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Birds of Prey: The Martial Eagle
Africa is home to some of the most stunning birds of prey found anywhere and the most magnificent of them is undoubtedly the Martial Eagle. The Martial Eagle is the largest of Africa’s eagles and is the fifth largest eagle worldwide based on average weight and average wingspan. Found only in sub-Saharan Africa, this beautiful crested eagle is very identifiable due to it size and plumage.
The Martial Eagle measures anywhere from 30 to 38 inches in length, which is slightly less than other large eagles such as the Philippine Eagle, the Harpy Eagle, and the Steller’s Sea Eagle. It’s weight, however, is where the Marital more than holds its own as it can weigh in anywhere from 7 pounds up to a hefty 14 pounds. With an average weight of approximately 10 pounds the Martial is only out-weighed by four other eagle species worldwide.
As with other eagles and birds of prey the female is larger than the male and also is more spotted on its chest and under parts. The Marital Eagle has a very impressive wingspan which can reach anywhere from about six feet up to an astounding eight and a half feet for the largest females.
The plumage of the Martial is very distinct, especially in adults, and consists of a dark brown color covering its head, upper chest, shoulders and back. Its under parts are white with dark spotting and its under wing area is a lighter brown. Their legs are white and as one would suspect they have large, powerful talons. Their short crest is rarely exposed except when in a heightened state of alertness and they have a short, barred tail. The beak of the Marital is dark and they have bright yellow eyes.
Young Martial Eagles are not as dark as adults and the coloration on the young eagles head and chest is often more whitish. It takes seven years for the Martial Eagle to reach its adult plumage.
Habitat and Range
Found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Martial Eagle favors areas of open woodlands and wooded savanna. They avoid dense tropical forests but need trees from which to nest. They can also be found in semi-desert regions and thorn bush habitats and appear to be more abundant in protected regions such as the National Parks of southern Africa.
The range of the Martial can be up to fifty square miles for a pair and they move about their range depending on food availability. The Martial does not migrate but will move locally up to several hundred miles. As a general rule they prefer to avoid contact with humans and prefer desolate areas.
The Martial Eagle is at the top of the avian food chain in Africa and as such has no natural predators. Their diet can vary greatly depending on food availability but their preference is game birds.
There are a number of ground dwelling birds that the Martial will hunt including bustards, francolins and guineafowl. They will also prey on storks, small ostrich and waterfowl. In some regions of Africa the Martial Eagles diet will incorporate more mammals and these can include squirrels, hares, mongoose, jackals, and young serval cats. Reptiles are also a part of their diet and include snakes and lizards. As you can see the Marital Eagle has a varied diet and will prey on almost anything given the opportunity and availability.
Because the Martial Eagle hunts by eyesight, they will wait until the sun rises before leaving their nest or roosting spot. As they spend much of their day on the wing they will generally hunt while in flight although they will occasionally hunt from a perch. With its excellent eyesight they can spot prey from up to five kilometers away. The Martial will circle high above its territory riding the warm rising thermals and upon spotting a potential victim will stoop sharply to catch their prey by surprise.
Like other species of eagle the Martial Eagle is monogamous and mates for life. There is no set breeding period for the Martial Eagle and it depends on their location as to when they will breed. In the Sudan the mating season is in January to June while in Senegal it is from November to April. In other parts of Africa the breeding season can be almost any month but the most common time of year seems to be April to July.
The nest of the Martial Eagle is usually built in large trees at a height of anywhere from twenty to eighty feet above the ground. The nest is made of sticks lined with green foliage, and after regular use for a number of years can become quite large, measuring up to six feet in depth and diameter.
The Martial Eagle has a very slow breeding rate and will produce just one egg, very rarely two, every two years. The female does much of the incubation and will only leave the nest to feed. The incubation period is about 45 days and the newborn eaglet will become active after twenty days or so. It will take up to ten weeks for the young eagle plumage to grow and the first flight takes place at about 100 days. The young eagle will remain in the care of its parents as it takes to flight and learns to hunt, and will remain somewhat attached to the nesting site for up to six months. Eventually the young eagle will leave to establish a territory of its own.
- The Martial eagle is one of the strongest eagles in Africa and can reportedly knock an adult man off his feet.
- This eagle has enough power in its talons to break the arm of a man.
- The Martial Eagle has an average lifespan of about 16 years in the wild. Their maximum lifespan is estimated to be about 30 years.
- They spend much of their day soaring at such high heights that they are barely visible, even with binoculars.
- They are strong enough to hunt small impala and gazelles although it is rare to take on mammals of this size.
- The Martial Eagle is the only member of the genus Polemaetus.
- They have excellent eyesight that is three to four times that of a human.
- The Martial Eagle will bathe daily in order to keep it feathers clean.
The estimated population of the Martial Eagle is about 30,000 although it is difficult to ascertain given the eagles shy nature and avoidance of humans. It is currently listed as Near Threatened due to a major decline in their numbers over the last few years. As with most of these apex birds of prey their greatest threat comes from habitat loss and humans. Viewed by farmers as a threat to their livestock the Martial Eagle has been poisoned and shot. Most of this persecution is unfounded as domestic animals make up a very small part of the eagles diet. Other threats come from power line collisions and habitat destruction. The eagle’s low reproductive rate is also a problem for its long-term survival.
The future success of the Martial Eagle will depend in large part on the education of African farmers to understand that the Martial Eagle is an integral part of a healthy environment. This along with an increase in protected areas so they can hunt and nest will greatly increase the chances of their long-term survival.
The Marital Eagle - Poetry in Motion
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© 2012 Bill De Giulio