Bird O'clock

The Bat Hawk: A Stealthy Hunter of the Night Skies

The Bat Hawk, also known as Macheiramphus alcinus, is a predatory bird that is primarily found in the tropical regions of Africa and Asia. It is a stealthy hunter, known for its unique hunting technique that involves catching bats in mid-air.

In this article, we will dive into the identification, plumages, and molts of the Bat Hawk, providing readers with a comprehensive understanding of this magnificent bird species.


Field Identification

Bat Hawks are medium-sized raptors, with a wingspan of between 110-130 centimeters and a body length of 45-61 centimeters. They have a distinctive appearance, with a black head, dark brown-grey back and wings, and a white underbelly.

They also have a hooked bill and large talons, which are adapted for catching prey mid-flight.

Similar Species

The Bat Hawk has few similar species due to its unique hunting niche. However, it is often mistaken for the African Harrier-Hawk or the Long-tailed Hawk, which both hunt small mammals and birds.

The Bat Hawk can be differentiated from these species by its white underbelly and its swift, erratic flight pattern.


The Bat Hawk has three distinct plumages: juvenile, immature, and adult. Juvenile Bat Hawks have a duller appearance, with dark brown feathers covering both their underbelly and the upperparts of their body.

They also have pale-tipped primaries and secondaries and white feathers around the base of their bill. Immature Bat Hawks have a similar appearance to adults, with a darker underbelly and pale-tipped feathers only on their secondaries.

They also have an incomplete white collar around the base of their neck, which is a defining characteristic of the species. Adult Bat Hawks have a white underbelly and dark brown-gray upperparts.

They also have a white collar and pale-tipped primaries and secondaries, making them identifiable in flight.


Bat Hawks, like most raptors, undergo an annual molt, where they shed their old feathers and grow new ones. This process helps to ensure that their feathers remain in excellent condition and provide sufficient insulation during the colder months.

The molt process in the Bat Hawk occurs between August and October and is differentiated into two distinct phases. During the first phase, the bird will molt all of its contour feathers, which cover the body and wings.

In the second phase, the bird will shed its flight feathers, which are crucial for its ability to fly.


In conclusion, the Bat Hawk is a fascinating bird species that is known for its unique hunting technique and stealthy personality. Its identification, plumage, and molting habits are complex but essential to understanding and appreciating this avian marvel.

Despite its scarce numbers, the Bat Hawk remains an important aspect of the ecosystem it inhabits, and their presence should be valued and protected.

Systematics History

The Bat Hawk has a complex taxonomic history, with various classifications proposed throughout the years. In the late 1700s, the Bat Hawk was first described as a species of falcon by ornithologist John Latham.

Later, in the early 1800s, it was reclassified as a member of the genus Astur by William Jardine and Sir William Swainson. It was not until the mid-1800s that the Bat Hawk was given its current scientific name, Macheiramphus alcinus, by Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck.

In 1926, American ornithologist James Chapin confirmed the Bat Hawk as a distinct species and placed it in its own genus, Macheiramphus, which was later supported by other ornithologists.

Geographic Variation

The Bat Hawk is a widespread species, with a range that stretches across Africa and Asia. Due to its vast distribution, there are variations in its appearance and vocalizations across different regions.

In Africa, Bat Hawks are generally smaller than their Asian counterparts, with a wingspan ranging from 75-85 centimeters and a body length of 35-40 centimeters. They also have a more uniform dark brown-grey plumage, with less contrast between their upperparts and underbelly.

In Asia, Bat Hawks are larger than their African counterparts, with a wingspan ranging from 105-130 centimeters and a body length of 50-61 centimeters. They also have a distinct white underbelly, which contrasts sharply with their dark brown-grey upperparts.


Currently, there are three recognized subspecies of the Bat Hawk: M. a.

alcinus in Africa, M. a.

phaeocephalus in Sri Lanka, and M. a.

blythii in mainland Asia. The subspecies B.

a. blythii is further divided into two distinct populations; the eastern population occupies eastern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, while the western population is found in the Himalayan foothills of northeastern India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

M. a.

alcinus is the smallest of the subspecies, with a wingspan ranging from 75-85 centimeters, and it is found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. M.

a. phaeocephalus is endemic to Sri Lanka and has a slightly larger wingspan of 90-100 centimeters.

Lastly, M. a.

blythii occupies mainland Asia and has the largest wingspan of all the subspecies, ranging from 105-130 centimeters.

