Birds of Prey Programme


Pel's Fishing Owl Project

The Pel’s Fishing Owl (Scotopelia peli) is listed as “vulnerable” in the Red Data Book for Birds and the South African population is considered to be less than 60 breeding pairs. More than half of this population is believed to occur within the Kruger National Park along the Limpopo-, Luvhuvhu-, Sabie- and Olifants rivers. It is important to do regular surveys of this species’ range in South Africa to establish long-term population trends and implement appropriate strategies to address aspects that could threaten this species. The Birds of Prey Programme aims to address this need by implementing an annual survey of this species range within the Kruger National Park along the Limpopo-, Luvhuvhu-, Sabie- and Olifants river working with Project partners such as SAN-Parks (within the Kruger National Park), KZN Wildlife, land-owners and other NGO’s.

The Pel's fishing owl is a large species of owl in the Strigidae family. It feeds nocturnally on fish and frogs snatched from the surface of lakes and rivers. The species prefers slow moving rivers with large overhanging trees to roost and forage from. It nests in hollows and the forks of large trees. Though two eggs are laid, only one chick is raised.

Pel's fishing owls nest during the dry season, which has the benefit of lower, clearer water and thus more easily detectable fish. They are monogamous and territorial, claiming a stretch of river or lakeshore for themselves. All life history activity in the species occurs within striking distance of water. Territories are claimed by hooting at the start of the breeding season. When prey selection is good, populations can be quite dense. At such bountiful times, territories are often quite small with the central activity of breeding pairs sometimes occurring within 300 m (980 ft) of each other. In Botswana, 23 territories were found along 60 km of river and, in Kruger National Park, up to 8 pairs can be found in an 18 km stretch of the Levubu River.

The Pel's Fishing Owl locally ranges from rare and sporadic to quite common, depending on how locally ideal the environment is. Due to the dependence on large waterways with abundant fish and mature trees, they are a highly habitat sensitive species. Damming, silting, and removal of water for irrigation may be local issues faced by the species. In some places water pollution may pose a further problem, and overfishing, particularly where human populations are rapidly increasing, can also deplete the owl’s food supplies. Changes in water supply can have knock-on effects on the riverine forest in which Pel’s fishing owl roosts and nests, and in some areas this habitat is being further degraded by wood-cutting and even by tree damage by large elephant populations. Even where the species occurs in protected areas, human activities upstream can still impact fish stocks and nesting trees.