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With over 1080 species of Uganda birds, the Uganda birding safaris and tours go beyond the ordinary. Among these species of Uganda birds, there is the rare and eye-catching Shelley’s Crimsonwing.

Shelley’s Crimsonwing is scientifically known as the Cryptospiza Shelleyi and it belongs to the Estrildidae family of finch species.

It is one of the rarest finches in Africa, with an estimated population of about 1,000-2,500 individuals in the wild, which makes for a treasured sight on a Uganda safari.

This bird is endemic to the Albertine Rift, inhabiting a strip of densely forested mountains and volcanoes that borders Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The volcanoes are also home to the rare Mountain gorillas that can be encountered on Uganda gorilla safaris, Rwanda gorilla safaris, and Congo gorilla safaris.

To date, very few known photographs of this elusive finch exist in the world.

How Does Shelley’s Crimsonwing look like?

Photo – From Africa Geographic

Shelley’s Crimsonwing is a brightly coloured finch found at low levels. It is approximately 13 centimeters/5.1 inches long.

The male Cryptospiza Shelleyi has a bright red crown, face, and back, with contrasting black wings and tail, as well as olive-yellow underparts with warmer tones on the flanks and belly.

The Female is drabber with an olive head and some red on the mantle and rump and a black bill with a dark red tip. Both sexes have bright red bills. These unique features make it very fascinating to view on the birding safaris in Uganda and Rwanda.

Voice of the Shelley’s Crimsonwing

The voice of Cryptospiza Shelleyi is sharp and high-pitched with tit tit tit call. Rising and falling series of high-pitched tu tutu ti ti ti.

Habitat & Diet of the Shelly’s Crimsonwing

In the Albertine Rift, the rare and endemic Shelly’s Crimsonwing thrives in closed-canopy moist forests, close to water valley bottoms, with low secondary growth at the edges of forests, glades, and forest clearings marked by extensive herbs, moorland, and Bamboo thickets, between 1600 and 3000 meters of elevation.

It forages on the ground for seeds and associates with other Crimsonwings. It is shy, elusive, seldom seen, when flushed flies rapidly for a short distance and dives for cover, and does not reappear.

Where to See the Shelley’s Crimsonwing in Uganda?

The birders on Uganda safaris can explore Shelley’s Crimsonwing in the mountains of the Albertine rift valley including the Rwenzori Mountains (the Rwenzori Mountains National Park).

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to the southwest of Uganda is also known to shelter this species presenting an opportunity for the world travelers on Uganda gorilla safaris and tours to as well engage in birding, especially in the eastern sector of Ruhija.

This species also stretch to other famous parts of the Albertine Rift mountains, including:-

  • Virunga Mountains, which include the South Western part of Uganda which covers the Mgahinga Gorilla National park, the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo covering the Virunga National park, and the North-Western part of Rwanda which covers the Volcanoes National park.
  • Kahuzi Biega Mountain and Itombwe Mountain as explored on Congo Safaris and tours 
  • Nyungwe Forest National Park and Gishwati Mukura National Park as explored on Safaris in Rwanda.

The population of Shelly’s Crimsonwing

Shelly’s Crimsonwing population is currently decreasing.

Its population size had previously been estimated to be in the range of 2,500-4,999 mature individuals, but given the decline in reporting rate and a lack of recent sightings, this is now likely to be an overestimate.

Therefore, the population size in 2016 was precautionarily suspected to fall in the range of 1,000-2,500 mature individuals with no subpopulation containing more than 250 mature individuals.

Conservation Status of Shelley’s Crimsonwing

Regarding conservation, the Cryptospiza Shelleyi is listed as Endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation Nature) red list. It has most recently been assessed for The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2017.

Here are IUCN’s previous red list assessments:-

  • 2016 — Vulnerable (VU)
  • 2012 — Vulnerable (VU)
  • 2008 — Vulnerable (VU)
  • 2004 — Vulnerable (VU)
  • 2000 — Vulnerable (VU)
  • 1996 — Vulnerable (VU)
  • 1994 — Vulnerable (VU)
  • 1988 — Near Threatened (NT)

Threats to the Shelley’s Crimsonwing

The population of Shelley’s Crimsonwing is affected by increasing habitat loss due to:-

  • Deforestation and degradation of forests as people attempt to secure more land for agriculture
  • Timber extraction
  • Mining and quarrying

Conservation Actions Underway

Cryptospiza Shelleyi occurs in protected areas in part of its range, including the Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, the Virunga National Park in the DRC, and Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda.

Between 2009 and 2010, a research project on crimson wings, including this species. Further planned fieldwork in Bwindi, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Rwenzori Mountains National Park has not taken place due to a lack of funding.


Only a few people have ever seen Shelley’s Crimsonwing in the montane forests of the Albertine Rift Valley.

Although scientifically described more than 100 years ago, what we know about this bird is minimal, to say the least. Almost nothing is known about its natural behavior, diet, and breeding ecology.

While it probably never was a very common bird, there is some evidence that the population has dramatically decreased since the 1970s; possibly because of ongoing habitat destruction, but the reasons are unclear and require further investigation.

In 2005, the Rare Finch Conservation Group (RFCG) adopted Shelley’s Crimsonwing as the rarest African finch to champion conservation actions and raise awareness for Shelley’s Crimsonwing. At that time, not a single photo of a live Shelley’s Crimsonwing was known to the RFCG.

So, on your Uganda birding tours, you have a great chance to make yours one of the first as scientists begin to discover the secrets of this mysterious little bird.

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