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Birds of Prey in Uganda

Malcolm Wilson

There are almost 90 species of ‘Raptor’ or Bird of Prey found in Uganda which vary from the tiny Pygmy Falcon of Kidepo and the dry north to the mighty Crowned Eagle of the rain forests. Owls make up 18 species in Uganda and range from the huge Pel’s Fishing Owl to the minute African Scops Owl. They all have one thing in common; they attack and kill their prey using powerful grasping feet, equipped with long sharp talons.

Vultures are also considered birds of prey but this group are carrion eaters where some of the usual attributes of birds of prey have died out. One, the Palm-nut Vulture eats, yes, palm nuts!

Eagles

When one thinks of a bird of prey it is usually an eagle which is represented by 20 species in Uganda.
The Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) is by far the most charismatic of them, a denizen of forests it uses its immense power and size to hunt a variety of prey items including monkeys, antelope, tree hyrax and even feral dogs, there is a case of an adult female Bushbuck being killed!

They often use a clever strategy to hunt, when the larger female will fly above the forest canopy calling and displaying diverting the attention of the monkeys while the smaller and more agile male flies through the forest canopy surprising its victim and grabbing the monkey with its massive talons instantly killing it. The hind claw or ‘Halax’ is what is used to pierce the cranium and with the force of 90kg per square centimetre, would quite easily puncture a human skull. The closest place to Kampala to see Crowned Eagles would be Mpanga of Mabira Forests.
You won’t need a helmet as they are shy and reclusive species and mostly seen when the male gives off his beautiful mating display over the forest, where he swoops up and down whilst giving off an urgent rising and falling whistling call.

The Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) is the savannah cousin of the Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) and is even larger (4 to 6kg’s to the Crowned’s 3 to 4kg’s) but less powerful, differing in proportion by longer wings it is a wing hunter. As soon as the sun hits the savannah and starts sending warm thermals up into the sky, the Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) hitches an effortless ride to a great height where it quarters the savannah below for hours, looking for unsuspecting Oribi, young Warthog, Vervet Monkey, Monitor Lizard or Mongoose. Martial’s are best seen in the savannah parks, but can occur anywhere and ringing recoveries of Martial Eagles have shown they live for over 20 years.

The impressive Bateleur (Terathopius Ecaudatus) is a beautiful eagle and such an icon of the African blue sky. It travels endlessly throughout the day hunting back and forth across the sky looking for Guinea fowl, reptiles, small mammals or carrion. Its name comes from the French word for trapeze artist from the way it swings or rocks from side to side in flight. When looking from below, the females are mostly white on the underwing where the males are half black and white.

Birds of prey are renowned for their great eyesight and the reason for this is the structure of the retina, the sensitive area at the back of the eye where a seen image is cast. The amount of detail perceived by the retina depends on the number of rods and cones (specialised visual cells) per unit area.

In raptors there are depressions in the retinas called foveas where the number of rods and cones are even greater, there are two foveas in each eye, one directed forward (binocular vision), the other to the side and working in conjunction, they provide incredibly good distance perception so the bird can not only see the detail but accurately judge how far away its prey is. According to some, the foveas provide a resolving power some 7 to 8 times greater than humans.
Martial Eagles (Polemaetus bellicosus) have been reported to spot prey as much as 5km away.

The most commonly seen Eagle in Uganda is undoubtedly the Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis). Found almost everywhere, it sits on top of a telephone pole watching for rats, its favourite prey. They are a common site in Kampala for the same reason there are thousands of Marabou Storks, Black Kites and Pied Crows, human garbage.
The Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis) is the emblem of Nature Uganda, which is the branch of the East African Natural History Society. Nature Uganda’s mission is “Promoting the understanding, appreciation and conservation of nature” they can be found www.natureuganda.org or join them at nature@natureuganda.org

Falcons

These are another very exciting group of raptors and none other than the Peregrine Falcon can claim to be the fastest hunter of all. Sometimes this superbly adapted killing machine can be seen sitting quietly on a ledge of a tall building in downtown Kampala where it hunts feral and Speckled Pigeons, Laughing and Red-eyed Doves.
Its strategy is to fly up high to a height of 1-2 kilometres where it watches for an unsuspecting dove to fly far below. It then folds its wings and drops in a breath-taking near vertical stoop reaching a speed of up to 300km per hour.
The dove being hit at this or even lesser speeds knows little or nothing about it! There are two types or races of Peregrine in Uganda, the resident Falco peregrinus minor and the European Migrant F.p. calidus which comes all the way from the Arctic Circle to as far as southern Africa.

The common falcon found in and around Kampala is the smart looking Grey Kestrel, all grey but with bright yellow facial skin. This bird hunts smaller prey such as lizards, mice grasshoppers and sometimes will chase a small bird.
At Murchison Falls Nat Park, if one looks carefully, you may well see the shy Red-necked Falcon, this species flies after smaller birds in an exciting and dashing chase. It will also join a party of other birds at a termite hatch, as this is a very special occasion for many birds of prey to cash in on this sudden and short lived abundance.

Migration

Many raptors in Uganda migrate from Northern and Eastern Europe, which includes the Steppe Buzzard. This bird can be seen in the hundreds even in Kampala, all moving on a broad front to Southern Africa where it will spend the northern winter. Other Northern European Migrants moving through Uganda are the Lesser-spotted Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Booted Eagle, Osprey, Honey Buzzard (feeds on wasp grubs) and Another common migrant found in Uganda is the Black Kite. It is an all too familiar bird of Kampala, living off human scraps, but it is so agile it will also hunt insects on the wing. There are 3 different races of Black Kite in Africa, the yellow-billed resident Milvus migrans parasiticus and M m aegyptus which migrates from Egypt and Somalia to coastal Kenya and Tanzania and is seen in big numbers in Uganda on passage between April and May and October and November. The other M m migrans is a different looking bird altogether by having a black bill and white eyes and migrates from Northern Europe between November and April.

Another interesting migrant to Uganda is the Grasshopper Buzzard which breeds in the Sahel region from Gambia to Somalia during the rains and migrates to Northern Uganda and in particular Murchison falls Nat Park from December to March and can occur in the 1000’s. They migrate to coincide with the burning savannah at the end of the dry season and can be seen sitting on low bushes watching for insects and lizards fleeing from the flames. They are a very beautiful bird with red wings and bright yellow eyes and for some reason are quite approachable.

A rather interesting raptor also found in Kampala is the Bat Hawk, a crepuscular bird which only comes out to feed at dusk and dawn on the millions of small bats. Kampala is an ideal place for this species, with so many bat colonies in old roofs, food is not a problem. They can be seen on Kololo Hill and anywhere where there are large big evergreen trees for suitable day roost sites.

The African Goshawk is also a common Kampala bird, feeding on birds it is a stealth hunter, surprising and ambushing its prey from dense cover. Usually all that you know about an African Goshawk in the garden is the sudden alarm calls of all the other birds where one has just made a kill. They can often be heard in the early dawn when the male flying high in the air makes his ‘chip’ calls at regular intervals.
The Lizard Buzzard as its name suggests can be seen in most of Kampala, sitting on a perch or telephone wire, it pounces on it prey. It is most probably known by its far carrying plaintive call, an urgent long whistle followed by 3 short ones.

Birds of prey are ‘apex’ species and as such mainly require stable and healthy environments to successfully survive. Unfortunately many raptor species in Africa have been persecuted indirectly through poison bait left by poachers for other animals, collision with power-lines nest disturbance and direct killing by farmers. They are an exciting and wonderful group of birds and as such earn the right to share the natural environment.

The Author: Malcolm Wilson, Email: shoebill@mweb.co.za