The Pel's Fishing Owl (Scotopelia peli)

The Pel's Fishing Owl is also known as the African Fish (or Fishing) Owl.

Pel's Fishing Owl

It has the widest distribution of all the African fishing owls, and is the largest in this class. Although there can be quite a noticeable variation in their colouring, Pel's Fishing Owls are generally characterised by their reddish-brown colouring. They have large, dark eyes on a somewhat rounded head, with no ear tufts. It has a short tail. The upper part of the bird is dark with even darker markings, while the underside is pale with muted markings.

Pel's fishing owl feeds almost exclusively on fish, catching them in a similar style to the African fish eagle, but, it also occasionally catches young Nile crocodiles. Because it preys on fish, the Pel's Fishing Owl has a number of adaptations that allow it to be as successful as possible. For example, the legs and toes are left unfeathered so that they do not retain excess water when constantly being dipped into the water to seize prey.

The lack of ear tufts is an adaptation that has to do with the owl’s not needing the sharp sense of hearing that other owls, which need to hear their prey, possess. Because the fish cannot hear the owl approaching, the bird’s feathers do not need to be smoothly finished to reduce sound in flight, as they are in owls who hunt rodents and birds, for example.


  • Mass: 2 to 2.3 kg
  • Length: 55 to 63 cm
  • Wingspan: About 150 cm

Pel's Fishing Owl occupies forests and woods that are close to an abundant water source, such as a dam, lake or river, in which is can find its food. Less commonly, it can be found in semi-arid regions, as long as there are large, established trees situated close to water.

This bird species can be found in various countries in Africa; including Senegal, Gambia, Somalia, Namibia and South Africa. It does not migrate on a seasonal basis, but will move to new territory if the food supply in their existing habitat is depleted. In South Africa, find it in the Kruger National Park, Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve in the Soutpansberg and the Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo.

The Pel's Fishing Owl is, as its name implies, a fish-eating bird. It can catch fish that weigh up to two kilograms in its powerful talons, although this is unusual. However, its diet will also extend to other prey, if and when necessary. This includes frogs, crabs, mussels, insects and juvenile crocodiles.

The Pel's Fishing Owl usually hunts at night. It perches in the tree, looking onto the water and waiting for fish to approach the surface. As they do, the bird will swoop down and snatch the fish from the water. Occasionally, it will also wade into the shallow water in search of prey. It is not a particularly social bird in any other sense.

The male and female birds communicate with one another using hoots. The male has a deep, reverberating call (hoom-hut), which he will repeat five to six times per minute. This call carries for up to three kilometres. The female’s call is a higher pitch and is usually a single hoot followed by a double hoot-oot.

Once the river level has peaked, the Pel's Fishing Owls will begin to breed, so that the young can be fed when the water’s level is lower and prey is more concentrated and abundant. In South Africa, this is between May and July, the chilliest time of the year. Pel's Fishing Owls are monogamous, loyally sticking to one mate. They breed once every two years, usually, and the female will lay two eggs. It is very rare for both chicks to survive. Sexual maturity is reached at two years of age.

The nest of these birds is constructed inside a tree cavity, at an optimal height of between three and 12 metres above the ground. The incubation period lasts for 32 to 33 days. The chick(s) is considered a fledgling at about 70 days, but will continue to rely on its parents for nine months. It is unclear how long the Pel's Fishing Owl can expect to live in the wild.

The major threat facing the Pel's Fishing Owl is the damage being done to the rivers and lakes that contain their prey. Water pollution, silting, damming and overfishing are all compromising the ready availability of food. Still, this owl is not facing major threats to its population numbers and is still classified as Least Concern.

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