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The martial eagle is one of the largest and most powerful eagles in the world. These big birds of prey are found only in the open plains of sub-Saharan Africa and are known to hunt birds, reptiles and small mammals.

Martial eagles are apex predators that utilize their strong talons, sharp beaks and incredible eyesight to stalk their prey from the skies and attack with precision. This and so much more make them one of the most interesting raptors in Africa, and worth adding on every birder's life list.

In this article, we'll look at some interesting facts about Martial Eagles and their role in Africa's wild ecosystems. In the end, you will know more about them and where you would see them on a bird-watching safari - among other things.

Facts About The Martial Eagle

1. Identifying a Martial Eagle

Identifying a Martial Eagle is quite easy for both novice and experienced birdwatchers. Adults have a distinct plumage that sets them apart from other raptors. 

Martial Eagle

Their head, throat, and upper body are a uniform dark brown, contrasting beautifully with their white underbelly. The white underbelly is further adorned with distinctive brown spots, earning them the nickname "the leopard of the air." They have yellow eyes and a prominent black beak to complete the regal appearance. 

Juvenile Martial Eagles have a different feather pattern, often with more speckled brown feathers than adult eagles.

2. Habitat

Martial Eagles primarily live in open habitats across sub-Saharan Africa. They are commonly found in savannas, woodlands, and semi-desert regions, where they have enough space to soar and hunt. 

Wild habitats with open grasslands and a few tall trees are ideal homes for Martial Eagles. The tall trees are great for nesting and perching, while the open landscapes often have a good diversity of prey to hunt.

Martial Eagles can be found in many of the African countries below the Sahara desert. In West Africa and other more densely forested countries of central Africa, the martial eagle is quite rare. In Eastern and Southern Africa where there are more open savannahs, Martial eagles are a bit more easily seen. Here are some of the countries where you would be more likely to see Martial Eagles in the wild.

Somalia  Ethiopia  Uganda  Kenya
Tanzania Malawi Mozambique Zambia
Botswana Zimbabwe  Namibia South Africa

3. Size & Weight

The Martial Eagle is the undisputed heavyweight champion of African eagles. Adults typically weigh between 3.1 and 6.2 kilograms (6.8 and 13.7 pounds), with females being slightly larger than males. 

flying Martial Eagle

Their impressive size is further accentuated by an incredible wingspan, which can reach up to 8.5 feet (2.6 meters). For some context, this impressive wingspan is wider than that of incredible basketball players like Michael Jordan, Lebron James and Shaq.

This combination of size and weight makes them formidable predators, capable of taking down prey much larger than themselves.

4. Social Behaviour

Martial Eagles are primarily solitary birds, only interacting with their chosen mate during the breeding season. Outside of this time, they maintain exclusive territories and actively defend themselves against intruders, especially other Martial Eagles. 

Despite their solitary nature, Martial Eagles are very cooperative when raising their young. Both parents share incubation duties and work tirelessly to provide food for their chicks. This teamwork ensures the survival of their offspring.

5. Sound & Communication

Martial eagles are one of the quietest raptors and rely much more on visual cues for communication. They sometimes make low mellow whistles - especially when the male brings food to share with the female eagle.

These eagles have keen eyesight that allows them to spot potential prey from vast distances, often several kilometres away. This silent approach gives them a significant advantage in the hunt, allowing them to catch their unsuspecting prey.

6. Excellent Eyesight

The exceptional eyesight of Martial Eagles is probably one of their most important assets. Their eyes are positioned forward on their heads, providing a wider field of view and incredible depth perception. 

This great vision allows them to spot potential prey from a distance, even through tall grass or light brush. With such remarkable eyesight, Martial Eagles can accurately calculate the distance and trajectory needed to launch a precise attack.

7. Diet

Martial Eagles are opportunistic predators, adapting their diet based on the availability of food within their territory. Their primary prey includes small mammals like springhares, mongooses, and young antelopes. They also readily consume reptiles such as snakes and lizards.

martial eagle eating

Martial Eagles have been known to hunt other birds such as bustards and cranes. This adaptability allows them to thrive in a variety of habitats and ensures a steady food source throughout the year.

Generally, any animal weighing 2 to 5 kilograms can be hunted down by a Martial Eagle should it offer the best opportunity. Since most habitats have an abundance of hares and other rodents, these are the most common food for the Martial Eagle.

8. Hunting

Martial Eagles employ a variety of hunting techniques, but their primary strategy involves patiently soaring in the sky and then launching surprise attacks. They utilize thermals to gain altitude, patrolling their territory with a keen eye.

Once they spot potential prey, they may dive swiftly from great heights to deliver a powerful strike with their sharp talons. Their powerful feet and sharp beaks make them efficient killers, capable of subduing prey much larger than themselves.

Martial Eagles have strong talons which can be as long as 2 inches, which is lethal for most of its prey.

martial eagle

9. Flying Speed

While not known for their diving speeds like some falcons, Martial Eagles are masters of soaring flight. Their broad wings and powerful muscles allow them to effortlessly glide across vast distances, utilizing thermals to gain altitude and conserve energy. This efficient method of flight enables them to patrol their territory and search for prey with minimal exertion.

Martial eagles have been recorded flying at speeds of more than 230 kilometres per hour ( 143 miles per hour ) and flying at heights of more than 5500 metres above sea level. For context, if you stacked the Burj Khalifa on top of itself 6 times, the Martial Eagle would still easily fly above it and move twice as fast as a cheetah.

10. Breeding & Development

Martial Eagles typically reach sexual maturity at 4 years of age. The breeding pair works together to build a large stick nest, often reusing and refurbishing the same structure year after year. 

The female lays a clutch of 1 to 3 eggs, which are incubated for around 50 days. 

After hatching, the chicks remain in the nest for up to three months, relying on their parents for food and protection. Once fledged, the young eagles are gradually taught hunting skills by their parents before fully venturing out on their own.

juvenile martial eagle

11. Lifespan

Martial Eagles boast an impressive lifespan, with some individuals reaching up to 40 years in the wild. This longevity can be attributed to their solitary nature and powerful hunting skills, allowing them to thrive in their environment. Unlike many birds of prey, Martial Eagles are monogamous, forming lifelong partnerships with a single mate. This strong bond is essential for raising their young.

Related article: Comparing the lifespan of African wild animals

12. Conservation Status

According to the International Union For the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Martial Eagles are classified as Endangered. While Martial Eagles have never had big numbers due to their need for extensive territory, they are experiencing a big decline.

Habitat loss due to agricultural expansion and human encroachment is a significant concern. 

Conservation efforts focus on protecting key habitats, educating local communities about the importance of Martial Eagles, and mitigating human-wildlife conflict.

Final Thoughts

The Martial Eagle is a magnificent bird of prey that embodies the power and grace of the African wilderness. As an apex predator, the martial eagle plays an important role in maintaining the balance of life in the wild.

For most people, an African safari in the wild is about the big mammals such as elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras and primates. Birders know that there is so much more in terms of birds that add colours and life to the savannah, forests, swamps and the skies above them.

Among the many birds to look out for is the Martial Eagle, and with this information, you will be well-equipped to get lost in the moment of seeing and witnessing everything you now know about them.

Whether you are an avid birder with a life list, or you feel you would casually enjoy watching the birds in nature, getting to see the Martial eagle is an incredible moment of interaction with nature. Bird watching, as well as other safari activities in the wild help in the continued conservation of wild ecosystems where these animals and birds live freely.

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