Related Species

The Bat Hawk is part of an ancient lineage of raptors known as the Macheiramphus group, which is comprised of five species: the Bat Hawk, the Black-vented Shearwater, the White-faced Storm-Petrel, the Peruvian Diving-Petrel, and the Black Noddy. This group is thought to be among the most primitive of all raptors and is believed to have diverged from other bird populations over 40 million years ago.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The historical distribution of the Bat Hawk has undergone significant changes over the years. In the early 1900s, the Bat Hawk was found throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east.

However, due to habitat destruction and hunting, the species has lost a significant portion of its African range and is now only found in isolated populations in southern and eastern Africa. In Asia, the Bat Hawk’s range has remained relatively stable, despite localized declines due to habitat loss and hunting.

However, there have been notable range expansions in some areas, such as Sri Lanka, where Bat Hawks were first recorded in the 1990s, and in Thailand, where the species was first documented in 1998.


The Bat Hawk is an important species of raptor with a rich taxonomic history and a varied distribution across Africa and Asia. Its unique appearance and hunting behavior have captivated ornithologists and bird enthusiasts alike, making it a subject of numerous studies and conservation efforts.

Despite historical changes to its distribution, the Bat Hawk remains a vital component of its ecosystem and should be preserved for future generations.


The Bat Hawk inhabits a variety of habitats, including forested areas, savannahs, and coastal regions. In Africa, they can be found in a range of wooded areas, from miombo woodlands to riverine and Acacia savannah forests.

In Asia, they are more commonly found in lowland primary and secondary forests. In addition to forested regions, the Bat Hawk has also been recorded in more open areas, such as savannahs and grasslands.

However, they are less commonly found in these areas and tend to prefer areas with more established canopy cover.

Movements and Migration

The Bat Hawk is a non-migratory bird, which means it does not undertake regular seasonal movements. However, there is evidence to suggest that they may make limited seasonal movements in response to changing food availability.

In parts of their range, such as southern Africa, they are known to make local movements in response to seasonal changes in prey availability. For example, during the dry season when insect populations decline, Bat Hawks may move to areas near waterbodies, where insect prey is more abundant.

Additionally, in some areas of Asia, Bat Hawks are known to move to lower altitudes during the winter months when temperatures can drop significantly at higher elevations. These movements are likely driven by the need to find suitable prey in response to changing weather conditions.

Despite these limited movements, the Bat Hawk is considered a fairly sedentary species that occupies a relatively stable home range for much of the year.


The Bat Hawk is a non-migratory raptor that has a varied habitat range across Africa and Asia. While it is mostly a forest-dwelling species, it can be found in savannahs and open habitats as well.

Although it does not undertake regular seasonal migrations, it may make limited movements in response to changes in prey availability or temperature shifts. Understanding the habitat and movement patterns of the Bat Hawk is crucial for its conservation and management, as it helps ensure its survival and long-term health in its natural habitat.

Diet and Foraging


The Bat Hawk is a specialized hunter that feeds almost exclusively on bats. Despite their relatively small size, Bat Hawks are highly successful at catching bats mid-flight, making them one of the few raptor species that do so.

To catch their prey, Bat Hawks use several unique hunting strategies. One strategy involves the Bat Hawk perching near a bat roost during the day and waiting for the bats to emerge at dusk.

Another strategy involves hunting actively, where the Bat Hawk flies above the canopy and uses its exceptional vision to locate bats in flight. Once a bat is sighted, the Bat Hawk rapidly descends, using its speed and maneuverability to catch its prey in mid-air.


As previously mentioned, the Bat Hawk’s diet primarily consists of bats. They have been recorded feeding on a variety of bat species, including fruit bats, insectivorous bats, and even small rodent-eating bats.

While bats make up the bulk of their diet, Bat Hawks have also been observed feeding on other small prey, such as lizards and small birds.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Bat Hawk’s specialized hunting strategy and diet require a unique metabolic and thermal regulation system. To maintain their high energy needs, the Bat Hawk has a high metabolic rate that enables them to produce and store energy quickly.

Additionally, they have a unique thermal regulation system that allows them to maintain a body temperature that is several degrees above their ambient surroundings. This ability to maintain a high body temperature allows Bat Hawks to hunt in cooler areas that may not otherwise be suitable for them.

It also enables them to remain active and hunt during the colder parts of the day when bats are more active.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


Despite being a relatively quiet species, the Bat Hawk does produce a variety of vocalizations. Most commonly, they emit a series of soft, low-pitched calls that are often used for communication between mates and young, as well as to locate each other in flight.

