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The Eurasian hobby

25 November 2014

www.leopard.tv

It is surprising that the Eurasian hobby Falco subbuteo occurs more widely in South Africa than the African hobby Falco cuvieri which mostly occurs more north into Africa and elsewhere in the world. As their generic name indicates, the two species of hobby in the world are falcons with specific common names.The name hobby is derived from an Old English name hobi which is a nickname for these small falcons. In humans hobbits are small, imagery people with hairy feet and their name comes from the same linguistic root. The generic name Falco means falcon while subbuteo is derived from Latin and means related to a buzzard. Buzzards are hawks of the genus Butteo and subbuteo therefore means smaller than a hawk. The Eurasian hobby was first described by Linnaeus in 1758 based on a specimen from Sweden.

Globally, the Eurasian hobby occurs from the northern parts of southern Africa north through Africa to Eurasia. It breeds in north-western Africa and Eurasia as far east as China and Japan, but it winters in central Africa, southern Africa and southern Asia. It is noticed rarely even though it may be common at times. In South Africa, the Eurasian hobby occurs in the hotter north-eastern regions and along the eastern and southern near-coastal regions as far west as Cape Town. As its scientific name indicates, it is a small falcon that is some 28 to 36 cm tall with the female weighing some 230 g as opposed to 200 g in the male. The sexes are alike in plumage, there are two subspecies and the southern African subspecies is Falco subbuteo subbuteo while Falco subbuteo streichi occurs in southern and eastern China, northern Indochina and northern and western Myanmar (Burma). The hobbies are sleek, long-winged falcons with the wing tips reaching the tip of the short and slightly tapered tail when sitting at rest.

In the adult the forehead is whitish, the cap is dark and there is a pronounced cheek stripe. Much of the cheeks and sides of the neck are whitish, sometimes forming a collar. The wings are dark bluish grey to sooty brown with a few fine, black streaks. Under the buffy wings there are heavy, black bars or spots and the flight feather tips are dark grey. The throat, chest and belly is whitish with bold, vertical streaks, while the buff undertail has narrow, grey bars and a broad one almost at the whitish tip. The bill is dark grey with a blackish tip and the corner of the bill is yellow to orange-yellow. The eyes are dark brown with yellow to orange-yellow rings and the legs and feet are yellow. It is generally silent on its wintering grounds but otherwise typically screams and whines like a falcon. The juveniles look like the adults but have browner upper parts, a paler and mottled crown, buff-coloured flight feather edges and more heavily streaked underparts. The adults can be distinguished from the African hobby in being paler, with less red fronts.

It is a migrant which leaves its breeding grounds from August to October to enter Africa over the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and the Suez Canal to follow the southerly advancing rain fronts. It is a rare visitor to southern Africa from October to April with irregular patterns of occurrence which are probably linked to patterns of rainfall. Consequently it is rare on Shayamanzi. It arrives back at its northern breeding grounds in May and June.

The preferred habitat is open woodland and in southern Africa it favours low-altitude, moist woodlands or forest edges although it sometimes may forage in open areas, including coastal dunes, fynbos regions on mountain slopes and even suburbian gardens. It usually occurs alone or in small flocks that move around in a loose association. However, it may sometimes form temporary associations of up to 100 birds at a rich food source, such as termite alates that are emerging from a termite mound after rain, when it will feed with other types of falcon. It roosts alone in tall, leafy trees during the middle of the day but during migration it may also roost socially. It flies with rapid, shallow beats of the wings and can reach great speeds when pursuing prey.

The Eurasian hobby hunts alone from the air, mainly at dusk and in the early morning, when it will approach its prey in a rapid, angled stoop flight, often flying close to the ground over distances of 400 to 500 m. However, it may also pursue insectivorous birds at a high altutude or strike at prey from a prominent perch. Its diet consists of large insects, such as locusts, dragonflies and beetles, small birds and bats. Of the small birds it often hunts swifts, swallows queleas, canaries and other small grain-eating birds. It is therefore beneficial to grain producers near suitable habitat. Such habitats should therefore be protected as much as possible. It also hunts opportunistically, will follow rain fronts and veld fires and feed on emerging termite alates and fleeding insects.

As it nests extralimitally, little is known of its nesting habits. Many of the adults and juveniles moult in southern Africa when the latter become two years old, and the juveniles still have their juvenile plumage when they migrate for the first time.

 

Reference:

Hockey, P A R, W R J Dean & P G Ryan (Eds) 2005. Roberts – birds of southern Africa, seventh edition. Cape Town: The John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, pp 554 - 555.

 

article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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