Current Research Programmes

Raptor Research


Dr Arjun Amar
Dr Andrew Jenkins
Dr Rob Simmons

Research team

David Allan (Durban Museum)
Mark Anderson (Executive Director, Birdlife South Africa)
Jessie Berndt (PFIAO MSc student)
Dr Pat Benson (Wits University)
Dr Keith Bildstein (Hawk Mountain)
Andre Botha, Adri Barkhuysen (Birds of Prey Working Group, EWT)
Dr Odette Curtis (Overberg Conservancy Programme)
Dr Jerome Fuchs
Sophie Garcia-Heras (PFIAO PhD student)
Lisle Gwynn (PFIAO MSc student)
Leo Legra (University of Papua New Guinea)
Zanne Macdonald, Lucia Rodrigues, Carrots Doyle, Ann Koeslag and Colleen Rust (Western Cape naturalists, seconded to the research team)
Athol Marchant (KZN conservation officer)
Dr Petra Sumasgutner (PFIAO PostDoctoral Fellow)
Gareth Tate (PFIAO PhD student)
Drs Ruth Tingay and Mike McGrady (Natural Research, UK)
Anthony van Zyl (PFIAO Associate)
Anne Williams, Riette Griesel, Kate Webster (Eastern Cape naturalists, seconded to the research team)
Prof Michael Wink (University of Heidelberg, Denmark)


There are two core aims of the Fitztitute’s Raptors Research Programme. The first is the monitoring of populations of rare species (e.g. Taita Falcon Falco fasciinucha) or those of conservation concern (e.g. Black Harrier Circus maurus and Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres) to provide up-to-date information for effective management decisions. In these cases we liaise closely with regional and national conservation organizations to facilitate the transfer of results. The second aim is to provide long-term data on population ecology and dynamics (Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus and Black Sparrowhawk Accipiter melanoleucus), the effects of pesticides (e.g. African Fish-Eagle Haliaeetus vocifer), responses to climate and other systemic environmental changes (peregrines, sparrowhawks and vultures) or migratory species whose world populations visit the subregion (kestrels).

A new direction has been to consider the effects of climate change on some of these species, both in South Africa and as far afield as Papua-New Guinea. Raptors are good indicators of biodiversity, and are sensitive to changing food levels in the environment and to changing weather patterns. So for example, why peregrines are getting smaller, why migratory kestrels are arriving later in southern Africa, and how Papuan Harriers Circus spilothorax can avoid annual grass fires have become key questions.

Conservation of the Black Harrier in the Western Cape: tracking birds through land transformation and across landscapes

Research team: Andrew Jenkins & Rob Simmons

The Black Harrier Circus maurus is one of 16 species of harriers worldwide, with the most restricted range of any continental species. Endemic to the grasslands and fynbos of southern Africa, it has been the subject of only one breeding study, and is classified as globally `Vulnerable’. Its world population is estimated at 1000 - 2000 birds, of which fewer than 100 occur in protected areas. This 12-year study has investigated the breeding ecology and resource requirements of Black Harriers, with a view to improving management strategies to meet its conservation needs. Specifically, the project has compared the natural history of the species in different habitats, and analysed the effects of landscape characteristics on harrier distribution. This is of particular relevance given that large areas of the harrier’s range have been transformed by agriculture. Our data show that coastal birds are more productive than inland pairs and those breeding in the mountains are the least successful – and have more birds than small mammals in their diet. From surveys of the West Coast and Overberg regions we also know that harriers prefer intact patches of renosterveld exceeding 100 ha in which to breed.

More recently harriers have been followed outside the breeding season using (Argos) satellite tracking technology. The results from five birds show impressive movements eastwards across the continent to Lesotho for the summer. One bird has recently (2011) returned to its west coast breeding grounds after a 2500 km journey in 5 months. Future research will include assessments of the influence of climate change on the frequency and success of breeding. The Black Harrier project was largely funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and is part of the C.A.P.E. (Cape Action Plan for People and the Environment) initiative. More recently it has been supported by the NRF. The Black Harrier can be used as a conservation flagship and an indicator of habitat health because of its dependence on pristine patches of indigenous vegetation.

Breeding performance and survival of Peregrine Falcons on the Cape Peninsula: the influence of nesting habitat quality

Research team: Andrew Jenkins

Although the biology of the Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus is intimately known in many parts of its cosmopolitan range, understanding of the demography of Peregrine populations is surprisingly poor. The few studies that have yielded good information on population dynamics are from northern temperate and Arctic areas and, as yet, no comparative figures are available for African or any other southern Hemisphere populations. This project builds on over a decade of research on aspects of Peregrine biology on the Cape Peninsula, and focuses on the dynamics of this population – primarily survival, turnover and recruitment rates. In the long-term, the study will emphasize the relative influence of crucial features of the nesting habitat on the lifetime reproductive success of individually marked birds.

Breeding biology and ecology of the Rock Kestrel in the southwestern Cape, South Africa

Research team: Anthony van Zyl

The Rock Kestrel F. tinnunculus is a widespread and fairly common species in southern Africa, and occurs at particularly high densities in parts of the southwestern Cape. The present study has compared aspects of kestrel biology in this south temperate area with those of tropical and northern temperate populations, with a view to testing theories on the effects of latitude on life history strategies. Future objectives include assessments of the effects of overly frequent fires and the spread of urban development on the biology and success of kestrel pairs on the Cape Peninsula.

The natural history of the Black Sparrowhawk on the Cape Peninsula, South Africa: habitat manipulation and unusual life history traits in a founder population

Research team: Ann Koeslag, Arjun Amar, Petra Sumasgutner & Gareth Tate

The natural history of the Black Sparrowhawk Accipiter melanoleucus is poorly known, despite the fact that it is the largest and one of the more common forest hawks in Africa. It is a fairly common species in the southwestern Cape, and a healthy population has been resident on the Cape Peninsula since at least the late 1980’s. It is uncertain whether the species is a new arrival to the area, or was resident here before the removal of indigenous forests in the 1600’s, and has since re-colonised the Peninsula with the establishment of exotic plantations as a substitute for its natural breeding habitat. This project will research various aspects of Black Sparrowhawk biology, including habitat use, diet and population dynamics. In addition, two particularly interesting issues warrant further investigation: (i) How do the hawks respond to anthropogenic changes to the local environment? As fast as territories are established by new pairs in what has been an expanding population, others are lost as the `Working for Water Project’, focused on the removal of alien trees, gathers momentum in the area. (ii) Winter-breeding and double-brooding have been reported for Black Sparrowhawks on the Cape Peninsula. Should these reports be verified, the study will assess the environmental features that allow such unusual breeding strategies, and examine their effects on breeding success and the survival of adults and offspring.


The Raptor Research Programme has received financial support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), NRF, Natural Research (UK), Hawk Mountain (USA), University of Heidelberg (Germany), Distell, Peregrine Properties, The Peregrine Fund (BirdLife South Africa), Two Oceans Slope Soarers and Pick ‘n Pay.