Raptors are the supreme predators of the skies. Adapted for the hunt, they are equipped with sharp vision, large wings, hooked bills, and powerful talons. Birds of prey are generally associated with hunting large vertebrates. However, many non-raptors are also able to take down substantial game. And some raptors hunt smaller prey, including invertebrates. So, what exactly defines a raptor?
What Are Raptors?
The word raptor is Latin for “ravisher” or “plunderer” and comes from the Latin word rapere, meaning “to seize.”
Birds classified as raptors share common ancestry, evolving over millennia from their terrestrial vertebrate-hunting predecessors. Modern-day raptors are defined based on their evolutionary history and the adherence to the carnivorous lifestyle of their ancestors.
Raptors are generally large, heavy birds, although sizes vary significantly between species. The African continent, with its diverse range of environments and vast expanses of wilderness, is home to hundreds of species hunting in the skies above its savannahs, grasslands, deserts, and forests.
Let’s take a look at some of the most spectacular birds of prey in Africa.
Eagles are archetypal birds of prey and heralded symbols of strength, courage, and prestige across many cultures. Among these large, powerful raptors are the true eagles with fully-feathered legs, the fish eagles or sea eagles, the snake eagles, and the giant forest eagles, known as harpy eagles.
Most of the world’s eagle species are native to Africa and Asia, with Africa home to over twenty breeding or resident species.
African Fish Eagle
The African Fish Eagle is one of the most notable African eagles found throughout the continent, south of the Sahara, where its piercing cry has become synonymous with the African bush. It is a large, unmistakable raptor with a white hood, brown body plumage, and powerful black wings—comparable with the American bald eagle.
African fish eagles live near rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. They perch in tall trees near the water, from where they can swoop down on their prey, catching them with barbed feet adapted for grasping slippery fish.
Nicknamed “the leopards of the sky, the martial eagle is a large, opportunistic predator of the open savannah. At nearly three feet, with a wingspan that can reach up to seven feet long, the martial eagle is the largest eagle on the continent. Marshall eagles are bold, aggressive hunters that prey on mammals, reptiles, and birds.
These powerful raptors have vast territories across sub-Saharan Africa. They are heavily persecuted by farmers due to their penchant for livestock and game. The species is endangered due to a sharp decline over the last few decades.
Other booted eagles soaring the African skies include the crowned eagle, Verraux’s eagle, tawny eagle,and African hawk-eagle. Booted eagles, with their leg feathering, are relatively easy to distinguish from the bare-legged snake eagles.
Brown Snake Eagle
Snake eagles specialise in hunting snakes and other reptiles. They have thick skin on their legs and natural physiological defences against snake venom, enabling them to take on some of the most venomous species.
The brown snake eagle is found in the dense woodlands of West, East, and southern Africa. It is a large species and a near-obligate and indiscriminate snake predator. It is named for its dark brown plumage—which may give off a purplish sheen under certain light conditions—with pale underwings and a short, barred tail. Its large head can help distinguish it from other brown eagles.
Brown snake eagles are arguably the largest and most powerful of the snake eagles and are consequently able to take down larger prey. Snakes are often decapitated before being hauled to the nest. They may also take on amphibians, monitor lizards, ground birds, and even mammals.
Another widespread African species is the black-chested snake eagle, which, together with the Beaudouin’s snake eagle of the Sahel and the short-toed snake eagle, form a “superspecies,” meaning they are so closely related that the lines that separate them are unclear.
A close relative of the snake eagles, the Bateleur is named for its acrobatic aerial displays. The French word Bateleur means “street eagle,” and they are among the most majestic creatures in the African sky.
With its ruffly, cowled hood and dramatic plumage coloration, the bateleur looks like a mythical creature of the fantasy genre. Juvenile bateleurs are distinctively different and can take up to eight years to mature and fully develop their adult plumage.
Bateleurs inhabit woodlands and open savannahs and are often seen gliding over its enormous hunting range, scanning the country below for mammals, birds, and reptiles. They also have an aptitude for finding carrion, often discovering a carcass before other scavengers.
