The martial eagle is truly an apex predator and known to be one of the world’s most powerful avian predators. With a wingspan of up to 6 feet and weighing in at a massive 5 kilograms, many animals would do well to keep a watchful eye on the skies as they feed out in the open savannahs.
Polemaetus actually means war-like (menacing appearance)… enough said, right?
Seeing martial eagles on Kruger National Park safaris is relatively common as they usually perch on the top of big trees like marula, leadwood and baobab trees, scanning the bush for potential opportunities.
With its massive wingspan, it is regarded as the fourth largest eagle in the world, coming in behind the Stellar’s sea eagle, white tailed eagle and the wedge-tailed eagle.
The difference between males and females, with particular reference to their size is quite large, with females generally being heavier than males. They have white underparts or bellies with brown spots and dark brown upperparts and bright yellow, glaring eyes.
As mentioned previously, they often perch at the top of large trees so spotting them is not difficult, and with their massive size, it's quite easy, off the bat to have a good idea of what you are looking at. A quick scan with a pair of binoculars will confirm the presence of the martial eagle.
A bird with this presence is not threatened by other eagles and predators and will often stay perched on the top of trees scanning the savanna until quite late in the morning, before taking to the skies and soaring for most of the day.
They have very keen eyesight, about three times better than humans, and can spot potential prey from high up in the sky, over distances of around five kilometres. Once spotted they will descend onto their prey at great speed and accuracy, killing their prey with their sharp hind claw, one of the very few eagles that hunt in this way.
Most will hunt from perches and not from a soaring start like the martial eagle. The eagle will then pick up and transfer its prey to a nearby tree to consume it in peace, away from larger predators such as hyenas and lions.
In the Kruger National Park, they are mostly found in open savanna habitats, occasionally in more wooded areas, but clearings in wooded areas are important for them to successfully hunt. Whilst we have seen them practically all over Kruger Park, from more wooded areas like Pretoriuskop Restcamp and Skukuza Restcamp, they tend to be more prevalent around restcamps that are surrounded by open bushveld. Satara and Lower Sabie come to mind.
Fighting amongst themselves or other large raptors is a behaviour not often seen, but when they do, they are likely to engage by grabbing each other’s talons whilst in flight, tumbling towards the ground in an uncontrollable manner. Most often they will release before hitting the ground, but not always, and in some cases, eagles have been known to impact the ground, sometimes resulting in death.
With their powerful talons, it has been referenced that they are able to, at times, grab the other birds wing or body and literally crush them to death.
Martial eagles tend to, if left undisturbed, use the same nests year after year, improving and adding on to them as they see fit.
They tend to be solitary, and do not tolerate other martial eagles in their area, outside of the breeding season when a male and female pair up to breed.
The diet of the martial eagle will vary greatly depending on the opportunities that it is presented with and the availability of suitable prey species. They will eat mammals, reptiles and other birds, again, depending on what opportunity is presented. The majority of prey species hunted by martial eagle vary in weight from one to five kilograms, but has been recorded as high as fifteen kilograms.
When it comes to mammals, hares and hyraxes dominate the list of prey. Interestingly, there are recorded cases of martial eagles dispatching pangolins for food. How they are hunted and killed is, however, unclear.
Vervet monkeys and Chacma baboons also form part of the martial eagle’s diet. In the case of the Chacma baboon, it is always the young that are taken as the adult baboons, with their long canines, would probably be a stretch too far and the eagle stands a real chance of being injured or killed.
In the Kruger National Park, birds such as guineafowl, francolins (spurfowl), bustards, korhaan, doves, pigeons and hornbills are hunted successfully. Interestingly, the ground hornbill is included in this list - a bird that is large and weighs approximately 3.5 kilograms.
The list of reptiles included in the martial eagle’s diet includes monitor lizards, tortoises and snakes, including venomous snakes such as puff adders, mambas, cobras and boomslang.
The average home range of the martial eagle in the Kruger National Park is 140 square kilometres with nests averaging about 11 kilometres apart.
In southern Africa, they will breed throughout the year, making a rather untidy nest out of sticks, placed usually in the fork of a tree. They usually lay only one egg every two years, that is incubated for about 47 days, mostly by the female.
Once hatched, the male will hunt for food for both the female and young chick, but after seven weeks the female resumes her hunting activities and reduces her time spent at the nest. The young eagle will leave the nest around 100 days after hatching.
There are a few reasons as to why the martial eagle is not a common sight in Kruger Park. As always, humans killing wildlife are partly to blame. With their ability to hunt and kill livestock, they are often shot or poisoned.
However, their massive territories, and low reproductive rates also make them a naturally scarce raptor. They tend to have a genuine dislike for humans and will usually not occupy regions where humans are common.
We remember one occasion when driving in Kruger Park, cruising along, our guests and I minding our own business and casually looking for animals to photograph. Suddenly and rather shockingly, we saw the shadow of what seemed like a small airplane passing over us and onto the road ahead.
I immediately looked up thinking, “why is everything so silent?” And there it was, a beautiful female martial eagle, flying low over the road, over our vehicle and into a nearby tree.
In hindsight, yes - a small airplane is probably dramatic, but believe me, they are massive, magnificent birds, perfectly designed for killing and thriving in the African bush.
And this air of total disregard for us as humans permeates their being, as if to allude, “Yes I know I am magnificent, move along, you’re only bothering me right now.”
Great memories... the Kruger National Park, what a treasure!
Share this article with a friend
Travel Company in South Africa, African Safari, Luxury Safari Company