African Pygmy Falcon

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Common Name: African Pygmy Falcon
Scientific Name: Polihierax semitorquatus

Size: 7.5-7.8 inches (19-20 cm); Wingspan: 14.6 inches (37 cm)

Habitat: Africa; Eastern and Southern Africa from South Sudan to Somalia and south to Uganda and Tanzania and from Angola to northern South Africa.

They inhabit dry, arid climates with sparse vegetation.

Status: Least Concern. Global population: 100,000-999,999 adult individuals with a stable population trend. African pygmy falcons are common birds within their range, they are not considered threatened. Man made structures have increased the number of potential nesting sites for these animals. It is possible, however, that urbanization could someday threaten them with habitat loss.

Diet: Large insects, small reptiles and, occasionally, small birds and rodents.

They often hunt by perching on dead trees and scanning the surrounding area for potential prey. When they spot a target, African pygmy falcons can frequently be seen bobbing their heads and tails before swooping down to catch their prey. They may also hunt insects in flight.

Nesting: Sexes are dimorphic. Adult falcons are white below and on the face, gray above, and females having a chestnut back. There are white "eye spots" on the nape. Juveniles have a brown back, duller than adult females, and a rufous wash on the breast. The flight feathers of the wings are spotted black and white (more black above, more white below); the tail is barred black and white.

The main communication between members of this species are the songs sung during mating, which are used to attract potential mates. Some bodily communication is seen during the courtship ritual, as the female indicates her availability by crouching and raising her tail feathers. The movements made by the male during courtship can also be perceived as a form of communication.

In Kenya, pygmy falcons nest in white-headed buffalo weaver nests, and the ranges of the two birds coincide. In southern Africa, they are found around red-billed buffalo weaver nests but predominantly nest in the vacant rooms of sociable weaver nests, which are large and multi-chambered; even if the sociable weavers still have an active colony in the nest. Despite being bird-eaters and bigger than sociable weavers, the pygmy falcons largely leave the latter alone, though they do occasionally catch and eat nestlings and even adults. They will also use tree cavities.

Eggs are normally laid about three weeks after copulation. The female lays from two to four eggs which are incubated for 27 to 31 days. Females begin incubating with the first egg laid, so hatching is asynchronous. Since the young do not hatch at the same time, they may be different sizes. The young will leave their nests from 27 to 40 days after hatching. Both parents are very aggressive near their nest and their young do not usually fall victim to predators.

Cool Facts: The Pygmy Falcon is the smallest raptor in Africa. Pygmy falcons occasionally engage in polyandrous relationships, where there are more than two adults living together and tending nestlings. There are four potential reasons for this behavior: defense, co-operative polyandry, delayed dispersal of offspring, and thermo-regulation (warmth). Corroboration for the last is that in winter African pygmy falcons nest further inside the nest of sociable weavers, where there is better insulation. In the southwestern portion of their range, African Pygmy falcons may protect social weavers from predators such as snakes, while gaining a safe area to raise young. White-headed buffalo weavers, in the northeastern part of their range, are more powerful than African Pygmy falcons and receive no benefits from their presence.

The call is a high-pitched kikiKIK, repeated (in Kenya) or a 'chip-chip' and a kik-kik-kik-kik (in southern Africa). The flight is low and undulating. In size, pattern, and the habit of perching upright on an exposed branch or treetop, this species resembles some shrikes.

There are two subspecies:

  • P. s. castanonotus. It occurs from South Sudan to Somalia and south to Uganda and Tanzania
  • P. s. semitorquatus. The nominate species occurs from Angola to northern South Africa.

Found in Songbird ReMix Birds of Prey Volume 5: Falcons, Hawks & Eagles

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