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The African Fish Eagle – Kleptoparasite Extraordinaire

Saturday 3 April 2010

The National Bird of two countries - Zimbabwe and Zambia – the African Fish Eagle is a bird that, with its gorgeous snow white head, once seen is never forgotten.

The Eagle is found in most parts of the continent – as long as you are south of the edge of the Sahara Desert.  Also known as the African Sea Eagle it is found anywhere near where there is water containing fish.  It has a distinctive call which immediately identifies it, but what really stands out is its magnificent plumage.

It feeds mostly on fish – as the name suggests – but will also feed on other birds that feed and nest near water, such as flamingos.  It is also a well known kleptoparasite.  What that means is that it will steal prey from other birds – including its own species.  After all, why do all the hard work when you can just take your meal ready made and delivered?

It is a large bird with the female being bigger than the male.  She will typically weigh in at about eight pounds with the males reaching only around five and a half.  The males have a wing span of six feet while the female span reaching an enormous eight feet.  A very distinct bird, the mostly brown body and black wings are topped off with a beautiful snow white head and breast.  The tails too are typically white with the beak yellow with a black tip.  Overall, the bird has a particularly patrician look about it.

Like many species of birds the African Fish Eagle, once it finds a mate, stays loyal for life.  Breeding happens in the dry season when the level of water in the lakes is low and fish easier to catch.  The birds like to have more than one home and will often maintain multiple nesting sites, choosing the one that is most suitable each year.  The nest are used again and again and so grow very large with some of them reaching six feet across and four feet deep.

Once breeding is commenced the female will lay up to three eggs and she will be the one responsible for the incubation of the eggs. However, the male will (perhaps reluctantly) take his turn and allow his mate to go and hunt.  This is necessary as the incubation of the eggs lasts up to forty five days – if the male were to abandon the nest during this period the female would starve and the eggs would never hatch.

However, the male and female of this species will share equally anything that they catch so this would not happen.  Perhaps the female leaves the nest simply to stretch her wings.  After all, forty five days is a long time to sit in the same place.

The birds will very seldom raise all three chicks.  The eggs hatch a few days apart from each other and the older hatchling – given the advantage that a few days give it – usually kills the other chicks as they hatch.  After around seventy days the chick can feed itself and begins to leave the nest a few weeks after that.

The African FIsh Eagle hunts by perching in a tree above the waterline.  Once is spies a fish it will swoop down and snatch it from the water.  If by chance the fish is too heavy for it to lift in to the skies it will drag it across the water to the shore.  Fish are not the only food that the African Sea Eagle hunts – it will take waterfowl, turtles and baby crocodiles too – not to mention anything it can steal from its hapless neighbours.  Goliath Herons (yes, they are big) will lose a fair percentage of their catch to this Eagle.

Although they will hunt at any time of the day, they are early risers and prefer to get it out of the way by ten in the morning at the latest.  A beautiful and distinctive bird, the African Fish Eagle is not endangered at the moment.  It serves as another reminder of the beauties of Africa and the diversity of its animals.

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