Birds of Prey: The Madagascar Fish Eagle
Madagascar Fish Eagle
Every now and then you come across a species that is so rare and confined to such a small range that you wonder how on earth the species will survive. This is the case with the Madagascar Fish Eagle. This beautiful bird of prey is found in just a small area on the west coast of the African island of Madagascar. While the Madagascar Fish Eagle is the largest bird of prey in Madagascar, it is also one of the rarest raptors not just on this Island, but in the entire world.
The Madagascar Fish Eagle is a fairly large bird and is classified as a medium-sized sea eagle. They average from 24 to 32 inches in length and have a wingspan of approximately 6 feet. As with other birds of prey the male is smaller than the female and averages about 5 pounds. The larger female averages about 7 pounds but can weigh up to almost 8 pounds for the largest individuals.
Their coloring is a dark reddish-brown on their body and wings, and they have a lighter pale brown color on the top of their head. Their throat and face are closer to a dirty white and their short tails are white. They have grey legs with large talons, which come in handy when hunting for fish. Juveniles are lighter in color with a pale underbody and a dark tail. They will reach their full adult plumage after about five years.
Their closest relative is the African Fish Eagle, which is similar in size and color except for its very white head and chin.
Habitat and Range
The Madagascar Fish Eagle resides only on the island of Madagascar, which is off of the southeastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and comprises about 227 thousand square miles. The Madagascar Fish Eagle resides predominantly on the west coast of the island. The population is divided into three sub-groups with one occupying the Antsalova region of west central Madagascar, another along the Tsiribihuna River, and the other located along the northwest coast.
Madagascar Fish Eagle Range
For the most part this eagle prefers dry deciduous wooded areas with large trees that are near bodies of water containing an ample population of fish. They can be found in and around the marine islands and mangroves of the western coastal area along with the rivers and lakes that are found in the Antsalova area.
As the species is confined to this one area of Madagascar they generally are not migratory although juveniles will travel when seeking out a territory.
As their name implies, the diet of the Madagascar Fish Eagle is predominantly fish. They like to perch in the large trees that border the lakes, rivers and shoreline, and they are a very patient hunter as they will sit for hours waiting to spot a potential prey. Their hunting style is to skim the water and snare their victim while in flight as opposed to the dive and catch method. While other sea eagle species will rely on non-aquatic prey to supplement their diet the Madagascar Fish Eagle seems to rely almost exclusively on fish along with the occasional crab or turtle.
The breeding season for the Madagascar Fish Eagle generally begins in May and the courtship is quickly followed by the construction of a nest. Nests are constructed of sticks and can be quite large measuring up to five feet across. They are usually located on a rocky cliff or more often near the top of a large tree.
Eggs are usually laid in late May through mid July and the clutch size is one to two eggs. The incubation period lasts for 37 to 43 days with an average incubation period of 40 days. Both parents participate in incubating the eggs with the female doing the bulk of the work while the male brings food to the nest. At times the species exhibits cooperative breeding and polyandry, where a female mates with more than one male. The “extra” males will also on occasion help in the incubation process. This characteristic is unusual among eagles as most choose a single partner and mate for life.
As is the case with other raptor species usually only one chick will survive due to siblicide. This is where one sibling, usually the older and stronger eaglet kills its younger and weaker sibling. It’s a cruel fate of nature but it is designed to ensure that the stronger chick survives and prospers.
The eaglets will remain in and around the nest for a period of up to 89 days. Typically after about 70 days they will start to venture from the nest to nearby branches. The young eagles will fledge after about 4 months and it will take another 14 to 28 weeks after fledgling takes place for the young eagles to start to disperse. They will remain in the parent’s territory until the next breeding season starts.
The current best estimate of the population of Madagascar Fish Eagles puts the number at only about 222 individuals. This includes about 100 breeding pairs that have been identified and juveniles. With such low numbers and with a decreasing habitat due to human intervention the outlook for this majestic bird is questionable at best. The Madagascar Fish Eagle is currently listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. The next step on the IUCN scale is extinction in the wild.
IUCN: International Union for Conservation of Nature
With such a small population remaining in the wild the risks are many for this raptor. In addition to habitat destruction and human persecution there is now the problem of inbreeding, which can have serious implications for a species.
If there is a glimmer of hope for the Madagascar Fish Eagle it is that its small population seems to be stable at the moment. There are conservation programs currently on-going in Madagascar that aim to increase the number of breeding pairs to at least 250. A program to rescue chicks from siblicide and raise them in captivity has increased the number of surviving chicks.
The world-renowned Peregrine Fund is also involved and is raising awareness among the locals through a series of community outreach programs. Through their efforts it is hoped that the persecution of this national treasure will be reduced and that the areas surrounding their natural habitat will be protected.
No one knows for sure what the future holds for the Madagascar Fish Eagle. It would be a crime of humanity against nature if this species is allowed to go extinct. We can only hope that the efforts underway are sufficient to save the King of the Madagascar Forest.
Up to 35% of the breeding Madagascar Fish Eagle population exhibits the cooperative breeding strategy known as polyandry.
Most fish eagles species have a white tail or some other area of white feathers.
The favorite fish of the Madagascar Fish Eagle is tilapia.
Something seemingly as harmless as converting wetland areas to rice paddies by the locals has had a negative impact on this eagle as it reduces the supply of fish available.
While most fish eagles rely to a large extent on a fish diet they are for the most part generalist eaters and will eat whatever they can catch. The Madagascar Fish Eagle is one of the few exceptions to this as they rarely eat anything other than fish.
The Madagascar Fish Eagle has a very pleasant melodious call that is similar to its African mainland relative the African Fish Eagle.
At least 17 species endemic to Madagascar have become extinct over the last 1,000 years with human intervention and activity being the major contributing factor.
The Madagascar Fish Eagle is one of the five most threatened raptor species in the world
Other articles on African Raptors
- Birds of Prey - The Verreaux's Eagle
The Verreaux's Eagle is one of Africa's largest and most impressive birds of prey. Found throughout the mountains of southern and eastern Africa, this beautiful eagle is also known as the Black Eagle.
- Birds of Prey - The Martial Eagle
The Martial Eagle is one of the largest Eagles in the world and is found only in sub-Saharan Africa. This beautiful bird of prey is Africa's largest eagle and one of the most powerful raptors in Africa.
- Birds of Prey - The African Crowned Eagle
The African Crowned Eagle is the most powerful of Africa's "Big Three" eagle species. This large and colorful raptor with the double crest and menacing look is found only in sub-Saharan Africa.
© 2013 Bill De Giulio