The Honey Buzzard is a striking summer visitor to the UK. A large bird of prey with broad wings and long tail feathers, (up to 2ft long with a wing span of 5ft) a typical adult is grey/brown with paler under feathers. Honey Buzzards have various physical adaptations due to their unusual diet these include feet and claws adapted for digging and scales around the face to protect from stings. Unusually for such a large bird the male and female can be told apart by different plumage, the males have blue grey head feathers while the larger female is normally of a darker colour and has a brown head.
Sometimes known as the ‘Pern’, the Honey Buzzard is not actually related to buzzards such as the common buzzard, but is a relative of the ‘Kite’ family. They are migrants from tropical Africa where they winter and follow set migration routes as they are unable to soar over large distances of open water so cross over to Europe at the straits of Gibraltar and other shorter expanses of water. They use a combination of recognition of physical features such as mountains and rivers and magnetic direction sense used by many animals. When visiting the UK from its winter home in Tropical Africa they nest in the east of England from the south to the north with a few areas in Northern Scotland and Wales, they are normally in the UK between Mid May to mid August depending on weather conditions.
Their arrival in the UK to breed is timed to match an abundance of wasp larvae which forms the main food source for its young. The availability of food also determines the range, when food is plentiful a range can be 10km² but this can increase to 40km² in poorer years. Breeding sites are normally kept a closely guarded secret in the UK to protect them from egg collectors. The Honey Buzzard is protected by Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and countryside act 1981, it is an offence to kill or hard the bird, its eggs, young or nest or to disturb the birds when nesting and can carry a £5000 fine or even a short prison sentence. The captive breeding of the birds is strictly licensed with only captive breed birds being allowed to be kept.
The nest is normally made by the female within 1-2 weeks, normally from twigs with an upper of green leaves which the birds regularly replace to keep green during the nesting period. The Honey Buzzard selections nest sites in high trees but has been known to use old crow’s nests or the nests of common buzzards. Two eggs are normally laid, being white with purple markings in early May. Unusually for birds of prey the young birds do not compete for food and aren’t aggressive towards each other, they are fully independent within 55 days and while in the nest both parents feed and a male bird can successfully raise the young even if the female bird is lost.
The Honey Buzzard has a very unusal diet, whether in the UK or in its winter home in tropical Africa their main prey is larvae and adult, wasps, bees and hornets. They are effective hunters, tracking insects that are returning to the hive, the Buzzard will then dig the nest out, eating the occupants and even part of the honeycomb (hence its name apivorus which means Bee-eater). Honey Buzzards have been known to dig down over 1ft, as well the physical adaptations to this type of feeding mentioned earlier it is also thought the bird may have a chemical secreation in its feathers which helps prevent wasp stings. They are not strictly insectiverous and will take frogs, reptiles, small mammals, eggs and fruit when food is hard to come by. They have been seen hopping from branch to branch and cocking their head on the side to investigate holes for insect nests, this behaviour resembled a parots in appearance.
Threats and Population
Honey buzzards have few natural predators although Goshawks which also occasional feed on common buzzards have been know to kill them. It is thought that the honey buzzard resembling the common buzzard which it isn't related to is an attempt to gain protection from predators like the Goshawk by mimicry. As normal man is also a threat and each year many birds are shot while migrating. Due to their unusual diet the population of Honey Buzzards wasn’t badly affected by the contamination of the food chain by pesticides which affected so many other birds of prey in the 1950s and 1960s. The population across Europe seems to be steady, the drastic decline in the UK bee population may not have a great effect as despite the name bees make up a small part of the diet with the main prey being wasps and hornets.Habitat has increased in some areas with an increase in mature coniferous forests but human use of such areas for recreation tends to drive the birds away especially during the breeding season.