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All 12 Falcons and Kestrels in South Africa

falcons and kestrels in south africa
Rock Kestrel in South Africa: Photo by Regard Van Dyk

Introduction

South Africa’s avian diversity cannot be missed out on! Among the hundreds of bird species found in the continent’s southern-most country are a dozen birds in the family Falconidae. The falcons and kestrels in South Africa vary from the diminutive Pygmy Falcon, one of the planet’s smallest raptors, to the world’s fastest, the Peregrine Falcon. In this guide, we’ll go over all twelve falcon and kestrel species that occur in South Africa. Let’s dive in!

Falcons and Kestrels in South Africa

Jump to a species!

Pygmy Falcon (Polihierax semitorquatus)

  • Features: The Pygmy Falcon is a cute, small falconet, reminiscent of a shrike, with white markings on its wings and tail. Females have a chestnut back throughout their lives, while males show a greyish color. In adulthood, their irises are a deep brown, with reddish-orange to red cere and orbital rings, and pinkish-red to red feet. Juveniles resemble adults of their respective sexes, with greyish upper feathers edged in rufous, buff-washed and faintly streaked underparts, and paler orbital rings and feet. There are no discernible consistent color or size distinctions among distinct populations.
  • Behavior: Primarily preying on small lizards like agamas and skinks, as well as sizable insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, and termites, this species also occasionally targets rodents, birds, and other arthropods. It typically ambushes its prey from a perch and captures most items from the ground, seldom engaging in brief aerial pursuits. There are instances where it captures the host weavers or seizes their nestlings. Reports suggest it engages in polyandrous mating behavior and may occasionally receive assistance at the nest from offspring of the resident pair’s previous brood.
  • Habitat: These adorable raptors are found in arid and semi-arid environments characterized by thornbrush, scrub, savanna, and steppe, often with sparse ground cover and occasional large trees or tree-like Aloe plants, such as Euphorbias. This species depends on weaver nests for both roosting and nesting sites, particularly favoring those constructed by Sociable Weavers in Southern Africa. It’s common to observe pairs or families roosting together within the same weaver nest chamber or in an adjacent one. On occasion, it also utilizes nests built by sparrow-weavers (Plocepasser) and certain species of starlings.
  • Range: These birds are uncommon in South Africa. They are best found in the savanna biome in north-central South Africa.

Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni)

  • Features: Unspotted on the upper parts; greater upperwing-coverts are blue-grey. The underparts have fewer spots compared to the Common Kestrel (F. tinnunculus). Females are very similar to those of F. tinnunculus, but slightly smaller, with white claws instead of black. The central two tail feathers protrude slightly. Juveniles are almost identical to females.
  • Behavior: Feeds on a variety of insects and other invertebrates like centipedes and sun spiders. In winter, it consumes large quantities of flying termites and flying ants when available. It hunts by flying low and stooping on prey either in the air or on the ground, often facing into the wind and hovering briefly. It also hunts from perches or on the ground. Some crepuscular hunting (hunting at dusk) occurs in its South African wintering grounds. This bird may hunt in groups, and in Africa, large gatherings can form to follow swarming insects. It takes advantage of prey disturbed by grass or scrub fires or by tractors turning the soil but prefers to forage in unploughed fallow land.
  • Habitat: Prefers open areas in hot, dry climates with sparse or low vegetation, such as steppes, pastures, semi-deserts, and extensive cultivated lands. It is also found in and around towns. In Africa, it primarily winters in sweet grasslands in highland regions.
  • Range: Present during the southern African summer months, largely between November and March, with some stragglers. During this season, Lesser Kestrels can be found all over the country.

Rock Kestrel (Falco rupicolis)

