Birding From Home – The Eccentric African Harrier-Hawk

With everyone stuck indoors due to the coronavirus, many people who enjoy birding, wildlife viewing and exploring the natural world are feeling a bit frustrated. Birding from home (or near home) is one of the best ways to stay connected to nature as you maintain social distancing.

If your home area does not have any good birding spots, enjoy this new Birding From Home series instead. Every Sunday, I will share some interesting and unusual facts about birds to brighten up your day as you self-isolate.

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Today’s post is about one of my favourist sub-urban raptors: the African Harrier-hawk Polyboroides typus.

The African Harrier-hawk (or Gymnogene) is a very unique raptor that is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. You can see them in all sorts of forests and woodlands as well as gardens, estates, villages and towns that have some decent tree cover and small animals that they can eat.

Supreme flexibility (with no yoga!)

One feature that sets this raptor apart among the birds of Africa is that it has double-jointed legs. Meaning its legs can bend in both directions! This gives it great flexibility and allows it to pull prey from holes, tree cavities, crevices, enclosed nests and other tight spots that are inaccessible to other raptors. Look out for this entertaining behaviour next time you see a harrier-hawk!

Lizards, birds’ chicks, rodents, small snakes, beetles and other critters that like to hide in nukes and crannies are all on the menu as far as harrier-hawks are concerned.

Only two other raptors worldwide have this unusual feature: the Madagascar Harrier-hawk Polyboroides radiatus,endemic to Madagascar, and the Crane Hawk Geranospiza caerulescens of Central and South America. Both are ecological equivalents of the African Harrier-hawk.

African Harrier Hawk on the hunt

Looks can be deceiving

The two harrier-hawks are close relatives and share the same genus (Polyboroides). The Crane Hawk though is not closely related to them. Yet this American species is so similar in the way it hunts and the role it plays in its environment that it even looks like them, to some extent. It’s a great example of convergent evolution.

Another good example of this phenomenon is the comparison between the Old World Vultures of Africa, Europe and Asia, and the New World Vultures of the Americas. They are not even remotely related to each other, but yet have evolved to look quite similar since they both live similar lifestyles.

Unexpected close relations

Some recent phylogenetic research indicates that harrier-hawks are in fact most closely related to the Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus, Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus and Palm-nut Vulture Gypohierax angolensis (source: African Raptors). You’d have thought their closest relatives are either harriers or hawks! Interestingly, some African Harrier-hawks also eat palm nuts in their diet, just like Palm-nut Vultures!

African Harrier-Hawk walking along a sand bank where it was trying to raid Little Bee-eater Merops pusillus nests.

If you liked this article, please share it with anyone who you think will also enjoy it. Let’s help keep each other sane in these insane times. 😉

Also feel free to check out the Ndege Wetu series to learn more about the birds of Kenya. And please consider submitting your records of birds from Kenya to the Kenya Bird Map project.

A few good resources for more on Africa’s amazing raptors:

  1. African Raptors – William Clark and Rob Davies. 2018
  2. Field Identification of Raptors of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East – Dick Forsman. 2016
  3. The Birds of Africa, Volume I – Leslie Brown, Emil Urban and Kenneth Newman. 1982

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About Sidney Shema

Sidney is a Kenya-based ornithologist and photographer specializing in the birds of Africa, with an especially keen interest in the birds of prey (raptors) of Kenya.
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