During courtship displays, Bat Hawks produce a series of calls that are louder and more complex, often incorporating trills and other complex vocalizations. These calls are thought to be used to attract and impress potential mates.

In addition to their vocalizations, Bat Hawks also use body language as a means of communication. During courtship displays, for example, males will perform aerial acrobatics and dive towards females while producing vocalizations and displaying their wings and tails.

These displays are a crucial part of Bat Hawk courtship and can be used to establish mating bonds and defend territories.


The Bat Hawk is a fascinating raptor that has evolved unique hunting strategies, diets and metabolic systems to suit their specialized prey. Its remarkable ability to catch bats mid-flight and maintain a high body temperature for extended periods is a testament to its incredible adaptability.

Although they do not produce a wide range of vocalizations compared to other raptor species, their calls and body language during courtship displays are an essential part of its behavioral ecology. Understanding the habitat, feeding, and vocal behaviors of the Bat Hawk is critical to ensuring its long-term survival and conservation.



The Bat Hawk is a highly skilled flyer that is incredibly agile and maneuverable in the air. Their flying techniques are unique among raptors due to their specialized hunting strategy, which involves catching bats in mid-air.

With their powerful wings and highly developed muscles, Bat Hawks are capable of rapid, erratic movements that enable them to catch their prey mid-flight. Despite their primarily aerial lifestyle, they are also capable of perching and walking on the ground.

During the breeding season, males have been observed walking along branches while calling and displaying to females.

Self Maintenance

Bat Hawks exhibit typical bird behavior when it comes to self-maintenance. They frequently preen their feathers to keep them clean and in good condition.

They also take frequent baths, either by diving into water or using sources of moisture, such as dew on leaves, to preen their feathers.

Agonistic Behavior

Bat Hawks are generally non-aggressive towards other individuals, except during the breeding season when males fiercely defend their territory. During this time, disputes between males can result in aerial fights that involve aggressive wing and tail displays, as well as vocalizations.

Sexual Behavior

Bat Hawks are monogamous birds that form strong bonds with their mates. During the breeding season, males perform elaborate courtship displays that involve aerial acrobatics, vocalizations, and displays of their wings and tails.

Once a pair has established a bond, they work together to build a nest and rear their young.


Bat Hawks generally breed during the wet season when insect prey is abundant. The exact timing of their breeding season varies depending on the location and climatic conditions of their range.

In southern Africa, breeding typically occurs from August to March, while in Sri Lanka, breeding occurs from December to May. Bat Hawks are monogamous birds that form strong bonds with their mates.

Once a pair has established a bond, they will work together to build a nest. The nest is typically made up of sticks and twigs and is placed in the fork of a tree or on a large branch, usually several meters above the ground.

Once the nest is built, the female will lay a clutch of one to two eggs. Both parents participate in incubating the eggs, which takes approximately 6-7 weeks.

Once the chicks hatch, both parents contribute to feeding and rearing them until they fledge at around six weeks of age.

Demography and Populations

The Bat Hawk is not considered a globally threatened species, and the overall size of its population remains relatively stable. However, localized declines have been observed in some areas due to habitat destruction and hunting.

In southern Africa, the species has lost a significant portion of its historical range, and populations have declined due to loss of habitat, poisoning, and capture for the pet trade. Conservation efforts are underway to protect Bat Hawk populations and restore their habitats.

These efforts include habitat restoration, anti-poaching campaigns, and education and awareness programs aimed at reducing hunting and pet trade of the species.


The Bat Hawk is a fascinating raptor with unique behavior patterns that have been shaped by its specialized hunting strategies and diet. Its ability to fly rapidly and catch its prey mid-flight is awe-inspiring and sets it apart from other raptor species.

Despite its localized population declines, it remains a resilient species that is well-adapted to its environment. By understanding the Bat Hawk’s behavior, breeding habits, and overall demographics, we can work towards conserving and preserving this magnificent bird for future generations.

The Bat Hawk is a unique and fascinating bird species that has been identified by its specialized hunting techniques, diet, and behavior patterns. Its ability to catch bats mid-flight, maintain a high body temperature, and establish strong mating bonds are just some of the traits that make it an impressive raptor.

Understanding the Bat Hawk’s behavior, diet, breeding habits, and overall demographics is essential for its conservation and preservation. By continuing to learn more about this remarkable bird, we can work towards ensuring that it remains a part of the world’s biodiversity for generations to come.

Popular Posts