  • Features: The head and tail are grey with a black band near the tail’s tip. The outer half of the upper wing is dark, while the rest of the upper wing and back are chestnut with black spots. The pale underparts are also spotted, especially on the breast and underwing coverts. Females are generally more uniformly colored, more heavily spotted, lack grey areas, and have barred tails. Juveniles are very similar to females but have broader streaks below and paler cere, legs, and feet. Different races vary in color, marking density, tail patterns, and size. African forms are generally darker and more rufous, while tropical and South African races show less difference between sexes.
  • Behavior: Primarily feeds on small mammals but occasionally eats carrion. In Africa, insects, especially beetles, locusts, termite alates, and solifugids, can be a significant part of its diet, along with some lizards. It typically hunts from low flights or perches, carefully watching the ground, and often hovers to spot small mammals and other prey. Contrary to common belief, it uses its bill to damage the central nervous system of rodent prey to reduce movement rather than kill them outright. The killing occurs by suffocation as it squeezes the prey with its feet.
  • Habitat: Adaptable to a wide range of open or moderately wooded areas, usually with grass or low shrubs. Found in grasslands, steppes, subdeserts, moorlands, cultivated lands, and wetlands with light vegetation. Also seen in villages, towns, and cities, especially on the outskirts and in lightly built-up areas. It lives from coastal regions to high-altitude pastures. It needs suitable perching and roosting sites such as trees, telegraph poles, buildings, and rock faces.
  • Range: Rock Kestrels are probably the most common falconid species in South Africa, being found all over the country year-round.

Greater Kestrel (Falco rupicoloides)

  • Features: The only kestrel with a pale cream eye in adulthood, this species has barred flanks and upperparts, a grey rump, and a tail with dark bands and a white tip. It resembles the female Lesser Kestrel but is larger and heavier, with a more uniform coloration and shorter tail compared to Common Kestrels (F. tinnunculus). Males and females look alike, though females are slightly larger. Juveniles have a rufous rump and tail with narrower bars, streaked flanks, dark brown eyes, and blue-white cere.
  • Behavior: Mainly feeds on arthropods like grasshoppers, termites, beetles, and solifugids, but also eats ants, centipedes, scorpions, spiders, and earthworms. It also hunts small vertebrates, including birds (especially open-country passerines, nightjars, and francolins), lizards, small mammals (rodents and shrews), and occasionally snakes and amphibians. During the breeding season, females and young are primarily fed lizards and some insects. It hunts from a perch or while hovering 10-50 meters above the ground. During breeding, males target larger prey, especially birds, while females increasingly hunt for arthropods. Attracted to fires to catch orthopterans and occasionally engages in fast aerial pursuits of flying birds and insects.
  • Habitat: Inhabits open desert, steppe, subdesert scrub, and short grasslands with scattered trees. It needs a few scattered trees and bushes for roosting and nesting sites.
  • Range: Not as common as the Rock Kestrel, but the nominate form can be found in all of South Africa except the southeast fairly regularly.

Dickinson’s Kestrel (Falco dickinsoni)

  • Features: A robust falcon with a somewhat flat crown, large eyes, and relatively large feet. It features a whitish-grey head finely streaked with black, a paler rump, and narrow bars across its pale grey tail. While most birds have a lighter underside, some display stronger brown tones. There’s individual variation in grey color intensity, possibly including dark and light morphs. Its bill is less heavy and not uniformly colored like Sooty Falcon (F. concolor). It flies with rapid, choppy wingbeats and sometimes perches clinging parrot-like to trees upon landing. Females are typically larger than males. Bare parts include brown eyes, a yellow cere, orbital ring, and legs.
  • Behavior: Primarily preys on small birds, lizards, chameleons, insects, small snakes, rodents, frogs, solifugids, and occasionally crabs. It also targets bats, either at dusk or at their roosts, with some individuals specializing in hunting bats. Hunting mainly from a perch or on the ground, it occasionally engages in fast aerial chases of birds or hawks insects while hovering. It is attracted to bush and cane fires, where it preys on small birds like cisticolas, Lesser Swamp-warblers, small rodents, and insects flushed or confused by the smoke, sometimes catching them in mid-air.
  • Habitat: Found in wooded savannas or clusters of palm trees, among baobabs, or even in coconut plantations. These habitats are typically adjacent to patches of open grassland, scrub, swamp, or floodplain.
  • Range: These birds are more typical from Zimbabwe to central Tanzania, but there are very irregular records from the northeast corner of South Africa, scattered across the year.