Bateleurs are frequently spotted around water bodies, bathing or sunning themselves to regulate their body temperature. Despite their ample range, the species is endangered due to habitat destruction, persecution, and collision with human-made structures.
From folklore to pop culture, owls have fascinated humans for centuries. These peculiar birds of prey belong to the order Strigiformes, comprising over 200 species.
There are two families of owls: the true owls of the Strigidae family and the barn and bay owls of the Tytonidae family. Africa is home to eleven known genera and around fifty species.
Giant Eagle Owl
The Verreaux’s eagle owl, also known as the giant eagle owl, is the largest African owl, reaching up to twenty-six inches (just over two feet), with a four-foot-seven wingspan.
Despite its wide range across most of sub-Saharan Africa, this large, powerful raptor is rarely encountered. Giant eagle owls require vast territories and occur at low densities. They are highly opportunistic predators often persecuted by farmers.
Other threats include pesticide poisoning, collision with powerlines and other infrastructure, and habitat destruction.
The giant eagle owl belongs to the Ketupa genus, closely related to the fishing owls.
Pel’s Fishing Owl
Also among the largest African owls, Pel’s fishing owl is found across a vast expanse of the continent south of the Sahara. It is a robust, heavy species, measuring up to two feet tall, with a five-foot wingspan, weighing around five pounds. It has rufous plumage with barred upperparts and often scalloped underparts.
Named for their dietary staple, Pel’s fishing owls also prey on other aquatic animals such frogs, crabs, and water insects.
African Scops Owl
At the opposite end of the spectrum at six inches long, the African scops owl is one of the smallest owls on the continent. Scops owls are small owls that make up the largest genus, with 59 species only found in Africa and Asia. They are compact, agile, and perfectly camouflaged.
The African scops owl is found in woodlands, forests, mangroves, and gardens. Like its Eurasian counterpart, it has well-camouflaged plumage, allowing it to blend in with the barks of trees.
This tiny raptor is superseded by the red-chested owlet for the title of smallest owl in Africa. It belongs to the Glaucidium genus, known as pygmy owls or owlets, and inhabits tropical rainforests.
The pearl-spotted owlet is the most widespread species of pygmy owl. It is found across sub-Saharan Africa and is named for its pearl-white spots. Its distinctive call is composed of a series of loud, shrill, whistling notes that can be heard day and night.
While they typically hunt at night, pearl-spotted owlets are fairly active during the day, hunting opportunistically. They are often mobbed by flocks of small birds. Another partly diurnal species, subject to mobbing is the African barred owlet, often spotted on an open perch, scanning its habitat for prey.
African Wood Owl
Wood owls are robust, powerful raptors of the forest. They are highly nocturnal and prey on small mammals, reptiles, and birds. Wood owls can be easily distinguished from eagle owls by their rounded heads, lack of ear tufts, and distinctive hooting.
The African wood owl is found across sub-Saharan Africa. It has rich brown plumage with pale underparts, dark sunken eyes, and white brows. Pairs can be heard calling in duet at night.
Western Barn Owl
Barn owls belong to the genus Tyto and are likely the most widely known and easily recognizable owls. Despite being incredibly useful animals, they are heavily persecuted due to their unique appearance and eerie screech fuelling myth and folklore.
The western barn owl is the most widespread species, with a cosmopolitan range that includes Europe, parts of Asia, and most of Africa.
Barn owls are named for their tendency to nest in barns, sheds, and other human-made structures. While they are nocturnal, they are often spotted during the day, flying between roosts.
Hawks are among the most intelligent birds. They are rapacious predators with magnified vision, sharp talons, and strong bills.
Hawks belong to the Accipitrinae family, with some geographic variance of designation. In the Americas, birds of the Buteo genus are included among the hawks, while in Africa and other parts of the world, they are known as buzzards.
