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Polyboroides typus (African harrier-hawk, Gymnogene) 

Kaalwangvalk [Afrikaans]; Seitlhoaeleli (also applied to Pallid harrier) [South Sotho]; Kaalkopkiekendief [Dutch]; Gymnogène d'Afrique [French]; Schlangensperber, Höhlenweihe [German]; Secretário-pequeno [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Falconiformes > Family: Accipitridae  > Genus: Polyboroides

Polyboroides typus (African harrier-hawk, Gymnogene)  Polyboroides typus (African harrier-hawk, Gymnogene) 

African harrier-hawk. [photo Isidro Vila Verde ©]

African harrier-hawk, South Africa. [photo Gwendolen Tee ©]

Distribution and habitat

Occurs across much of sub-Saharan Africa; in southern Africa it is locally common in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, northern and eastern Botswana, northern Namibia (including the Caprivi Strip) and eastern and southern South Africa. It generally prefers savanna woodland, such as Acacia, miombo (Brachystegia) and mixed-species woodland, as well as forest edges, wooded cliffs, ravines and other rocky habitats, tall trees along drainage lines, Eucalyptus plantations and tall trees in gardens.

Distribution of African harrier hawk in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Movements and migrations

Nomadic in the arid parts of it distribution but largely resident in the moist woodland of the east. It is most common in the west in the period from March-April, suggesting that it might make a west to east migration.


It mainly eats birds and their eggs, reptiles and small mammals, using a wide variety of foraging techniques. It specialises in using its long legs to extract food from crevices and cavities, such as in the tree canopy or the ground, often stealing eggs and chicks from weaver nests, or the more easily accessible nests of other birds (without entrance tunnels). It also hunts by soaring high in the sky and rapidly descending once it has spotted prey, sometimes scavenging for roadkills and raiding nests in suburban gardens. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:


  • Usually a monogamous, highly territorial solitary nester, although three adults were once recorded at one nest.
  • The nest is built by both sexes in about 30 days, consisting of a platform about 75 cm wide and 20 cm deep, made of sticks and thickly lined with green leaves. It is typically placed in the upper branches of a tree, in a cave or between the base of a bush and a cliff; it also uses the nests of other birds, such as Black Sparrowhawk and Martial Eagle.
  • Egg-laying season is from August-December, peaking from September-November.
  • It lays 1-3 eggs which are mainly incubated by the female for about 35-36 days, while the male provides food to her at the nest.
  • The chicks are fed by the male and brooded constantly by the female for the first week of their lives, after which she remains near the nest to protect them. The older chick sometimes kills its younger sibling, even if it is fully fed and supervised by an adult. The young leave the nest at about 45-55 days old, remaining partially dependent on their parents for at least another 10 days.


Not threatened.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.