Shock! horror! Giant eagle swoops down and snatches up small child in its talons. This sensational story runs, in one form or another, from ancient legend to YouTube hoax. It has spawned numerous lurid ‘true life’ accounts. But could it ever be true?
Generally, the answer is no: most such stories — typically involving golden eagles — never quite add up. But Africa is home to one mighty raptor that might just, very occasionally, target a human infant.
The crowned eagle is Africa’s most powerful eagle, equipped with massive, skull-crushing feet that end in 6cm talons. There are credible accounts that exist of human remains found at its nests. In one case a seven-year-old boy was saved only by his mother wielding a hoe.
Evidence also comes from prehistory. In 1924, South African scientists unearthed the Taung Child, a three-year-old Australopithecus afarensis. The fossil skull of this early hominid ancestor of ours had been fatally pierced by the talons of an eagle. There was only one likely culprit.
Such extraordinary records gain credence from the fact that the crowned eagle specialises in capturing primates, of which we— undeniably — are one. Any monkey up to 15kg is fair game, including adult colobuses and even young baboons. In rainforest regions, this formidable predator occupies an apex ecological role on par with the leopard. Elsewhere, its menu often includes small antelope such as suni and dikdik. Even a 30kg adult bushbuck — six times the bird’s own weight — has been recorded. Headlines from suburban KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa regularly report the loss of family cats and dogs to those massive talons.
So why don’t you see crowned eagles more often? Maps show that the species ranges across half the continent, yet while safari-goers tick off the likes of tawny, bateleur and martial, this eagle seldom makes the list.
It comes down to habitat. The crowned eagle is primarily a forest bird. Where it enters savannah regions— such as in Kruger Park or the Zambezi Valley — it sticks to pockets of woodland, often along rivers, and may spend long periods perched out of sight.
Your best chance of seeing it is during the breeding season, when pairs perform noisy, acrobatic display flights high above the canopy. This allows the perfect opportunity to train your binoculars on those tell-tale rufous and barred underwings. You may even get lucky enough to spot one perched. In which case, look out for the proud crest and massive talons — and the yellow-eyed glare that says: ‘Don’t mess!’
(Image credit: AfriPics.com/Alamy Stock Photo)
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.