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10 Fascinating Facts about the African Marsh-Harrier

The African Marsh-Harrier, also known as Circus ranivorus, is a bird of prey that belongs to the family Accipitridae. It is a medium-sized harrier that can be found in wetlands and grasslands throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

The bird has a distinctive appearance with its streaked chest, pale yellow eyes, and grey wings that are tapered at both ends.



Identification: To identify the African Marsh-Harrier, look for the characteristic white rump and tail. It also has a broad, V-shaped flight pattern.

The male is dark grey, while the female has a dark chocolate-brown plumage. The juveniles, like most birds of prey, have a buffy-white head and underparts with streaks.

Similar Species: The female of this species can be mistaken for the Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, which is a rare vagrant in sub-Saharan Africa. The African Marsh-Harrier can also be confused with other harriers, such as the Montagus Harrier and Pallid Harrier.


Molts: As with most birds of prey, African Marsh-Harriers go through two molts each year: the pre-basic and pre-alternate molts. These molts result in different plumage patterns that can be used to identify age and sex.

– Adult males: The adult male’s plumage is dark grey above and a lighter grey below, with a white rump and underwing coverts. The eyes are a pale yellow colour.

– Adult females: The adult female’s plumage is dark chocolate-brown above and a lighter brown below, with a white rump and underwing coverts. The eyes are a pale yellow colour.

– Juveniles: The juvenile birds plumage is buffy-white head and underparts with streaks, dark brown upperparts, and white underwing coverts. In conclusion, the African Marsh-Harrier is an impressive bird of prey that can be found throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Its distinctive appearance and flight pattern make it easy to identify, although it can be confused with other harriers. With the information provided, readers can accurately identify this bird and understand the different plumage patterns that result from molts.

Systematics History

The African Marsh-Harrier, also known as Circus ranivorus, has undergone many changes in its classification throughout history. In the past, it was considered a part of the “Marsh-Harrier” species group, which included several similar-looking harriers found in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Geographic Variation

The African Marsh-Harrier has significant geographic variation in its appearance. It is darker and more heavily streaked in the southern part of its range, while it is paler and less streaked in the north.

This variation is likely due to local environmental conditions and genetics.


There are four recognized subspecies of the African Marsh-Harrier:

– Circus ranivorus ranivorus: found in the western and central parts of Africa. These harriers have a dark brown appearance with heavy streaking.

– Circus ranivorus poecilochlorus: found in eastern Africa. These harriers have a lighter appearance with less streaking.

– Circus ranivorus dorotheae: found in southern Africa. These harriers have an almost black appearance with heavy streaking.

– Circus ranivorus restrictus: found in the uplands of Ethiopia. These harriers have a paler appearance with less streaking.

Related Species

The African Marsh-Harrier is closely related to other harrier species in the Circus genus, such as the Eurasian Marsh-Harrier and the Hen Harrier. The Eurasian Marsh-Harrier is a rare vagrant in sub-Saharan Africa and can be confused with the African Marsh-Harrier’s female.

The Hen Harrier, on the other hand, is a bird of prey found in the northern hemisphere, breeding in the British Isles, and winters in southern Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Historical Changes to Distribution

Over the centuries, the African Marsh-Harrier’s distribution has undergone significant changes due to various factors such as habitat destruction and climate change. Before the 20th century, the African Marsh-Harrier had a widespread distribution throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Evidence from historical literature suggests that the species was a common bird of prey in wetlands and grasslands because of the relative abundance of their prey. However, since the 20th century, their populations have significantly declined, and their range has become fragmented.

The primary cause of this population decline is habitat destruction and degradation due to agricultural expansion, human development, and increased use of pesticides. The loss of wetlands and grasslands has negatively impacted the species, limiting their breeding and feeding areas.

Climate change is another critical factor that contributes to the African Marsh-Harrier’s distribution decline. Global warming causes changes in the bird’s natural environments, causing it to adapt and adjust to new conditions.