Accipitrine hawks, also known as true hawks, generally live in wooded habitats and prey on other birds, as well as reptiles, fish, and rodents. Among the true hawks of Africa are the harrier hawks, goshawks, sparrowhawks, and shikras.
Also known as a gymnogene, the African harrier hawk is a distinctive bird of prey with slate-grey plumage, save for its barred, white belly and black-fringed wing tips. It has red or yellow bare facial skin and a black tail with a broad white band visible in flight. Gymnogenes have double-jointed ankles, enabling them to reach into inaccessible holes, cracks, and crevices in pursuit of their prey.
They are adaptable raptors that can thrive in a variety of habitat types across sub-Saharan Africa but are most densely populated in tropical West Africa.
African harrier hawks hunt small vertebrates. They also eat the fruit of the oil palm and raid the nests of other birds, employing their ability to climb using their feet and wings.
At twenty inches long with a three-foot wingspan, the black sparrowhawk is the largest true hawk in Africa and the second largest in the world. It is found in wooded habitats across the continent south of the Sahara, including urban and suburban areas.
Black sparrowhawks typically have black plumage with a white throat, breast, and belly. A rare, black morph can be found in the coastal regions of South Africa. Black sparrowhawks prey on medium-sized birds. They thrive in human-altered environments, where they take advantage of the high numbers of doves and pigeons.
In the early mornings, this raptor can be heard calling while soaring high above the canopy in a flight display. Its clicking call sounds somewhat like two stones knocking together.
African goshawks inhabit dense woodlands and forests. They can also be found in plantations, parks, and gardens, where they prey on medium-sized birds as well as small mammals, reptiles, and occasionally invertebrates. The African goshawk is a large raptor with brown and gray plumage and paler, barred underparts.
Among the smallest raptors, kites are named for their characteristic forked tails and long wings. They have small bills and talons and are usually seen soaring across the sky.
A medium-sized raptor of the Afrotropics, the yellow-billed kite is often compared to the black kite, which is arguably the world’s most abundant Accipiter bird of prey.
Adult yellow-billed kites can be easily distinguished by their all-yellow bill, but younger birds are often mistaken for black kites. Both species occupy a similar range across Africa, but black kites have a global range that includes Eurasia and Oceania.
Yellow-billed kites are flexible raptors that occupy a wide range of habitats and feed on a variety of vertebrates and insects, much of which are scavenged.
Also known as the black-shouldered kite, this diurnal raptor is often spotted hovering over open grasslands. It is an attractive bird with mostly velvety white or pale grey plumage, long falcon-like wings, and an owlish face. It has black eye stripes, wing tips, and shoulder patches for which it is named.
Much like owls, black-winged kites have zygodactyl feet and prey on rodents, as well as lizards and large insects. They inhabit savannahs, open fields, and semi-deserts in sub-Saharan Africa, but their range includes tropical Asia and parts of Western Europe.
Other species include the widespread bat hawk and the scissor-tailed kite of the northern tropics.
Vultures are large, scavenging raptors adapted to feeding on carrion. Most species are either bald or semi-bald, with small heads and large bodies. They have powerful, sharp bills that curve at the end, with which they can crush bones. Vultures have a characteristic hunched demeanour and a somewhat menacing appearance.
But despite their pop culture portrayal as the “bad guys,” vultures are highly valuable species that play an important role in the ecosystem. These scavengers are specially adapted for feeding on carrion, effectively removing pathogens from the environment. With their powerful bills, they tear open carcasses and break bones, which also allows smaller scavengers to feed on the kill.
Vultures of Africa, like their Eurasian counterparts, are known as Old World vultures and are distinctly different from their cousins in the Americas, i.e., the New World.
Also known as the Cape griffon, this large vulture is always a welcome safari sighting. Circling vultures often lead to a nearby kill, where other carnivores and scavengers can be seen. The Cape vulture has dirty-white plumage with a brown tail and flight feathers.
