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the web of life in southern Africa

Circus ranivorus (African marsh-harrier) 

Afrikaanse paddavreter [Afrikaans]; Afrikaanse vleivalk [Afrikaans]; uMamhlangeni [Zulu]; íMankholi-kholi [South Sotho]; Nghotsana (also applied to Pallid harrier) [Tsonga]; MmankgŰdi, PhakwÍ [Tswana]; Afrikaanse bruine kiekendief [Dutch]; Busard grenouillard [French]; Afrikanische rohrweihe, Froschweihe [German]; Tartaranh„o-dos-p‚ntanos [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: Circus

Circus ranivorus (African marsh-harrier)  Circus ranivorus (African marsh-harrier) 
African marsh-harrier, Wildernis National Park, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©] African marsh-harrier, West Coast National Park, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©]

Distribution and habitat

Occurs in sub-Saharan Africa, from Uganda, Kenya, eastern DRC, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi to South Africa. In southern Africa, it is locally common in northern Botswana, the Caprivi Strip (Namibia), Zimbabwe, eastern Mozambique and South Africa (excluding the arid Karoo and Kalahari). It generally favours inland and coastal wetlands.

Distribution of African marsh harrier 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

Breeding adults are largely sedentary, although juveniles may travel far from their parent's territory once they become independent.


It mainly eats small mammals, doing most of its hunting from the air on very windy days, rapidly diving to the ground to ambush its prey. It may attempt to catch birds aerially, but it is much more unsuccessful than when it hunts mammals. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:


  • Monogamous, highly territorial solitary nester, in fact in intense territorial disputes an individual may lock talons with another bird and spiral to the ground. The pair bond is strong, as pairs may breed in the same territory over many breeding seasons.
  • The nest (see image below) is built by both sexes, consisting of a shallow platform of grass and reed stems on a platform of sticks. This structure is typically placed in reeds near or over water, often in a large wetland; it may also position it in sedges, fynbos or even in a wheat field adjacent to a wetland.
Circus ranivorus (African marsh-harrier)  

African marsh harrier at its nest with chicks, Bronkhorstspruit area, South Africa. [photo Warwick Tarboton ©]

  • Egg-laying season is year-round, peaking from June-November.
  • It lays 2-5 eggs, which are incubated solely by the female for about 31-33 days, while the male feeds her at the nest.
  • At first the chicks are brooded and defended by the female, while the male feeds both her and the chicks. Later she joins the male in hunting, as after the chicks reach 18-20 days old they can defend themselves by lying on their backs and kicking. The young leave the nest at about 38-45 days old, becoming fully independent roughly 29-45 days later.


Not threatened globally, but Endangered in Namibia and Vulnerable in South Africa, as there has been an estimated 20% population loss due to wetland loss and fires during the breeding season.


  • 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.