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Birds of Prey: The Verreaux's Eagle
Another of Africa’s large birds of prey is the Verreaux’s Eagle. With its striking black plumage this large eagle is also known as the Black Eagle and is found in the sub-Saharan regions of southern and eastern Africa. Built much like the Golden Eagle, the Verreaux’s Eagle was named for the French ornithologist and botanist Jules Verreaux. Verreaux visited South Africa in the early 1800s and helped to found the South African Museum in Cape Town.
The Verreaux’s Eagle is mostly black with a very distinctive white V on its back, which is appropriate with its name. They have white feathers on the underside of their wings and at the base of their backs. Their coloring gives them a very distinctive look and they are easily recognizable. The male and female are very similar in color and the female is slightly larger than the male, which is typical of birds of prey. Males weigh on average between 6 to 10 pounds while females average 7 to 13 pounds. Although the Verreaux’s Eagle is not as large as the Martial Eagle, Africa’s largest eagle, they are still a formidable bird of prey.
The Verreaux’s Eagle can measure up to three feet in length and will vary from about 30 inches up to 38 inches. They have an impressive wingspan that can reach over seven feet and are very capable and agile aviators. They have dark eyes and a yellow and grey beak. Their feet are quite large and are about twenty percent larger than that of the Golden Eagle, even though the Verreaux’s is slightly smaller than the Golden. This is most likely due to the overall larger size of their prey which requires larger feet and talons for carrying their victims.
Young Verreaux’s Eagles are usually lighter in color and appear to have a mix of light and dark brown coloring with a black face. They are born with a fluffy white down coat but quickly transition into a beautiful array of brown, black, tan and white before they reach their adult coloring.
Habitat and Range
The Verreaux’s Eagle is found only in Africa and they are particularly fond of the mountainous and rocky terrain of Eastern and Southern Africa. This eagle needs a rather large range in which to hunt, up to ten square kilometers.
While they are fairly concentrated along the eastern and southern parts of Africa there are also local pockets located in Chad and western Africa. The Verreaux’s Eagle needs this mountainous terrain with rocky ledges and cliffs in which to nest and hunt their favorite prey, the rock hyrax.
Unlike most other species of eagle the Verreaux’s Eagle usually build their nests on cliff ledges as opposed to trees. The nest is quite large, measuring up to six feet across and is made of sticks with an inner lining of green leaves. The nest can be up to three feet deep and will sometimes have a whitewashed look to it, which is the result of the bird’s droppings. They will also sometimes build more than one nest and will switch from one nest to the other from year to year. Nest building or reconstruction usually takes place from March to April in anticipation of the female laying eggs in April.
The favorite prey of the Verreaux’s Eagle is the hyrax, which is a small mammal that is also referred to as a dassie. The rock hyrax is found in the mountainous, rocky areas of Africa and they usually live in groups of up to eighty animals.
The rock hyrax is a rotund little creature that can weigh up to nine pounds. The size of the Verreaux’s territory is usually directly related to the size and location of the hyrax population. If the hyrax population is limited the Verreaux’s Eagle will expand it’s hunting range and may resort to hunting other prey including guinea-fowl, hares, rabbits, tortoises, and other small to medium sized mammals.
The hunting method of the Verreaux’s Eagle is normally one that involves stealth and surprise, as they like to swoop around the craggy edges of cliffs to surprise and startle their prey. They will sometimes hunt from a perch but this is done less frequently. The Verreaux’s Eagle has also been known to hunt in pairs, which is quite unique for eagles, but helps to increase the element of surprise. If food is scarce they may also resort to stealing food from other raptors or to eating carrion.
Like other eagles and birds of prey the Verreaux’s Eagle will mate for life. Once a mate is found the pair will begin the process of constructing a nest. The female will usually lay two eggs, very rarely three, sometime between April and June. The eggs will be laid approximately four days apart. It will take about forty five days for the eggs to hatch and both eagles will share in the incubation process with the female doing about seventy percent of the work. The chicks will hatch about four days apart and this starts what is known as the Cain and Abel stage. During this stage the older of the two chicks will attack and eventually kill its younger sibling over the course of a week or so in one of those odd survival of the fittest scenarios of nature.
While the chick is still young the male will bring food to the nest for the female to feed the eaglet. The female will stay in the nest to defend and protect the chick and she alone will feed the eaglet. Fledging will take place about 97 days after the chick hatches.
The young eagle will choose its moment to leave the nest for the first time and this starts a three month period in which the parents will teach the young eagle the skills necessary to survive on its own.
Toward the end of this period, usually sometime in November to December, the male parent will start to show aggression towards the young eagle. With the skills to survive on its own the young eagle will fly further and further from the nest and will eventually not return to the territory. When this happens another successful breeding season has finished and the parents will rest for the next couple of months before starting the process over again.
The Verreaux’s Eagle is currently classified as of Least Concern, which means that the species currently does not qualify as threatened.
As with most large birds of prey with no natural predators we humans are the biggest threat to the species. Urban development is the biggest factor as this inevitably leads NOT to the destruction of their habitat, which is rocks and mountains, but to a decline in the hyrax population, which is turn forces the Verreaux’s to seek other food sources or territories. Those eagles that reside just outside of cities and urban areas are feeling the strain of a reduced hyrax population. While the presence of humans itself does not appear to adversely affect the birds, the result of development on their food source does. Working in the favor of the Verreaux’s Eagle is the fact that the range of many of these eagles is in remote mountainous areas so they are less affected by human intervention?
Great up close look at the Verreaux's eagle
The total population of Verreaux’s Eagles is estimated at somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000. While this is a rather large range and certainly not an exact number, the difficulty in counting the Verreaux’s Eagle is partly due to their remote habitat and the lack of monitoring, except in a few areas.
Regardless of their vulnerability, steps are being taken to insure the long-term survival of this beautiful bird. Educational programs are helping to enlighten communities about these magnificent eagles and to show the public that these birds can help to control rodent populations while generating tourism dollars to their communities. The bottom line is that it’s a win-win for everyone when the Verreaux’s Eagles are thriving.
Interesting Facts on the Verreaux's Eagle
- The Verreaux's Eagle is one of four large eagle species in Africa. The other three are the African Fish Eagle, the Crowned Eagle, and the Martial Eagle.
- In some areas the hyrax makes up over 90 percent of the Verreaux's diet. This is one of the most diet specific birds of prey in the world.
- The Verreaux's Eagles have a very high success rate when hunting, which is a result of their hunting in pairs.
- Because of their black coloring the Verreaux's Eagle is much more uncomfortable in the heat than in the cold. On hot days they can be seen panting, much like a dog does.
- The Verreaux's Eagle is an amazing flying machine. They can often be seen riding the thermals and gliding for long periods.
- The Verreaux's Eagle can live to forty years in the wild.
- Although they mate for life, they will replace their companion if he or she meets an untimely fate.
Verreaux's Eagle gliding by
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© 2013 Bill De Giulio