Always one for a dramatic bird of prey, Mike Unwin casts his binoculars in the direction of this great showman
agles tend to attract grandiose descriptions: ‘deadly assassin’, ‘master of the skies’, you know the kind of thing. But Africa’s bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus) bucks the trend. This flamboyant bird is surely the only raptor consistently likened to a circus performer. Watch one for a while and you’ll understand why.
According to popular wisdom, that exotic name is French for ‘tightrope walker’. It was, supposedly, coined to describe the bird’s telltale flight action, wings rocking from side-to-side as though extended for balance on a high wire. In fact, a more accurate translation would be ‘street entertainer’.
Whatever the name, the bird cuts an undeniable dash in the sky. Its flight silhouette is unlike any other raptor’s, combining long, narrow wings with a big head and short tail. And when gliding over the savannah, it tilts and stalls as though borne aloft by invisible eddies of air.
The show really gets going during the breeding season, when pairs perform spectacular displays, the male dropping in tumbling barrel rolls towards his partner, who flips on her back to present her talons as he whooshes past.
But it’s not just the aerobatics. The bateleur also dresses more showily than your average brownish bird of prey, with its harlequin patchwork of black, pale grey and rufous set off by vivid red legs and a bare red face. This livery is best appreciated when the bird visits the ground, which it often does to drink or bathe.
And after a bath it often sits back with wings extended and angled up at the sky, as though admiring its own splendour. In reality, it is sunbathing – using direct sunlight to warm the oils in its feathers, which helps improve its aerodynamics.
The bateleur is closely affiliated to the snake eagles (Circaetus genus) and, like its relatives, is an expert hunter of reptiles. Birds and small mammals also make the menu – as does carrion, the eagle often beating vultures to a carcass. Keen eyesight, combined with low-level flying skills, make it an expert at finding kills hoisted into trees by leopards. If you spy one perched quietly in a tree canopy, train your binoculars on the surrounding trees: you might just locate the big cat.
Bateleurs frequent open habitats across sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal east to the Horn of Africa and south to northern South Africa, with a small isolated population in the Arabian Peninsula.
Pairs mate for life, building their large stick nest in a tree fork, where the female lays a single egg. The youngster takes up to eight years to shed its brown immature plumage, but birders needn’t worry: that distinctive flight silhouette makes it easy to identify, whatever the colours.
Today the bateleur is in decline, battling persecution, disturbance and habitat loss, and remains common only in parks and reserves. This is a loss not only for the natural world but also for Africa’s heritage. It is this species, after all, that is depicted on the unique soapstone carvings discovered in southern Africa’s greatest ancient city, Great Zimbabwe, whose 11th Century builders – the ancestors of today’s Shona people – revered it as a messenger from the God Mwari.
Who knows what most impressed the ancients about the bateleur? Perhaps its sky-tumbling or sun-worshipping; perhaps its prowess as a hunter. Either way, when Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, the nation’s new leaders were quick to place this avian icon at the centre of their new national flag. So today, if you don’t get lucky scanning the skies, just keep an eye on stamps and bank notes.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.