Pel’s fishing-owl (Scotopelia peli)

Pel's fishing owl with tilapia prey
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Pel’s fishing-owl fact file

Pel’s fishing-owl description

GenusScotopelia (1)

The largest and most widespread of Africa’s fishing-owls (2) (4) (5), Pel’s fishing-owl is an unmistakable reddish-brown bird, with a round head, large, dark eyes, a dark beak, and no ear tufts (2) (6). The upperparts are marked with fine dark bars, while the underside is paler, with fine dusky streaks that become chevron marks on the flanks, and the tail is relatively short, with broad, dusky bars (2) (4). There is considerable individual variation in colouration and barring, with some birds having particularly white or black feathers. Male and female Pel’s fishing-owls are similar, though the female may be paler, and juveniles are distinguished by a whiter body and head, attaining adult plumage by about 15 months (2). The male’s call is a deep, booming hooomm-hut, repeated every 10 or 20 seconds and audible at up to 3 kilometres away (2) (5). The female may respond to this call with a higher hoot followed by a double note, hoot-oot (2).

Pel’s fishing-owl shows a number of adaptations for catching fish. Unlike most owls, the legs and toes lack feathers, probably to minimise the amount of plumage that gets wet when the bird is hunting, and the toes are covered in spiky scales that help the bird grip slippery fish (4) (5) (7). Since hearing is not important for detecting its underwater prey, Pel’s fishing-owl lacks a distinct ‘facial disc’, the flat or concave arrangement of facial feathers which is typical of other owls and which is thought to help with locating the source of faint sounds (4) (5). In addition, since its prey cannot hear it approach, Pel’s fishing-owl lacks the soft edges to its flight feathers which give other owls a near-silent flight (4) (5) (7).

Also known as
African fishing-owl, African fish-owl, Pel’s fish-owl.
Chouette-pêcheuse de Pel.
Length: 55 - 63 cm (2)
Wingspan: c. 150 cm (2)
2.0 - 2.3 kg (2)

Pel’s fishing-owl biology

As its name suggests, Pel’s fishing-owl feeds mainly on fish, typically taking prey of around 100 to 200 grams in weight, but sometimes up to an impressive 2 kilograms (2) (4) (5). It may also take frogs, crabs, freshwater mussels, large insects, and even small crocodiles (2) (4) (5). Most hunting takes place at night, from a perch close to the water, from which the owl swoops down to snatch its prey from the water’s surface, probably after detecting surface ripples using its keen night vision (2) (4) (7). It may also sometimes wade into the water from the bank (2).

Breeding in Pel’s fishing-owl usually occurs after the flow of the river has peaked, typically between February and April, to ensure that the young can be fed as water levels begin to fall, concentrating prey in the river (2) (4) (5). In South Africa, this usually takes place between May and July (9). The species is monogamous, and pairs usually only breed, on average, every other year (2) (5). The nest is built three to twelve metres above the ground, inside a tree cavity. Although up to two eggs are laid, usually only a single chick survives. The eggs hatch after an incubation period of 32 to 33 days, the surviving chick fledging after 68 to 70 days, but remaining dependent on the adults for up to a further nine months (2) (4) (5). Young Pel’s fishing-owls reach breeding age at around two years old (4).


Pel’s fishing-owl range

Pel’s fishing-owl occurs across much of Africa, from Senegal and Gambia, east to Somalia, and south to South Africa and Namibia (2) (4) (8). The species is not migratory, but seasonal fluctuations in water levels may force some individuals to move to adjacent territories or areas (2).


Pel’s fishing-owl habitat

Pel’s fishing-owl is found in forest or woodland along the edges of rivers, swamps, lakes and estuaries, up to elevations of 1,700 metres (2) (4) (6). It may also be found well away from forest and even in semi-desert areas, as long as there are large trees growing at the water’s edge (4).


Pel’s fishing-owl status

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Pel’s fishing-owl threats

The rivers on which Pel’s fishing-owl depends for its food are under threat in many areas as a result of damming, silting, and removal of water for irrigation. 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 (2) (5) (10) (11). Changes in water supply can have knock-on effects on the riverine forest in which Pel’s fishing-owl roosts and nests (5), and in some areas this habitat is being further degraded by wood-cutting and even by tree damage by large elephant populations (10) (11). Even where the species occurs in protected areas, human activities upstream can still impact fish stocks and nesting trees (10). Although Pel’s fishing-owl has a wide distribution and is thought to have a large global population, and is not currently considered globally threatened (8), the species is likely to come under increasing pressure in the future if, as predicted by climate change models, the African continent becomes drier and the growing human population increasingly relies on and impacts the region’s river systems (10) (11).


Pel’s fishing-owl conservation

Pel’s fishing-owl is likely to occur in a number of protected areas, including Kruger National Park in South Africa (12) and in the Gamba Complex of protected areas in Gabon (13), and is listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that international trade in Pel’s fishing-owls should be carefully regulated (3). However, habitat degradation in places such as Namibia has led to the species being listed as Vulnerable in South African Red Data assessments (10), and as Critically Endangered in the Namibian Red Data book (11), and it is thought that further research, together with suitable protection and management of key areas, will be needed if Pel’s fishing-owl is to be protected from population declines and even local extinction in the future (2) (10) (11).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Find out more

For more information on owl conservation see:

World Owl Trust:

For more information on the conservation of Pel’s fishing-owl and other birds of prey in Namibia, see:

Raptors Namibia:

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



Authenticated (11/08/09) by André Botha, Manager of the Birds of Prey Working Group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, South Africa.



Flight feathers
The feathers at the end of the wing, involved in flight.
The act of incubating eggs, that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.


  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2009)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1999) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 5: Barn-Owls to Hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CITES (January, 2009)
  4. Burton, M. and Burton, R. (2002) International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Third Edition. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
  5. Tarboton, W. and Erasmus, R. (2004) Sasol Owls and Owling in Southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
  6. Sinclair, I. and Davidson, I. (2006) Sasol Southern African Birds: A Photographic Guide. Struik, Cape Town.
  7. Warhol, T. (2007) Owls. Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, New York.
  8. BirdLife International (January, 2009)
  9. Botha, A. (2009) Pers. comm.
  10. Raptors Namibia (February, 2009)
  11. Simmons, R.E. and Brown, C.J. (2006) Birds to Watch in Namibia: Red, Rare and Endemic Species. National Biodiversity Programme, Windhoek, Namibia.
  12. Engelbrecht, D. and Van Wyk, J. (2006) The “Big Six” in big trouble. Journal of Ornithology, 147: 163 - .
  13. Angehr, G.R., Schmidt, B.K., Njie, F. and Gebhard, C. (2005) Significant records and annotated site lists from bird surveys in the Gamba Complex, Gabon. Malimbus, 27: 53 - 76.

Image credit

Pel's fishing owl with tilapia prey  
Pel's fishing owl with tilapia prey

© Nigel J. Dennis /

NHPA/Photoshot Holdings Ltd
29-31 Saffron Hill
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7421 6003
Fax: +44 (0) 20 7421 6006


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