Burchell’s legacy

Happy birthday to William Burchell, English Explorer, naturalist, traveller, artist, and author was born in 1792, the son of a wealthy nurseryman.  Burchell travelled nearly 7 000 km throughout South Africa between 1810 and 1815, collecting specimens of animals and plants. He described his journey in a book Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa.  His collection contains the most extensive examples of African fauna and flora.  Burchell’s travels however exhausted his fortune, and he became quite isolated and disillusioned. On 23 March 1863, he ended his own life in London. Burchell is remembered through a genus of plants named after him as well as a number of animal species.The scientific binomial for the Burchell’s coucal is Centropus burchellii; Centropus from the Greek for “spiked foot”, referring to the hallux claw possessed by most coucals, and burchellii after the naturalist William Burchell. Thus Burchell’s bird with a spiked foot, which is a strange description to say the least.

It is also one of the most heard sounds at Augusta de Mist. That and happy laughter of course.

The Burchell’s coucal is also commonly referred to as “The Rainbird” and has a well developed reputation in southern African for being able to predict impending rain.  This association with rain probably arises because coucals often call during periods of high humidity; before, during and after rain.  And the call is magnificent!  A liquid, bubbling cascade of notes that the South African poet Douglas Livingstone referred to as “the rainbird’s liquid note”.


The Burchell’s coucal is near endemic to the southern African region, being limited to the east and south of the region – the regions with higher rainfall – and generally preferring areas with dense vegetation, such as thickets and reed beds.  Although often heard, they are less often seen as they mostly remain hidden in the thick vegetation.  They are generally found in pairs.


Burchell’s coucals are fairly large birds, with a length of approximately 41 cm.  Males and females are alike in plumage colouration, and the females are slightly larger than the males.  They have black heads and tails; back and wings are rufous-brown and underparts are white.  Eyes are red; bills, legs and feet are black.


They are voracious when feeding, hunting small mammals such as mice and rats, reptiles such as lizards and chameleons, small birds such as doves and sparrows, a variety of insects and amphibians such frogs and toads.  Unusually for a bird, when hunting they may stalk after mice in the manner of a domestic cat.  Occasionally they will also eat fruit.

Burchell’s coucals are monogamous, and the males build an untidy deep cup-shaped nest of grass and leaves, usually in dense vegetation.  The females lay a clutch of two to five chalky-white eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 15 days.

Burchell travelled in South Africa between 1810 and 1815, collecting over 50,000 specimens, and covering over 7000 km, much over unexplored terrain. He described his journey in Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa, a two-volume work appearing in 1822 and 1824, since reprinted in 1967 by C.Struik of Cape Town. There is little doubt that a third volume was planned, since the second volume ends long before completion of his journey. On 25 August 1815 he sailed from Cape Town with 48 crates of specimens aboard the vessel “Kate”, calling at St. Helena and arriving back at Fulham on 11 November 1815. He travelled in Brazil between 1825 and 1830, again collecting a large number of specimens, including over 20,000 insects. The journals covering his Brazil expedition are missing, as are his diaries relating to his later travels. His field note books, detailing his plant collections, survive at Kew, and from those the latter part of his trip can be reconstructed.

His extensive African collections included plants, animal skins, skeletons, insects, seeds, bulbs and fish. After his death by suicide, the bulk of his plant specimens went to Kew and the insects to Oxford University Museum. He is known for the copious and accurate notes he made to accompany every collected specimen, detailing habit and habitat, as well as the numerous drawings and paintings of landscapes, portraits, costumes, people, animals and plants.

Burchell was closely questioned in 1819 by a select committee of the British House of Commons about the suitability of South Africa for emigration, given his experience and knowledge of the country. It was no coincidence that the 1820 Settlers followed a year later.

He is commemorated in the monotypic plant genus Burchellia R. Br., as well as numerous specific names including Burchell’s zebra, Burchell’s coucal and the Eciton burchellii army ant.