Eagles masters of the sky MzansiBride

Winona Griggs

Eagles: The Sky’s Magnificent Rulers

Once upon a time, about 50 million years ago, long before the Wright brothers ever stared dreamily at the sky, magnificent creatures called eagles dominated our vast, sunlit heavens.

And let me tell you, my first encounter with an eagle was truly unforgettable. I spotted a mighty Verreauxs’ eagle, perched regally on a swaying bush, clutching a hapless guineafowl with its powerful talons. Feathers scattered through the air like a cloud of torn dreams. That day, at the tender age of nine, I became a devoted bird enthusiast, especially captivated by the awe-inspiring raptors.

Here in South Africa, we are blessed with an abundance of eagle species. In fact, we have the privilege of witnessing 17 different types of eagles soaring through the skies, with 13 of them choosing our lands as their breeding grounds.

Let’s take a look at the Verreauxs’ eagle, shall we? These amazing birds can weigh up to 4.2 kilograms, and they have the second-largest wingspan among all the eagles in our area, measuring about 2.2 meters. (The martial eagle takes first place in that competition.) Verreauxs’ eagles are experts when it comes to hunting dassies, but they aren’t picky eaters and will gladly feast on other small mammals and ground-dwelling birds. Sometimes, they even work together as a team, with one eagle distracting their prey while the other swoops in for the catch. And you won’t be able to miss their enormous nests, which can be as wide as two meters and are usually perched high on a mountain ledge.

Did you know that the booted eagle is the smallest eagle in South Africa? It’s pretty fascinating to think about. This amazing bird has a wingspan of only 1.2 meters, which is about half the size of the Verreauxs’. And get this – it weighs up to a kilogram! That’s pretty impressive for such a small creature.

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Now here’s something interesting. Some of these bootied eagles are just passing through our region during the summer months. They come all the way from the northern hemisphere. But there are also others that stick around all year long. They actually breed in the southern and western mountainous parts of South Africa. How incredible is that?

Have you ever seen an eagle? Some eagles have very specific habitats, like the African fish-eagle and the osprey. They love living by the coast, near lagoons and estuaries. These eagles are specialists at hunting fish. While the osprey is just a visitor, the fish-eagle stays put in Africa and has a sound that is distinctly African.

Adult fish-eagles and ospreys don’t look alike, but sometimes the young ones can get confusing. The trick to tell them apart is to look at their wings. The fish-eagle has wide wings, while the osprey’s wings are more like those of a giant seagull.

There are also snake-eagles. South Africa is proud to have three species of them. The hardest one to spot is the southern-banded snake-eagle. It only lives in the coastal forests of northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Like many bird enthusiasts, I have a favorite species that I adore. Some people are drawn to the quickness of kingfishers or the vibrant colors of sunbirds. But for those of us who are fascinated by birds of prey, eagles hold a special place in our hearts.

Challenges faced by eagles

Unfortunately, not all environments are welcoming to eagles. Think about the power lines that crisscross the country, posing a potential danger to these magnificent birds. And then there’s the issue of deforestation along the eastern coastline, which has a negative impact on the crowned eagle—an already threatened species, according to the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland.

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BirdLife South Africa is working on a program to protect critical bird habitats. They are specifically focused on conserving important bird areas (IBA), such as the Amatole Forest Complex in the Eastern Cape and patches of dry savannas in the Northern Cape. These areas provide safe breeding and roosting grounds for many of the endangered eagle populations.
(Photograph by Evan Haussmann)

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