Residents of a seaside town on South Africa's west coast recently enjoyed front-row seats to a wildlife spectacle when thousands of birds descended on a shoal of baitfish near the shoreline. Footage of the feeding frenzy, captured at Langebaan's Paradise Beach approximately 120 kilometres from Cape Town, was uploaded to Facebook last weekend and has since been shared almost 7,000 times.


"This is a spectacle, just look at this ... I've never seen anything like this," the person filming the clip can be heard saying in astonishment. The avian attack force is primarily made up of glossy black birds called Cape cormorants that are endemic to southern Africa. The species breeds offshore in large numbers and regularly competes with the local fisheries industry for Cape anchovies and other baitfish. The cormorants were joined by kelp gulls, and – in smaller numbers – swift terns and Hartlaub’s gulls, Dr Callan Cohen, Director of Birding Africa and Research Associate with the FitzPatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town, explained to us via email.

Cormorants and other ocean predators often target shoals of pelagic fish, forcing them to huddle in spherical formations called "baitballs" as the fish attempt to minimise their exposure to the threat. The safety that comes with numbers is limited, however; and many fish succumb to diving birds or other ocean predators. This sort of predatory onslaught is common on the Cape coast and "has been recorded at Kommetjie and Scarborough, and likely on uninhabited bays too," Callan told us.

According to Dr Ken Hutchings, a marine biologist and environmental consultant who works in the area, the baitfish are most likely anchovies – a species vital to the commercial fisheries and sea birds in the area. "Large flocks of Cape cormorants are often seen feeding in bays, normally a bit further offshore where they fly low over the sea and then crash into the water and dive on shoals of anchovy or other baitfish," he told us via email. "As the commentator [in the video] points out, the cormorants swim under the water pursuing the bait fish, some of which flee to the surface where they may fall prey to gulls and other birds."

Here's another clip from the Cape coast of cormorants feasting on a baitball:


While it's tempting to attribute the remarkable sighting to decreased human activity as a result of South Africa's current nationwide lockdown, experts are quick to dismiss any possible connection. "I don’t think this predation event had anything whatsoever to do with the national lockdown," Hutchings clarifies bluntly, adding that the feeding behaviour is typical of the birds but they are not always able to trap baitfish against the shore in this fashion. Cohen was also confident that the lockdown was not the driving force that led to the frenzied feast. "It's just a lucky event," he pointed out. Birds will follow the fish regardless of the presence of people, he added.

It is, however, possible that events like this are more likely to be witnessed and recorded as homeowners are encouraged to remain behind closed doors. A slew of videos and photos of wildlife "reclaiming" urban and suburban spaces have surfaced online since social distancing regulations have been put in place. Many of these records remain unconfirmed or have proven to be false.

The "birdpocalypse" witnessed in Langebaan is very much real, but it's unlikely that it's linked in any way to the lockdown. Some conservationists have cautioned against getting carried away by notions of wildlife rapidly taking over in the absence of humans. "Effective conservation efforts for many species now [require] intensive intervention, even in protected areas, and this work is not cheap," ecologist David Steen told National Geographic recently. "I suspect that if most people thought all we had to do for species to recover is walk away, they may be less likely to support the work that actually needs to be done to keep them around."

Of course that doesn't mean we can't marvel at the sight of a sky darkened by cormorants. In fact, it seems increasingly important in these uncertain times that we find solace and comfort in the beauty of the natural world. Just as long as we don't become trapped in a misanthropic illusion and forget about the vital work being carried out by conservationists everywhere, even in the face of an unprecedented global threat.


Header image: Olga Ernst