These changes can affect the availability of prey, the timing of migration, and the breeding seasons. In conclusion, the African Marsh-Harrier is an essential bird of prey that has undergone significant changes in its classification, geographic variation, and distribution throughout history.

Due to habitat destruction, climate change, and other human activities, the species is currently facing significant threats, leading to a decline in its population and fragmentation of its range. Efforts to conserve and protect these birds and their habitats are needed to ensure their survival and promote a healthy ecosystem.


The African Marsh-Harrier inhabits a wide variety of wetlands and grasslands across sub-Saharan Africa. They prefer freshwater habitats that include natural and man-made wetlands, swamps, and marshes.

These wetlands provide the bird with an abundance of prey species such as frogs, fish, small mammals, and birds. Though the species has a widespread distribution, they have specific habitat requirements for nesting.

African Marsh-Harriers prefer wet meadows, where the tall vegetation can conceal their nests from predators like eagles and other raptors. They build their nests on the ground or in low trees, and their nests are usually located near water or in open fields.

Movements and Migration

African Marsh-Harriers are resident birds but also undertake some migratory movements. Their movements and migration depend on the availability of food and water and other environmental factors.

These birds are more active during the dry season because the wetlands and grasslands shrink during the dry season, and the birds seek new areas for foraging and nesting. During breeding season, they become territorial and stay within specific areas, where they mate and raise their young.

Juveniles may disperse over short distances or long-distance as far as 2,000 kilometers. They migrate in response to changes in prey availability in their environment or severe weather, such as droughts and floods.

In East Africa, for instance, African Marsh-Harriers move seasonally between highland breeding grounds and lowland feeding grounds, which could be near water bodies such as marshes, rivers, and swamps. The migration pattern is primarily vertical and relatively short, with birds moving up and down the elevations according to the changing transition of the dry and rainy season.

In West Africa, studies have shown that the species performs movements between the wetlands and grasslands, depending on the availability of prey. The bird covers long distances during migration and uses thermals and other atmospheric conditions to travel long distances with minimal effort.

The African Marsh-Harriers migration is not well-documented as the bird is difficult to track, unlike some other migratory raptors, such as Peregrine falcon. However, a few studies have used satellite telemetry and ring recoveries to track their movements.

These studies have revealed their impressive migratory range, which can span across borders and vast areas.

In conclusion, the African Marsh-Harrier inhabits wetlands and grasslands, and its habitat preference reflects the birds opportunistic way of life.

The movements and migratory behavior of this species are influenced by the availability of food, water, and other environmental factors. The scientific community still requires more studies to confirm their movements and migratory patterns and determine their precise migration routes, which will require a significant effort due to its population status and environmental habitat requirements.

Diet and Foraging

Feeding: African Marsh-Harriers are birds of prey with a keen sense of sight and flight agility, ideal for their hunting activities. They search for prey while perching on a tree or undertaking flight movements while scanning the wetlands below.

They use their strong wings and tails to maneuver within the reeds and vegetation, actively searching for their prey. Once an identified prey is detected, the bird will swoop down, extending its talons to grab it.

Diet: The African Marsh-Harrier is a carnivore and feeds on a wide variety of prey species that it finds in wetlands and grasslands across its range. The species’ main prey items are small to medium-sized mammals such as rodents, amphibians, and reptiles like frogs and lizards.

They will feed on birds, including young chicks, and fish when available. Studies have shown that the amount of prey species taken changes throughout the year and is driven by prey availability.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation: African Marsh-Harriers have a very efficient digestive system, which allows them to obtain and digest energy-rich foods at a much faster rate than most other animals. This allows them to meet high energy demands required for their lifestyle.

Their metabolic rates are also crucial for regulating their body temperature. These birds are tolerant of broad temperature ranges and use the sun to maintain their body temperature.

Sounds and Vocal


Vocalization: African Marsh-Harriers are generally quiet birds, especially during the breeding season. The birds are not known for vocalizations, unlike their Hen Harrier cousins that frequent northern Europe.

