These three massive eagles are the apex predators in their respective habitats; at the top of the food chain and feared by all creatures in the veld. What do they eat? A better question is what don’t they eat? They don’t really bother with very tiny prey like insects or rodents, but anything from the size of a bushbaby to a baboon is fair game. They even regularly prey on antelope! Armed with lethal talons and super-powered eyesight, they use intelligent strategies to outwit their prey. Read on, if you dare…

MARTIAL EAGLE
BRE√čKOPAREND

Favourites: Monitor lizards, hares, korhaans
Biggest prey: Antelope up to 8 kg
Strategies: Great eyesight, long stoops

The majestic Martial is Africa’s biggest eagle. This is a serious predator in the African savanna – feared by almost all the members of the ecosystem. It is perfectly adapted to its hunting lifestyle. Much of the day is spent soaring, keeping an eye open for prey. A Martial’s eye is almost the size of human’s, but they can see 3-4 times as well as we can. That means that prey may be spotted as far as 6 km away. When they spot prey they glide down in a shallow stoop, controlling their angle of attack with their wings. Although its talons are not quite as large as those of the powerful Crowned Eagle, the hind-claw of a Martial still measures a scary 5 cm – more than enough to pierce the skull of nearly any prey species. Martials also have a very wide mouth, meaning that they are adapted to swallow their prey whole or in big chunks. Gruesome!

Smaller prey may be killed simply by the force of the impact of a stooping Martial. But large prey may need to be strangled, or held in place until they die from blood loss. While Martials may take slow-flying birds in flight, most of their prey is caught on the ground. If they are successful, they will “mantle” over their prey with their wings open. Small prey may be taken up to the safety of a tree, but large prey items may be left right there, with the birds returning for up to five days to feed. That is, if the hyenas and jackals don’t make off with their catch. They may also break off chunks of meat, such as a nice juicy leg, to bring back to their nest.

I’ve heard stories of Martials gliding alongside tourists’ cars in Kruger Park, using the vehicles as cover, and then swooping onto prey at the last second.

CROWNED EAGLE
KROONAREND

Favourites: Dassies, antelope, monkeys
Biggest prey: Antelope up to 20 kg
Strategies: Camouflage, agility and ambush

In terms of its sheer power and the size of its talons, this impressive forest-dwelling eagle is Africa’s strongest. It regularly tackles very large prey, using its lethal talons to puncture the skull and pierce the brain of its victims. It is particularly frightening that there is a record of a human skull in a Crowned Eagle nest. Eek!

Unlike the other large eagles, which hunt mainly on the wing, Crowned Eagles are ambush predators. Their mottled underparts help them to blend into the forest background, and they watch and listen patiently from a branch for prey. When they spot something they soar right into the vegetation, weaving between the trees and making quick changes in direction. Their short, broad wings and long tails are adaptations to this agile flight style. Like Leopards, Crowned Eagles will carry their prey up into the trees to keep it out of reach of scavengers. They can fly almost vertically upwards and can lift heavy prey effortlessly. Very large prey may be dismembered on the ground and carried piece by piece.

Pairs have a secret trick for hunting monkeys: one eagle flies above the canopy where all the monkeys can see it. When the monkeys start making alarm calls, this tells the second (unseen) eagle flying below the canopy where to strike! Mammals make up the largest part of a Crowned Eagle’s diet. In terms of mammals alone, about 42% of the diet is dassies (both Rock Hyraxes and Tree Hyraxes), 23% is antelope and 7% is primates. Where Crowned Eagles live near humans, such as in and around Durban, they sometimes prey on dogs and cats. So keep an eye on your pets if there is an eagle in the neighbourhood. This is very rare though.

VERREAUX’S EAGLE
WITKRUISAREND

Favourites: Hyraxes (dassies)
Biggest prey: Baboons; Kudu calf (indirect kill)
Strategies: Gravity

These hunters are not only enormous, fast and deadly, but they are also intelligent. In fact, the male and female often work together as a team to secure prey, and then share their food. One of their hunting strategies uses an invisible, but ever-present and potentially deadly force: gravity. The eagles exploit gravity by using the element of surprise to scare animals off of cliffs. It works well with their main prey: hyraxes (dassies). Either the eagle pair cruises along, close to the surface of a cliff, hoping to give nervous little dassies the fright of their lives. Or, the first eagle flies ahead to flush prey for the second eagle to grab. There is even a record of them using their gravity trick to chase a young Kudu off a cliff!

I once had the opportunity to witness this remarkable teamwork. A pair of eagles swept down from a cliff, causing all the dassies to scatter. Some took refuge in a dense shrub. One of the eagles landed on a nearby rock and kept watch; the other landed on top of the bush and started jumping up and down while flapping its huge wings. It wasn’t long before one of the dassies couldn’t take the stress anymore and made a desperate dash for a nearby rock crevice. Needless to say, the eagle watching from the rock was ready and immediately pounced on its victim!

Dassies make up 50-90% of their prey and is by far the most important single food item. In some areas these eagles specialise in tortoises, which they open by dropping them onto flat rocks. I feel sorry for the tortoises – it is a sad sight to see their shells scattered over the rocks slabs. But it gives you even more respect for the awesome power of these eagles.