Benign hunters of the arid land
Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk (formerly Pale Chanting Goshawk)
– Melierax canorus (Afrikaans: Bleek Singvalk)
The Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk is a medium-sized bird of prey. It looks much bigger than it really is because of the long legs and very upright stance. It occurs in the semi-arid to arid areas in the western half of South Africa, and throughout Botswana and Namibia (the Dark Chanting Goshawk, on the other hand, occurs in the north-eastern parts of South Africa, Botswana and Caprivi). The colour is mainly pale grey, with black at the wing tips and tail, and with the lower chest and belly being barred grey on white. The bill is black and the legs and cere are red.
It likes to sit on telephone or fencing poles wherever these are available, also in tall trees. The sub-adult is brown all over, even the legs, so if it perches in a tall tree the long legs are not visible, which confuses even experienced bird watchers.
The Chanting Goshawk gets its name from a chanting peep-peep call during the breeding season, heard in the early mornings and evening. On a quiet day the call can be heard up to half a kilometre away.
The bird hunts for its prey mainly from its perch, then swoops down to catch a snake, lizard, rodent or big insects like locusts. It also likes walking in the veld, resembling a miniature Secretary Bird. They nest in tall trees, which of course are quite scarce in the arid regions, so almost every tall tree in Bushmanland is seen to have Chanting Goshawk nests in it. They use the same nest year after year.
The farmers seem to tolerate these birds quite well, even though a pair of goshawks near the farmhouse will rule out keeping free-range chickens – they just cannot resist chickens of any size.
At five nests in different regions of Bushmanland where we photographed, the prey items were 20 percent small snakes, from 10 to 20 centimetres long. The rest were lizards, geckos, birds and locusts. If the nest was near the main road, prey included a large percentage of hares and any other small game killed by passing vehicles. We also recorded two tortoises killed by vehicles brought to the nest.
While sitting in a hide at one of the nests, the bird suddenly flew off and onto the ground, where a pair of Spike-heeled Larks had two chicks just out of the nest. The larks gave the alarm call, and the two chicks quickly hid under a rock. It must have been very hot under that rock, and I didn’t think the chicks would survive for more than 15 minutes. There was a small Karoo bush about half a metre from the rock. The goshawk went to the bush and stretched its wings fully open over it. Almost immediately the chicks ran out from under the hot rock and went into the shade provided by the goshawk’s wings. Moments later the sound of wings were heard again above the bush and the male goshawk landed and dived in under the bush and pulled out both small chicks. The goshawks flew onto their nest and started eating the small birds themselves (the nest still had a snake and a mouse in it for the chicks). Although on this occasion the lark lost its chicks, the goshawk is also a benefactor, since it catches snakes that would have done the larks more harm.
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