However, the species still produce a small range of vocalizations, which consist of weak hoarse calls and harsh barks. They tend to vocalize most during the flight and when encountering other birds of prey in their territories.

The female African Marsh-Harrier also produces a distinctive Kek-ke-kek sound during the early stages of courtship with a male bird, which can be heard at some distance within their territory. The vocalization serves to alert the male bird that the female is ready to mate, and to let other birds within their territory know that the pair is already bonded.

In conclusion, the African Marsh-Harrier is a skilled bird of prey with a carnivorous diet that includes a wide variety of prey species in their wetland and grassland habitats. The species relies on its keen sense of sight, their excellent flight agility, and strong talons to capture their prey.

The bird’s digestive system and metabolism allow them to meet the high-energy demands of their lifestyle and maintain optimal body temperatures. The African Marsh-Harrier is a quiet bird that primarily communicates using weak hoarse calls and harsh barks, with females using a distinctive Kek-ke-kek sound during the early stages of courtship.


Locomotion: African Marsh-Harriers have a unique style of locomotion that is well-suited to their hunting activities. They fly low over the wetlands with a deliberate flapping motion of their wings, and once they spot their prey, they perform sudden drops to capture their prey.

They also have long, powerful legs and can run or walk on the ground with relative ease. Self Maintenance: African Marsh-Harriers are generally solitary birds that perform their grooming activities themselves.

They keep themselves in good condition by preening their feathers with their bills. Preening activities include oiling and alignment of feathers, maintenance of rictal bristles and other feather appendages.


Behavior: These birds are territorial and fiercely defend their territories against potential intruders. Both male and female birds will dive-bomb and make short, sharp dives into the vegetation to intimidate other birds.

During courtship, males may engage in an aerial display, flying high in the sky, and then swooping down to the female bird in a circular motion. Sexual

Behavior: The breeding season of African Marsh-Harriers varies depending on their location and the local environmental conditions.

In West Africa, breeding occurs from June to August while in East Africa, it occurs from January to April. During the breeding season, males partner with a single female and will defend their territory from other males to ensure that only their offspring are born within their nests.


African Marsh-Harriers form monogamous pairs, meaning that the breeding pair stays together throughout the breeding season. The male bird attracts a female by performing an aerial display.

The pair builds a nest that is a shallow depression on the ground and is lined with grass and other vegetation. The female will lay two to three eggs, and both parents will take turns incubating the eggs for approximately 38 days until they hatch.

After hatching, both parents will provide food to their chicks for approximately six to eight weeks until they fledge.

Demography and Populations

The population status of African Marsh-Harriers is not well-known, but the species is believed to be declining due to habitat loss, degradation, and other human activities. The IUCN currently lists the bird species as “Near Threatened” and estimates a population size of fewer than 10,000 mature individuals.

In some areas, such as South Africa, local populations have declined due to habitat loss and degradation, and the bird now has a vulnerable population status. Conservation efforts, such as the establishment of protected areas, better habitat management, and increased public awareness, could help preserve the species’ populations and ensure their long-term survival.

In conclusion, the African Marsh-Harrier has unique behavior patterns that are well-suited to their hunting activities and breeding. These birds form monogamous pairs, nest on the ground, and take turns incubating their eggs and rearing their chicks.

The species is believed to have a declining population due to habitat loss and degradation, but conservation efforts can help to protect the bird and ensure its long-term survival. Throughout this article, we have explored a wide range of fascinating topics relating to the African Marsh-Harrier.

We have delved into the bird’s classification and geographic variation, as well as its habitat, diet, and behavior, including locomotion, self-maintenance, agonistic and sexual behavior, breeding, and demography, and populations. We have learned about the African Marsh-Harrier’s unique traits that allow them to live and hunt in wetlands and grasslands, such as their keen sense of sight, flight agility, and efficient digestive system, and we have also discussed the significant threats that this species faces, including habitat loss and climate change.

Captivated by the African Marsh-Harrier and its characteristics, the article emphasizes their significance in the ecosystem and highlights the importance of taking action to protect their populations for the future.

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