Aerobatics, Clownery And An Amazing Family Tree

29 Apr 2021

The Bateleur Eagle is probably the most colourful raptor in Namibia. Unfortunately, like everywhere in Africa, its numbers have dropped sharply – according to experts by 50 percent during the past three generations. In southern Africa the Bateleur is classified as endangered, in Namibia as highly endangered.

Adult birds are approximately 60 cm tall and weigh around 2.25 kg. They have an impressive wingspan of 1.8 m and the most wing feathers (25) of any bird of prey. The tail is very short. In flight the feet protrude slightly beyond the tail feathers, which is unusual for raptors. Striking is the bright red base of the bill, the red facial skin and a featherless area around the eye. The bill is yellow with a black tip. The legs and feet of adult birds are red. Juveniles have brown plumage, the feet are whitish and the facial skin as well as the featherless area around the eye is a greenish-blue. Juvenile birds have to undergo moulting at least four times within six to seven years before they finally sport the adult plumage with all the black, brown, white and cream-coloured feathers. Males and females can only be distinguished in flight by a black band on the white underside of the wing. In males the band is wider than in females.

 Sub-adult Bateleur Eagles already have red legs and feet, the feathers are more black than brown and the facial skin is slightly red. Bird expert Steve Braine observed a sub-adult Bateleur Eagle breeding in a nest in the Zambezi Region. He says that Bateleur Eagles are sexually mature at around the age of five, but have not yet grown their adult plumage.

The colourful raptors feed on small mammals, reptiles, other birds and surprisingly often on fresh carrion. Flying at a height of 50 to 150 metres they patrol long distances and discover even the smallest of carcasses. Most of those animals have been killed in traffic, but every so often the birds of prey unfortunately get hold of poisoned pieces of meat put down by farmers to bait so-called problem animals (black-backed jackals and caracal). Poison is the main reason why Bateleur numbers in Namibia have dropped drastically.

The closest relatives of Bateleur Eagles are the Snake Eagles, of which there are three species in Namibia. Bateleurs, however, rarely eat snakes. They owe their French name to their amusing behaviour on the ground as well as in the air. The Bateleur’s colourful feathers and his way of walking are reminiscent of a street performer, especially when he suddenly stops, spreads his wings and tilts them backward. Some experts say that the bird is sunbathing, but it is also believed that it signals its position on the ground to a partner high up in the air. Bateleur Eagles show off their aerobatic skills during the mating season and when they chase away intruders from their territory.

Bateleur Eagles are found in and around Etosha National Park, and especially in the north-eastern parts of the country. At the waterholes in Khaudum National Park several of the raptors can often be seen drinking at the same time.

Author: Dirk Heinrich

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