Red-necked Falcon (Falco chicquera)

  • Features: A small falcon with a chestnut crown and nape, white cheeks and throat, a small dark stripe under its beak, bluish-grey upperparts with black bars, and a rufous-buff wash on the upper breast. Its lower breast and belly are white with dense black bars, and its tail is bluish-grey with black bars, a broad black bar near the end, and a white tip. The female looks similar to the male but is larger and heavier. It has dark brown eyes, bright yellow cere, orbital ring, and legs. The smaller nominate race has stronger black bars and is slightly darker overall than the larger horsbrughi race.
  • Behavior: It primarily preys on small birds such as parrots, bee-eaters, doves, swallows, larks, pipits, sparrows, weavers, and estrildid finches, occasionally targeting birds as large as crakes and quails, with most caught while flying. This falcon hunts with swift, deep wingbeats, typically initiating its pursuit from a perch within cover or close to the ground in open areas. It captures prey after aerial pursuits, rapid dashes behind cover, or high circling flights. Often seen hunting in pairs and sometimes alongside Gabar Goshawks, usually following the latter. It targets prey at waterholes, beaches, and other areas where small birds gather.
  • Habitat: Most commonly found in habitats with abundant palms, it also inhabits tallgrass savannas along rivers, floodplains, coastal plains, and dune-covered or arid areas with large acacias. It tends to stay near water bodies even in drier regions.
  • Range: In northern South Africa, the subspecies horsbrughi is found on rare occasion.

Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus)

  • Features: Adults in their definitive basic plumage exhibit sexual dimorphism. The adult male is primarily slate gray, while the adult female is light brown with gray-barred wings. Juveniles resemble adult females but have lighter brown body plumage and barred underwing coverts. When perched, the wingtips barely extend beyond the tail tip. Their flight is graceful and agile.
  • Behavior: Most active during dawn and dusk, it hunts with low flights, frequently over rivers, capturing insects. It employs hovering flight to detect prey on the ground and often swoops down on insects from posts or wires. Occasionally, it runs or hops along the ground in pursuit of prey.
  • Habitat: During African winters, it resides in grasslands, savannas, and scrublands, often roosting in colonies. These colonies can be found in groves of eucalyptus trees as well as in towns or villages, where thousands of birds may gather together.
  • Range: Red-footed Falcons can be found irregularly across the country, but most frequently in the northeast.

Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis)

  • Features: The male resembles a Red-footed Falcon but has white axillaries and underwing coverts. The female is quite different, with a grey crown and nape, a larger blackish mustache, and whitish underparts densely spotted with black. Juveniles are similar to females but have paler heads and necks, with rufous-edged upperwing coverts and backs.
  • Behavior: In African winters, it primarily eats swarming termites and ants, especially during tropical rainstorms, but also consumes locusts and grasshoppers. They hunt from tree perches or power cables, capturing prey in the air or on the ground, sometimes using hovering flight. Hunting mostly occurs in the early morning and late evening, and they often form flocks outside the breeding season.
  • Habitat: Prefers open wooded areas, sometimes near marshy regions, as well as coniferous and deciduous woodland edges. It avoids treeless steppes and dense forests. In winter, it is found in savannas and grasslands, roosting in colonies within clumps of trees. These roosts can be traditional sites, used by hundreds to thousands of birds.
  • Range: Being migratory raptors, Amur Falcons are found in eastern and central South Africa largely from December to March.

Sooty Falcon (Falco concolor)

  • Features: The Sooty Falcon is a medium-sized, all-grey bird of prey. Females show less contrast between their primaries and wing-coverts and have a more blue-grey rump and uppertail-coverts compared to males. Their tail is darker than their body plumage, and they have lemon-yellow ceres, orbital rings, and legs (which are orange-yellow in males).
  • Behavior: Hunts alone or in pairs, and in winter, may hunt in small groups, sometimes alongside other small falcons. Primarily captures birds in the air, either by stooping in flight or from a prominent perch. It also flies low to flush out prey and, in winter, catches non-flying insects from perches. Most active at dawn and dusk, posing the greatest risk to nocturnal passerine migrants.
  • Habitat: Breeds in rugged or mountainous desert areas with canyons, cliffs, or crags; hot, arid zones with little vegetation, and also small coral islands, from sea level to about 800 m. In winter, inhabits wetter areas like open woodlands, savannas, woodland edges, marshes, and paddy fields, often near water. Roosts in trees and is sometimes seen flying above the forest canopy.
  • Range: Sooty Falcons are pretty unusual raptors anywhere, including South Africa. With maybe a couple hundred records (if that) in the country, Sooty Falcons are “best” seen along the eastern coast.

Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

  • Features: Red thighs and undertail coverts; pale throat and cheeks contrast with densely streaked whitish or buff underparts. Females are slightly larger. Juveniles are browner with pale feather edges above, buff undertail coverts and thighs, and a pale crown. In winter, adult Eurasian Hobbies could be mistaken for African Hobbies (F. cuvierii) in Africa. However, African Hobbies are generally smaller, have extensively rich rufous underparts with less heavy streaking in adult plumage, and lack the contrasting white on the throat and neck.
  • Behavior: During its winter stay in Africa, it primarily feeds on flying insects, especially swarming alate termites, and also targets birds. It captures its prey mainly while airborne, utilizing its fast and acrobatic flight to catch agile birds. However, for certain species an Eurasian Hobby is more successful at catching juveniles, and its pursuit technique varies based on the maturity of its prey. It’s particularly active at dawn and dusk, often visiting colonies or roosts of prey species, including those in urban and suburban areas. It also follows fires or farm vehicles that flush out prey. Unlike some raptors, it benefits from rain showers as they weaken faster-flying prey like swifts, making them easier to catch.
  • Habitat: During winter, it is primarily found in woodlands, particularly those dominated by Brachystegia, as well as in savannas. It is also occasionally encountered in suburban areas.
  • Range: The nominate form of this species is an uncommon winter visitor in South Africa, most common in the northeast, near Mozambique.

Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus)

  • Features: A moderately large falcon with bluish-grey or brownish-grey upperparts and pale underparts ranging from mostly unmarked whitish to whitish with a pink or buffy wash. Typically, there are fine dark spots on the breast and belly, and dark bars and spots on the flanks and thighs. The forehead is pale, the forecrown is dark greyish-blue, and the crown and nape are rufous to light buff. The tail typically bears 8–12 narrow dark bars. Females are often darker and larger than males.
  • Behavior: It primarily preys on small birds, especially quails and doves, supplemented by rodents, bats, lizards, insects, and, in desert environments, spiders and scorpions. It hunts primarily by swiftly chasing its prey in the air, often around waterholes, and sometimes cooperatively with a partner. It also leisurely catches flying termites and pounces on terrestrial prey from a perch or raids bird nests. It stores excess prey. Sometimes, up to 20 birds may gather where prey is abundant. It learns to exploit human hunters by following them, and it occasionally steals prey from other raptors. It also scavenges carrion and is often active during dusk and possibly at night.
  • Habitat: It varies greatly, from dry, flat, open deserts to wet, often forested mountains reaching elevations of up to 5000 meters. Typically, it is found near open or lightly wooded hunting areas and often near cliffs or rocky gorges. It shares habitats with Peregrine Falcons in most areas except the driest regions.
  • Range: The nominate form is fairly common year-round across all of South Africa.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

  • Features: The Peregrine Falcon is a medium to large bird of prey with a bluish-gray to dark gray back and wings, and a lighter underside. It has a blackish head with distinct black markings around the eyes, including a “mustache” mark. Its wings are long and pointed, and its tail is relatively short. In flight, it displays rapid and direct wingbeats.
  • Behavior: Peregrine falcons are known for their agile and swift hunting behavior. They often hunt by flying at high speeds and stooping down on their prey from above. This allows them to catch birds and other small animals in mid-air. They are also known to hunt from perches or by chasing their prey horizontally. Peregrine falcons are territorial birds and will fiercely defend their nesting sites. They are typically active during the day and may hunt alone or in pairs. Additionally, they are known for their incredible diving speeds, which can exceed 240 miles per hour (386 kilometers per hour) when they are in pursuit of prey!
  • Habitat: Because of Peregrine Falcons’ vast range in both breeding and non-breeding seasons, they have become adapted to almost any habitat.
  • Range: Peregrines are generally common across the country year-round with some migratory forms and some breeding residents.

South Africa Birding Resources

Organizations:

Field Guides:

Mobile Apps:

  • Roberts Bird Guide 2 – directly corresponds to the above field guide including detailed illustrations and recordings
  • Birds of Africa – a new, comprehensive guide that covers all the countries of Africa
  • Merlin – probably the best free ID app for birding globally

Online Resources:

  • Birdlasser: This app serves as a tool for recording the birds you encounter and maintaining your bird life list. Widely utilized within the Southern African birding community, it enables participation in atlassing and various challenges.
  • eBird: Developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this bird recording app is likely the most widely used globally. It provides users with extensive features, including valuable information linked to their accounts.

Conclusion

South Africa’s diverse habitats provide a home for a variety of falcons and kestrels, each adapted to their unique environments. From the open savannas to the rocky cliffs, these birds of prey play important roles in the ecosystem and are a fascinating part of the country’s wildlife heritage. Understanding and protecting these majestic birds is crucial for preserving the balance of nature in South Africa’s landscapes.