Its head and neck are near-featherless, allowing it to stay clean while feeding—and it has a large, powerful grey-black bill. Its hooded, yellow eyes give it a rather serious facial expression.
Cape vultures inhabit savannah, grasslands, and shrublands. Unfortunately, the Cape Vulture is often a victim of persecution. Populations are in sharp decline due to inadvertent poisoning, collision with powerlines, habitat loss, and unsustainable harvesting.
Also known as the Nubian vulture, the lappet-faced vulture is among the largest vultures in its range, which includes parts of the Middle East. It measures up to forty-five inches in length with a nine-foot wingspan.
Lappet-faced vultures are named for the bare skin fold on their heads. Their dark, black-brown upper plumage contrasts against their cream-white undersides and thighs. The species is endangered due to habitat destruction, pesticide poisoning, and persecution, among other human-induced threats.
Another massive species is the bearded vulture, also known as the lammergeier. Its closest relative is the Egyptian vulture, and unlike other Old-World vultures, it has a fully feathered head and neck and a lozenge-shaped tail, which is unusual among raptors.
The lammergeier has grey-black upperparts and pale-brown underparts. Black bands extend from the eyes into bristles at the chin, giving the species its English name.
Like other vultures, the bearded vulture is at risk due to persecution, poisoning, and other anthropogenic impacts. There are eleven species of vultures in Africa, including the white-backed vulture, the hooded vulture, the palm-nut vulture, and the white-headed vulture.
Falcons are medium-sized raptors with long, sickle-shaped wings. They are known for their high speeds, intelligence, and use in the sport of falconry.
Capable of reaching speeds of over 200 miles per hour, the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal in the world. They reach their highest speeds during their iconic hunting dives as they soar to great heights, then swoop down at high speeds in pursuit of their prey, which is typically small to medium-sized birds.
Travelling at such high velocities could damage the lungs of a bird, but these agile raptors are built for speed. Tiny tubercles direct pressurised air away from their nostrils, enabling them to breathe easily while diving. Nictating membranes serve as goggles, lubricating the eyes and protecting them from debris as they plunge through the air.
Peregrine falcons are cosmopolitan raptors found on every continent except Antarctica. Their breeding range spans Africa, Australia, and parts of Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
Other species include the lanner falcon, the Taita falcon, the African hobby, and various species of kestrels, such as the rock kestrel, greater kestrel, and fox kestrel.
Seriemas and Secretarybirds
Although they belong to separate families, seriemas and secretarybirds are similar in appearance and occupy the same ecological niche within their respective ranges. The seriema is only found in South America, while the secretary bird is native to sub-Saharan Africa.
A large, distinctive raptor with an eagle-like face, crane-like legs, and a dramatic erectile crest, the secretarybird resembles a blend of several different species. It is a tall, slender bird with a conspicuous crest of long, black quills—a characteristic for which it may have been named. Its plumage is mostly grey and white, with inky-black thighs and flight feathers.
The secretarybird has a feminine face with bare, orange-red skin, large brown eyes, and long lustrous lashes. In flight, a pair of long, spatulate tail plumes trail at the end of its tail.
Secretarybirds inhabit grasslands and savannahs, where they prey on small vertebrates, such as frogs, lizards, rodents, and even birds. Unlike most raptors, they primarily hunt on the ground, stalking their prey on foot.
They are known for their penchant for snakes and their ability to take on highly venomous species. The secretarybird is an endangered species threatened by habitat destruction, human disturbance, hunting, and illegal capture.
The African continent is a land rich in many things, including its many birds of prey. From the Sahara Desert to the Cape Floral Kingdom, from the Great Plains to the rainforests, the diversity of habitats supports a plethora of species. Many African raptors fall victim to human-wildlife conflict and continue to be persecuted.
Yet predatory birds play several vital ecological roles, including controlling the pest populations and introduced species and preventing the spread of disease in the case of carrion feeders. Conservation efforts to protect species need to include awareness raising in order to dispel myths and raise the profiles of these spectacular species.