On the Wings of a Martial Eagle4 min read

by Ian Riddell, BirdLife Zimbabwe

Her broad blackish wings span over 2m and she stands nearly a metre tall, her otherwise dark plumage relieved by white underparts attractively spotted with brown, piercing yellow eyes stare threateningly from a dark face with an impressive hooked beak you’d best avoid, her broad head topped with a ruffled crest displaying her displeasure – and pinned beneath her large powerful feet lies her prey, a young Klipspringer.  Such a daunting presence, she demands the greatest respect when seen up close and personal – not that you want to get up close and personal, of course.  She is the Martial Eagle and along with the Verreaux’s and African Crowned Eagles is one Africa’s largest.  Polemaetus bellicosus is her scientific name, appropriately derived from the Greek polemos battle, war, and aetos eagle, and Latin bellicosus aggressive, martial and bellicus of war.  Say no more!

This stunning eagle ranges from Senegambia to the Horn of Africa and down to the Cape, preferring open woodlands, savannahs and grasslands and deserts, but avoiding the thick forests of West Africa and Cameroon to Angola and most of the DRC.  So in Zimbabwe, most areas are suitable, though it avoids much of the eastern highlands and shies away from developed areas (it was more common in the Harare area in days gone by) and is now mostly found in conservation areas.  Apart from man-induced environmental changes resulting in habitat loss and persecution such as poisoning and shooting, birds have been found drowned in concrete reservoirs, electrocuted on powerlines and have possibly suffered from egg-collecting.  With a vast territory, estimated as up to 240 km2 in Hwange National Park, which means nests can be up to 17 km apart, they are thinly distributed and classed as Vulnerable under CITES II; they are Specially Protected under the Parks and Wild Life Act and BirdLife Zimbabwe has been monitoring them under their Special Species programme since 1981.

As with most large birds they aren’t particularly fecund and might produce an average of 0.2-0.5 youngsters per year – all the more reason for protection.  The nest can be quite a substantial and one in the Gutu area had a diameter of 1.14 m, though they can stretch to 2 m – another in South Africa was 2.2 m in height, obviously one that had been reused many times.  The Gutu eagle nested in a Mountain Acacia in a tract of heavily wooded miombo woodland, and they are often on the flanks of hills, and also use mopane, baobabs, riverine Acacia, Combretum and other woodland and trees in scrubland.  A single egg is laid around April-June but a Hwange bird once had two eggs, an unusual event.  Eagle nests are often used by others, thus the White-backed Vulture and Lanner Falcons have pirated Martial nests and Bateleurs have possibly used abandoned nests.  Verreaux’s Eagle-owl, Martial Eagle, Bateleur and Lappet-faced Vulture have used the same nest in successive years, though whose nest it was to start with is uncertain in this hot-seating event!

They have a varied diet that must encompass some 80 species, predominantly mammals from viverrids such as mongooses and genets, small carnivores, primates such as Bushbabies, Vervet Monkeys and young baboons, to Scrub Hare (a frequent menu item), impala and warthog; young goat remains have been found in communal areas as well as chickens, which explains their persecution in such areas!  Other birds range from the small to ducks, guineafowl and game birds are commonly taken, White Stork and even a Red-crested Korhaan.  Whip-traps were found at a nest at Triangle some 25 km from where they were probably set – so robbing these is another source of food.  Monitor lizards dominate as preferred prey in some areas like Triangle so their diet can vary depending on habitat type and availability of prey.  A somewhat bizarre tableau was once enacted at Kennedy 1 Pan in Hwange National Park where a Martial swooped down on a flock of Helmeted Guineafowl and caught one, standing over its prey for 13 minutes.  A curious baboon eventually wandered over, which caused the eagle to abandon its still-alive meal, but the baboon didn’t take the guineafowl and wandered off.  Not to turn down a free meal a Tawny Eagle dropped down and claimed the prize but within 30 seconds, a Black-backed Jackal charged in, chased off the eagle and snatched it up, closely followed by three more contenders and the ill-starred fowl was torn apart!

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