Honey Buzzard - Pernis apivorus
The honey buzzard is one of the most common birds of prey found throughout Europe, and yet one of the most threatened in the United Kingdom due to years of persecution by egg collectors. It is a highly adapted predator of bees and wasp larvae, using its wickedly curved beak and talons to dig out nests whilst being protected from stings by shield like scales and feathers. The bird is highly secretive preferring to be deeply hidden in a forest than easily seen hunting over pastures and meadows. Every year honey buzzards from across Europe migrate hundreds of miles to overwinter in the sub-saharan forests of Africa where food is more plentiful, returning in mid-May to breed and rear their young.
The honey buzzard is quite a large raptor of between 55-70cm in length. They can have a wingspan of up to 150cm and appear very similar to the round winged, gliding shape of the common buzzard when in flight, although they have slimmer wings and are much closer related to red kites. The plumage is usually brown mottled with grey or white with distinctive black banding on the wings and tail. They have two distinctive bars at the top end of their tail, unlike the single bar of the common buzzard, which can be seen when they are flying and helps to distinguish them.
Like nearly all birds of prey they have a sharply downward curving beak, but unlike most, this is used as a digging tool for catching their prey. Their talons are similar, not sharp and vicious like most raptors, but thicker and designed for digging rather than tearing and killing. The reason for this is that honey buzzards feast mainly on the larvae and eggs in wasp and bee nests and have adapted themselves to this purpose. Their nostrils are elongated and slit-like to stop them filling with soil and debris as the birds dig, and their faces around the beak are covered with tough scale like feathers to act as a shield when being stung. The honey buzzard has a rather pigeon-like head with a pair of glowing golden eyes which gives it a slightly supercilious expression.
Habitat and Nesting
Honey buzzards are fairly secretive as they prefer lots of tree cover where bees and wasp nests are to be found and so are often deep in the heart of forests. In the UK there are very few areas of natural deciduous forest left, but the birds are more than happy to take up residence in soft wood plantations that can be found from Southampton to Scotland. The bird will sometimes use the nests of other birds, such as buzzards or crows, otherwise will build one on the branch of a large tree out of sticks and twigs. The upper parts of the nest are furnished with green leaves and living material so the nest is well disguised from below looking like a living part of the tree.
The nest is protected from all other birds of prey and will be in the middle of the honey buzzard's territory, which can be up to 40km² in size. Eggs are laid in May, usually a clutch of 2-6 eggs laid several days apart. They are white in colour covered with deep purple red splotches. Apparently there is little rivalry between chicks over food and they fledge after about two months. By September the young birds are able to accompany their parents as they migrate back to the warm tropical forests of Africa and Asia.
Unlike all other raptors, the principle food of the honey buzzard is found in the heart of wasp and bees nests in the larvae and eggs found within. They spend a lot of their time on the ground, digging with their sturdy claws and beak to open up nests and pull out the center combs which they fly back to the nests for the young birds to eat. Their arrival in the UK coincides with the breeding season for wasps and bees so there is plenty of food available. However, in cold wet summers the honey buzzard diversifies its diet to include small mammals, frogs and other birds in order to survive, but broods raised in these conditions do not normally survive to adulthood.
The honey buzzard, unlike other birds of prey, is quite at home on the ground, it can even run should it be after a particularly elusive beetle or other ground insect!
The only mention of honey buzzards in literature I have come across is in "BB"'s book Brendon Chase, in which three young boys who have run away to live wild in the forest climb up a pine tree to investigate a nest and find it is that of the honey buzzard. They steal an egg (but it's alright, because on reaching the ground they find the egg was addled anyway and so would not have hatched. So that's alright then...).
There are only 12-20 breeding pairs of this bird in Britain, mainly found on the south coast, although the maturing pine forests of Scotland have meant there are more birds successfully rearing broods in the north. They are common across the rest of temperate Europe, especially in areas that are heavily wooded such as Sweden and Poland, the main stronghold of breeding populations being found in Russia.
The old English name for the honey buzzard is the 'bee hawk' but it was not kept by falconers as it is not a hunting predator unlike the peregrine falcon or harris hawk.