The Honey Buzzard, despite its name, is not related to the true buzzards in the genus Buteo, but is closer to the kites in the genus Perninae. Unlike the Common Buzzard it is a migratory species in France and spends the winter period from September / October until April in Africa.
They were historically persecuted from ignorance of their actual food regime and they were also killed in large numbers on their return migration passage through France, (April and May), in the coastal regions of Languedoc-Roussillon to make soup. This practice was still tolerated to some extent by the authorities following full protection status in 1979.
Currently the annual breeding population in France is in the region of eleven to fifteen thousand couples and appear to be in decline although there are insufficient recordings with large variations from one year to another.
They can be very easily confused with Common buzzards and to some extent share with them the same characteristics of variability with some much lighter or darker than the “norm”. In size they are much the same as a Common Buzzard but wings are both longer and narrower. Underneath of wings are boldly marked in adults. The tail is also longer and has two distinct transversal dark bands in addition to a dark band at the extremity of the tail. The neck is longer and the head sticks forward more than a Common Buzzard, and they will sometimes “clap” their wings in flight, especially when moving a short distance from tree to tree or during breeding displays, a type of behaviour well known to many people in wood pigeons.
Their main diet is wasps, ground nesting wasps, bumble bees, other “solitary” ground nesting bees and their larvae. These they will dig deeply for in the soil or take from trees, bushes and hedgerows and a breeding pair will destroy more than 100 wasp nests to feed their young. Due to their diet they avoid areas with large expanses of cultivated land, although early in the season or when preferred prey is hard to find they will take the same prey as the Common Buzzard., (beetles, frogs, small mammals etc). They have specially adapted feathers, almost like scales, on the face and around the eyes to protect them from stings although even with this protection they must receive a number of stings and there is speculation that they have some degree of immunity.
They are a highly migratory bird that arrives in Europe late and leaves early, so the stay in France is only four months, leaving only just enough time to nest. They spend most of their life in Africa. A few buzzards are back in France in April, but in May is the peak in arrivals, usually between 10th and 20th, although some may arrive in early June. Reverse migration begins in August, reaching its maximum in September. Only a few remain and can be seen in October, mostly young. Parades can be seen immediately on arrival and again in July during rearing.
Dense woodland with large trees is preferred for nesting and there is a tendency for them to return to the same place each year where they will either build a new nest or renovate an old nest, perhaps that of a Crow or Common Buzzard. They are monogamous and seem to have already bonded as a couple on their return from migration.
The nest is normally on a large lateral branch at between 10 and 20 metres high. On average only two eggs will be produced in May / June. Both male and female take part in the incubation which takes 30 to 35 days, then following birth the female stays with the young to feed them the larvae from the wasp combs that the male fetches to the nest. The birds fledge between 35 and 45 days but will remain with the parents for perhaps 3 months, often being “left behind” when the parents migrate and leaving later in the year.
Historically the Honey Buzzard did not seem to have suffered the same levels of decline as some other raptors. No doubt their migratory trait of arriving late and leaving early and their discrete behaviour helped to keep them partially safe from hunters in France before gaining protected status. During migration they are always in danger from being shot in some countries they pass through such as Italy, Lebanon and Malta.
The decrease in insects because of increased insecticide use could have long-term consequences for them. Finally, they are sensitive to habitat destruction, disappearance of farmland and suitable nesting sites.
The importance of conserving wasps and their nesting habitat can not be overstated as they are fundamental for the continued breeding of these birds both in France and elsewhere.
Map above shows nesting couples for Honey Buzzard in France but they are generally reckoned to be in all regions of the country.
Source: Rapaces nicheurs de France ISBN 2-603-01313-0