With uniquely adapted double-jointed knees that allows it to search for prey inside deep holes and cracks, the African Harrier-Hawk or Gymnogene is a formidable predator of reptiles, small mammals (like bats) and birds, captured in flight or even snatched from inside their nests (which goes for the eggs and nestlings too) or hiding places. Another intriguing feature of Gymnogenes are that they can “blush” – the skin on their faces, normally yellow in colour, flushes bright red when the bird is agitated and turns pinkish in the breeding season. It is a medium-sized raptor, weighing about 750g and measuring about 65cm in length.
African Harrier-Hawks inhabit forests, dense woodlands, ravines, riverine thickets and savannas, often in close association with hilly or mountainous terrain, and are usually seen singly or in monogamous, territorial pairs. They breed in early summer, when they build their stick nests in tall trees and palms. Clutches contain 1-3 eggs and are incubated by the female over a 5 week period. The first hatched chick often kills younger siblings. The chicks fledge when they’re about two months old and don’t stay with the parents for much longer after that, perhaps two weeks at most.
Found over most of South Africa with the exception of the largely treeless central and western parts, the Gymnogene is being seen in increasing numbers in our towns and cities where buildings, well-planted gardens and exotic plantations offers excellent breeding and hunting habitat. It is also known from most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. The IUCN considers the species as being of least concern with a stable population.
On our recent visit to the Dullstroom Bird of Prey and Rehabilitation Centre we were treated, amongst others, to a wonderful encounter with Chewy, one of the African Harrier-Hawks that find shelter at the centre.