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Majestic African eagles soar through the skies. They are symbols of a continent, flying with freedom and pride above the savannah.
From down below you see it’s an African eagle. When it swoops closer you distinguish the species. Each has its distinctive markings and sounds, its own call in Africa’s orchestra of bird song.
Most visitors to Africa are preoccupied with what they can see on the ground, such as elephant, leopard, lion and rhino. Look up and there’s a whole different world.
In this article we celebrate seven of Africa’s most majestic eagles, with tips for identifying them and information about where they can be spotted.
Nesting in hilly woodland the African hawk-eagle has a musical call and hunts for reptiles along with small mammals. You can see it on a safari in the woodlands anywhere from Tanzania to South Africa. Look for an enormous nest in the fork of a tree.
Distinguishing features of the African hawk-eagle
- White thighs with no spots.
- In flight the under-wing is primarily white, and the upper-wing is dark brown, with characteristic white panels at the base of the primaries.
- The female is larger than the male and more heavily streaked in front.
- Juveniles have underwing coverts and their underbody is pale rufous; this darkens with age.
- Habitat: Woodland and savanna.
- Call: Musical ‘klee-klee-klee’ (whatever it means 🙂 ).
African Fish Eagle
Africa’s most beautiful raptor, the African fish eagle is the national symbol of four different countries. They sometimes hunt monkeys and crocodiles and are kleptoparasites, meaning they steal food from other birds.
Distinguishing features of the African fish eagle
- A brown, white and chestnut appearance.
- Both males and females have a brown body with a striking bald white head, plus large black wings.
- The tails are white and easily recognisable when spotted from below.
- The female is larger than the male and has a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres.
- Habitat: Widespread across Africa but always around water, typically nesting close to rivers.
- Call: A distinctive yodeling sound that often goes in harmony with hippos.
African Crowned Eagle
The king of the forest or leopard of the sky, the African crowned eagle is the most adept hunter of all Africa’s eagles. Most of its diet is made up of small ungulates and primates, such as young vervet monkeys and dik-dik.
Distinguishing features of the African crowned eagle
- Large size and hawk-like appearance; measures up to a metre in length and is the world’s fifth largest eagle.
- Dark grey above, and rufous below; breast and belly heavily mottled in black.
- Well-rounded wings and a long barred tail when in flight.
- Massive talons that are as large as even the largest golden eagles.
- Habitat: Evergreen and riverine gallery forest.
- Call: Extremely vocal “kiwi supporter”: ringing ‘kewee-kewee-kewee‘. 🙂
My favourite African eagle species out of them all. With its short tail and bright red face this snake eagle relative is easy to identify when on safari.
Distinguishing features of the bateleur eagle
- Black, white and chestnut plumage.
- Diagnostic wing shape and very short tail.
- Long wings held slightly angled upwards; rarely flapping when in flight motion.
- Male has a broad black trailing edge to the wing, whereas the female’s edge is narrow.
- Immature individuals are brown.
- Habitat: Savanna.
- Call: Bateleur are mostly silent but will produce a loud bark, ‘kow-wah‘.
The nemesis of rock hyrax, this booted eagle is one of the longest in the world. It thrives wherever rock hyrax thrive and can be seen around Southern and East Africa.
Distinguishing features of Verreaux’s eagle
- Also known in Africa as the black eagle.
- Unmistakable: in flight the wings are narrow at the base and broadening in the middle.
- White rump and back markings contrast with the black plumage.
- Habitat: Mountainous regions with cliffs and crevices. Feeds primarily on rock hyraxes and will change habitat in order to hunt this favourite prey.
- Call: Melodious ‘keee-uup‘.
Africa’s largest eagle will swoop down to hunt venomous snakes, jackals and antelope. This majestic hunter can fly for hours, cruising on the thermals before descending to make a kill.
Distinguishing features of the martial eagle
- Dark head, throat and upper breast. A white, lightly spotted breast and belly, plus very dark underwings.
- Resembles the black-chested snake eagle from below.
- A wingspan of up to 2.6 metres with females larger than males.
- Descend from high in the sky when hunting, using elongated hind toe claws to grab their prey.
- Habitat: Variety of different habitats, from deserts to forests and savannas.
- Call: a rapid ‘klooee-klooee-klooee‘ in display.
Unfortunately, martial eagle populations are declining and they are vulnerable on the IUCN list. Here is the full martial eagle story.
Widespread across sub-Saharan Africa but difficult to encounter, the long-crested eagle is usually identified by its long shaggy crest. Most of their diet is made up of rodents and these eagles can be seen around towns and cities.
Distinguishing features of the long-crested eagle
- Dull black plumage and long, wispy crest.
- Conspicuous white bases to the primaries when in flight, along with a black and white barred tail.
- Male has white leggings, and a longer crest than the female.
- Female’s leggings are mottled brown or brown and white.
- Habitat: Wooded areas and marshy forest edges.
- Call: High-pitched ‘kee-ah‘ during display or when perched.
African Eagles on Safari
African eagles often prove an unexpected highlight on a safari. You see them soar and swoop, sometimes even witness them carrying off prey.
Read more about birdlife on safari.
Check out ten incredible birds you can see on safari and where to observe them.
What has been your most impressive eagle sighting?