Lethal hit man of our skies
Lanner Falcon – Falco biarmicus (Afrikaans: Edelvalk, Spitsvlerk)
Lanner Falcons are not by any means the biggest birds of prey, nor are they quite the fastest in flight, but to watch a Lanner in action is certainly the most thrilling experience in bird-watching.
The whole operation seems to be meticulously planned. Often operating in pairs, they will perch in a tall tree or on a high rock wherever smaller birds come in numbers to feed or drink at pools. Then, when the prey flushes, they swoop down and take birds in flight, or on the ground if they try and run for cover.
When European Swallows visit in summer, they collect in swarms of up to 5000 to roost in reed beds on rivers and vleis. Lanners, sometimes two or three pairs, will be waiting. They swoop amongst the milling swallows and devour as many as they wish, catching and transferring the prey in mid-air from claw to beak.
On the farm Klawervlei on the Eerste River near Faure we on a number of occasions watched them attack a Yellowbilled Duck in flight. After striking the duck with their talons flat against their bodies the duck would fall. They may then swoop around if space allowed and collect the stunned duck in mid-air. If it hit the water they would leave it alone, and try another.
Once in Namaqualand while photographing Namaqua Sandgrouse (Kelkiewyn) that came to drink at a farm dam, we watched a pair of Lanners swoop down on the water and attack an Egyptian Goose (Kolgans) swimming on the dam. After at least 10 attacks by both birds they killed the poor old goose, then flew off and left it floating on the water.
On the same day we watched how the Lanners, from their perch high up in Eucalyptus trees, swooped down to attack the Namaqua Sandgrouse. The sandgrouse took off and quite simply flew away from the Lanners on at least five occasions. Even Lanners can’t win them all.
Lanners occur almost everywhere in South Africa – forests, open plains, mountains and deserts. I know of two breeding pairs near our home in Onrus: one in the mountains above Onrus and the other at Maanschynkop between Hermanus and Stanford.
Lanners lay their eggs on a bare cliff ledge, with no nest being built. They also nest in crows’ nests in trees or on electric pylons; also in the nests of other birds of prey in trees. They never build their own nests. Two to five eggs are laid in winter. Incubation is by the female but the male keeps her supplied with food. He is not, however, allowed at the nest: he calls when he is approaching with food, she flies out to meet him, and the food is exchanged in mid-air, often with a drop-and-catch manoeuvre.
The fledging period is about 45 days. In Natal three of us took turns to watch the whole fledging period from a hide. The food parcels grew in size with the chick. Prey consisted of 3 Crested Francolins (whole), 12 Feral Pigeons, 9 Spotted Doves, almost 20 smaller birds (unknown) and 28 Farmer Brown chickens, varying in size from about 5 days old at the beginning of feeding time to 40-day-old chickens at the end of the period.
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