The Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclusleucogaster) belongs to the family of birds classified as Sturnidae. This species, also known as the Plum-coloured Starling or Amethyst Starling, is the smallest of the Southern African starlings, reaching only about 18cm in length. It is a successful breeder, and is fortunately not listed as a threatened species.
The sexes are strongly sexually dimorphic, meaning that there is a distinct difference in the appearance of the male and female. The breeding male is brilliantly coloured, with feathers an iridescent shining plum violet colour along the length of is back, wings, face and throat, contrasting with bright white on the rest of the body. Females (and juveniles) are a streaky brown and buff colour, and can easily be mistaken for a thrush.
Less noisy than other starlings, this bird is a monogamous species, and will remain so unless its mate dies. Under those circumstances it will seek a new mate in replacement. These starlings are normally seen in small flocks in summer, just before the breeding season when they will break off into pairs to nest.
Violet-backed starlings will nest in cavities such as tree holes high off the ground, holes in river banks, even in old hollow fence posts, lining the nests with dung, leaves and other plant material. They have been known to reuse nests in successive breeding seasons. The oval, spotted blue eggs are incubated for a period of roughly 2 weeks. It is believed that only the female incubates the eggs, but both adults feed the hatchlings.
Like all starlings, this species is omnivorous, eating both fruit such as mulberries and figs, and insects such as butterflies, bees, wasps and locusts. They are adept at catching prey both on the wing or off tree branches. When termites swarm, the violet-backed starlings can be found in abundance, gorging themselves on these insects, taking their prey back to a secluded area to tear and consume it.
These exquisite bird are intra-African migrants, found in much of sub-Saharan Africa – typically in woodland, grassland or riverine areas. They are eagerly awaited, common summer visitors whose brightly coloured arrival is greeted with great enthusiasm by rangers and guests at Sabi Sabi. The species moves north in winter, leaving us all longing for its bright flashes of violet colour to once more appear.