Remarkable Raptor

Reportedly at least three African Harrier Hawks (Polyboroides typus – previously called Gymnogenes) have recently been shot in the Greater Hermanus urban area. Why would anyone perpetrate such senseless killings?

I can only hope that it was through ignorance of the hunting habits of these birds and not through malicious bloodlust.

Let me state it very clearly. African Harrier Hawks do not hunt cats or dogs!

Photo: Wikipedia


This bird, called a “kaalwangvalk” in Afrikaans (which translates to “bare-cheeked hawk” – also the meaning of the Greek-derived previous name – is a large bird of prey found throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. African Harrier Hawks are adapted to various habitats, but prefer forest, woodland or savannahs – and they are found increasingly in urban environments as humans invade their natural habitats.

It grows to a length of 60-66 cm and can achieve a wingspan up to 160 cm. It is an unmistakable bird with its all-grey appearance, yellow to orange face and beak, and long yellow legs. Upperparts are a uniform grey, while the underparts are all white with very fine black barring, giving it a grey appearance from a distance. This white and black barring stretches on to the underwing coverts. Flight feathers are grey with a broad black line edging the wings. A fine white line separates the grey and black. The tail is all black with a single broad white band. Its markings make it very easy to identify in flight.

Photo: William Scrooby

Another distinguishing feature is the bright yellow skin on its bald face.

When a male is excited (either by challenge from another male, or by the sight of a comely female) the skin turns bright red. The head of the bird seems too small for the size of its body – no doubt to better stick its beak into holes where prey may lurk.

How privileged most of us feel if we are lucky enough to observe these magnificent birds creeping about in our treed gardens.

Photo: Johburg Wildlife Hospital


African Harrier Hawks are known for their remarkable way of hunting which is different to other raptors. Their ability to climb, using wings as well as feet, and their long double-jointed legs, enable the birds to raid the nests of cavity-nesters such as barbets, palm swifts and wood hoopoes for fledglings. In South Africa it seems to specialise in robbing weaver nests.

It has also been known to prey on introduced species such as feral pigeons, House Sparrows and Eastern Grey Squirrels, as well as to feed on frogs, reptiles and insects.


The double-jointed legs of the African Harrier Hawk are in fact distinctive to the species; they enable them to hunt weaver birds out of nests or lizards out from nooks and crevices. They actively hunt prey by climbing around in trees. It is not uncommon to see African Harrier Hawks hanging from branches or tree trunks, sometimes upside-down, as they search for prey. They can often be seen to jump from branch to branch or run along larger branches, with wings flapping to keep their balance. The tip of the curved beak, in contrasting black, is well adapted to snare its prey.

African Harrier Hawks are usually monogamous, but the occasional threesome has been observed. They make a large nest of sticks and twigs and the female lays one to three eggs, which are incubated by both parents. If all eggs successfully hatch, the oldest chick may kill the youngest.

The chances of your cat or dog being taken by an African Harrier Hawk are vanishingly small. They are in much more danger from vehicles. The reported senseless persecution of this harmless (unless you are a chick) bird reminds me of a radio show many moons ago, before television hit our screens. The punchline for each episode was “Don’t mess with things you know nothing about.”