European honey-buzzard (Pernis apivorus)

Also known as: European honey buzzard, honey buzzard, western honey-buzzard
French: Bondrée apivore
GenusPernis (1)
SizeLength: 52 - 60 cm (2)
Weight440 - 1,050 g (2)

The European honey-buzzard is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

Contrary to its name, the European honey-buzzard (Pernis apivorus) is not related to other species of buzzard (Buteo spp.), and is instead considered to be a distinctive species of kite. Demonstrating extreme diversity its colouration and patterning (2) (4), possibly more so than any other bird of prey, at least ten distinct colour morphs have been recorded in the adult (4). The ‘typical’ European honey-buzzard is grey-brown on the upperparts, with a grey crown and face, and a whitish throat with dark streaks. The underbody is most often white or cream, or occasionally pale rufous (reddish) in colour, and usually has defined bars in cinnamon, rufous, brown or black. Some individuals may be less heavily barred, and instead have splotches, or spots, in black, brown, or rufous. The tail of the European honey-buzzard is usually greyish or pale brown, with a creamy-white tip and contrasting dark bands. The flight feathers tend to be darker above, with a pale tip and a broad black bar, whilst the undersides are most often whitish, with dark tips. The female European honey-buzzard is generally darker and browner than the male (2), with less defined barring and often appearing more mottled (4).

The extraordinary variation in the European honey-buzzard is particularly remarkable, as the dominant colour morph will often resemble other raptor species that share that part of its range. Although of a similar size to the honey-buzzard, these other birds of prey are usually heavier and more powerful, and so the huge variability in plumage may be considered a kind of mimicry, evolved to protect the European honey-buzzard from attack (4) (5).

The European honey-buzzard is a highly migratory species, breeding in countries across Europe during the summer months, before migrating south to spend the winter in Africa (4) (6) (7). During migration, the European honey-buzzard makes its way primarily overland, with most migrating individuals crossing into Africa through the Straits of Gibraltar (2) (4) (7). From there, migration continues into areas throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where the European honey-buzzard will overwinter (4).

Across its summer breeding range, the European honey-buzzard prefers mixed deciduous or coniferous lowland forest and woodland, typically where there are open patches and clearings (4) (6). Wintering habitat across Africa varies depending on the region, although it is most often known from equatorial forest edges and clearings, and also moist woodland and occasionally lowland rainforest (4) (6) (7).

The European honey-buzzard has a fairly specialised diet, feeding on the nests, larvae, pupae and adults of social insects, such as wasps, bees and hornets. When hunting, the European honey-buzzard will perch or fly, watching for foraging insects. Once it has located a suitable prey item, it will follow the insect back to its nest, which it will break apart with its powerful feet, feeding on the contents as it digs (2) (4) (5) (8). The feet of the European honey-buzzard are well adapted for walking and digging, with straight claws and a covering of thick scales, which also act to protect the bird against stinging insects. In addition, the face is covered in small, scale-like feathers, to prevent the bird from being stung as it feeds (4) (8). In periods when the main prey items are scarce, the European honey-buzzard is capable of feeding on other insect species, as well as on amphibians, small reptiles and mammals, the nestlings and eggs of other birds, and also fruits and berries (4) (6) (7) (8).

Breeding occurs during the summer months, from mid-June onwards, and is timed to correspond with peaks in abundance of bees and wasps. The nest is built in a tree, 10 to 30 metres off the ground, and is constructed of twigs and many green, leafy branches and other live plant materials, and lined with leaves (2) (4). The nest of the European honey-buzzard, which is normally newly built by the female each year, may sometimes use the foundations of an old squirrel, crow, or buzzard nest (6) (8). Following a courtship where the male European honey-buzzard will perform an undulating ‘sky-dance’, swooping, gliding, and quivering in the air, the pair will mate, and the female will produce a clutch of between one and three eggs, although most often two eggs are laid (6) (7) (8). The male and female take turns to incubate the eggs for 30 to 35 days, and, after hatching, the chicks are fed by both of the adult birds, before fledging at 40 to 44 days, and becoming independent at 75 to 100 days (2) (4) (8).

Due to its large range and relatively stable population, this species is not currently considered to be globally threatened (1) (2). Nevertheless, the European honey-buzzard still faces some serious threats. Perhaps most crucially, this bird is particularly sensitive to habitat disturbance, especially during the breeding season, and excessive disturbance around a nest site often results in the breeding attempt being abandoned. Throughout the range of the European honey-buzzard, land is increasingly being exploited for agriculture, forestry, recreation, and urbanisation, all of which are having an increasingly negative impact on breeding success. Illegal hunting also poses a problem in some parts of southern Europe during the migration, with juveniles of the European honey-buzzard most often at risk (7) (8).

The European honey-buzzard is covered by a range of legislation, including Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that international trade in the species should be closely controlled, as well as Annex I of the EU Birds Directive, Appendix III of the Bern Convention, and Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention). These listings mean that the European honey-buzzard should be afforded protection in all member states, and should benefit from international cooperation in its conservation and management (8) (9).

In the UK, the European honey-buzzard is listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making it an offence to take, injure, or kill this species, to take, damage or destroy its nest, eggs, or young, or to intentionally disturb a nest site during the breeding season. Each of these offences can be penalized by fines and/or a prison sentence. It is also an offence to keep the European honey-buzzard in captivity, unless properly registered and ringed (8).

To find out more about the European honey-buzzard and its conservation, see:

For more information on this and other bird species, see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2010)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of Birds of the World. Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CITES (July, 2010)
  4. Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World. Helm Identification Guides, A & C Black Publishers, London.
  5. Kemp, A. and Kemp, M. (2006) SASOL Birds of Prey of Africa and its Islands. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  6. Global Raptor Information Network. Species Account: European Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus (July, 2010)
  7. European Raptors Biology and Conservation - European Honey-Buzzard, Pernis apivorus (July, 2010)
  8. RSPB - Honey buzzard (July, 2010)
  9. British Trust for Ornithology (July, 2010)