laid and lasts for about 22 days. Incubation duties are shared but the females does the incubation during the day and the males does the incubation at night.
The chicks of the Sandgrouse are precocial when they hatch and are able to walk on the day they come out of the egg and forage for seeds like their parents. Because they can’t fly immediately the males bring them water that was absorbed on their specially adapted breast feathers that can hold up to 20 millimetres of water at a time and remarkably these feathers retain the water for the long return flight to the nest. The chicks are fully feathered at three weeks and are able to fly at six weeks of age.
Sandgrouse are vulnerable to attack while drinking water and their greatest risk is usually from predatory birds. In the Northern Cape Province there has been a positive and negative effect on sandgrouse populations. The watering holes for domestic-stock has been very positive by providing artificial water for the sandgrouse. No information was collected but it is highly probable that the harmful chemicals used during the 1900s to control Brown Lucusts had an enormous impact on Sandgrouse numbers.
The Sandgrouse is a very special little bird and through propper conservation mankind will be able to protect them for future generations too.