The Crowned eagle or African crowned eagle is a powerful eagle from the family Accipitridae which includes both eagles and many other birds of prey. Dubbed the ‘most powerful eagle in Africa’, the Crowned eagle is a long-lengthed bird of prey with a large wingspan of around 1.8m. Occupying diverse habitats stretching much of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Crowned eagle is capable of catching prey some 4 to 6 times its weight.
African crowned eagle
Family:Kites, hawks and eagles
80cm to 99cm
151cm to 181cm
2.7kg to 4.7kg
Crowned eagles are typically eagle-like in shape, with rounded, heavy wings, large talons and densely feathered legs. They have small faces with large crested swept-back feathers, thus providing their namesake 'crowned' appearance.
The eagle's head itself is usually dark brown, the torso has dark upperparts and a striking spotted breast and thighs. Crowned eagles have long, striped tail feathers. Their bodies are quite lengthy compared to other eagles, but their overall length is perhaps exaggerated by their tail feathers.
Crowned eagles are nevertheless very large and powerful eagles with particularly strong thighs and are revered for being amongst the most beautiful of eagles in terms of their plumage.
African Crowned Eagle, perched in a tree in Kenya
Crowned eagles are amongst the world’s largest eagles, measuring 80 to 99 cm (31 to 39 in) in length. This places it as the fifth-longest eagle, mainly by merit of its long tail feathers and slick, long-lengthed form. It is not the largest eagle in Africa - that title goes to the Martial eagle - but it is allegedly the most powerful by virtue of the size of its prey, though there is some debate surrounding this.
Adult Crowned eagles weigh around 3 to 4.5kg on average, though a weight of 5kg is possible for large females. This is around half of the world’s heaviest eagles, such as the Harpy eagle, which weighs in at 7 to 9kg. Nevertheless, Crowned eagles are powerful, heavy birds with tremendous strength.
Crowned Eagle in flight
The scientific name for a Crowned eagle is Stephanoaetus coronatus, the only living species of the genus Stephanoaetus from the diverse family of birds of prey Accipitridae.
Crowned eagles are aggressive predators that are capable of killing prey some six times their body weight. For example, Crowned eagles in South Africa’s Tsitsikamma are regularly observed killing and eating antelope of some 20kg or more. When hungry, they aggressively pursue any living prey that they feel able to kill without undue risk.
Close up portrait of a Crowned Eagle
Crowned eagles are reportedly responsible for one of the world’s earliest ‘murder mysteries’ when the skull of the Taung Child was discovered in a quarry in South Africa. This 2.5 million-year-old skull was discovered with puncture wounds akin to that of eagle talons, and anthropologists now believe this pre-human child was likely killed by Crowned eagles.
There have been other cases of children being attacked or killed by Crowned eagles, but the odds of being attacked by one are extremely slim, especially compared to some of the other wildlife indigenous to the same parts of Africa as the Crowned eagle.
Crowned eagles live for around 14 years which is typical for large eagles and other large birds of prey. For example, the similarly sized Golden eagle also lives for around 14 years on average. The very oldest may live until their late 20s or their early 30s when kept in captivity.
Juvenile Crowned Eagle perched high up in a tree
Crowned eagles are powerful, expert hunters that prefer to prey on larger mammals, preferably those around the same weight as themselves (3 to 5kg). Those distributed in the rainforest regularly hunt primates, including monkeys, baboons and possibly even chimpanzees. Crowned eagles in more open arid terrain hunt antelope, hyraxes, bushbucks and Pygmy hippos. Other prey includes pigs and boar, large reptiles, other birds, pangolins and squirrels. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Crowned eagle diets are some 80%+ primates, consisting mainly of Blue monkeys and Black and White colobus monkeys.
Crowned eagles are very capable of catching and killing animals 4 to 6 times their body weight - as much as 22.5% of their diet consists of prey weighing over 20kg.
Crowned eagles will hover at a great height of some 5,000 to 8,000ft, identifying prey before either swooping in at speeds in excess of 100mph (160 km/h) or landing on a nearby branch or perch and ambushing their target. When possible, Crowned eagles look to conserve energy when hunting, so they will avoid any unnecessary movement and practice ‘still-hunting’.
They aim to kill upon impact, either puncturing the skull or spine. Mated pairs often hunt together and share prey. Instead of consuming prey in-situ, they will often tear it into manageable pieces and carry it either to their nest or a nearby tree fork.
Crowned Eagle perched in a tree, on the look out for prey
Crowned eagles form strong monogamous pairs. Mating can occur at any time of year, but peaks in July through to November. Pairs of Crowned eagles often hunt together, sharing their prey.
Crowned eagles often target tree-top nesting sites in forested areas close to rivers or freshwater, preferring to nest some 15m to 45m above the ground. The nests are often maintained throughout the entire year and are constructed using large sticks and lined with green branches and soft foliage. These nests can become quite massive - around 2.5m (8ft) in diameter if the nesting site permits it.
Crowned eagle clutch sizes are very small, consisting of just 1 or 2 eggs. In East Africa, just one egg is more likely. This ensures that the eaglets can be fed sufficient food to survive.
Crowned Eagle soaring in the sky
Crowned eagle eggs are relatively large, measuring 68.2 mm x 53.6 mm (2.69 in x 2.11 in) and weighing around 87 to 100g (3 to 3.5oz). They’re typically all-white though they may display some reddish-brown markings.
Crowned eagles share many nest-building duties, though the male is more likely to assemble the nest as the female gathers materials. Nests can take half a year to build from scratch but once established, they are maintained rigorously and can reach enormous sizes.
Close up of the powerful talons of a Crowned Eagle
Crowned eagles tend to breed only every two years rather than one. Their breeding cycle is exceptionally long, mainly because the fledgling birds can sometimes take as long as a year to become fully independent. This is amongst the longest of any raptor.
Looking after Crowned eagle chicks is an intensive task - they may be fed entirely by their parents for some eight months and remain highly dependent on their parents even when they’re practically fully grown.
Crowned eagles are known to be loud and vocal birds. Their typical calls consist of loud, sharp whistles that rise and fall in pitch. They also produce a wide range of territorial calls, also consisting largely of whistles. Complex communication has been observed between parents and chicks, particularly once the parents are urging the fledgling to completely leave the nest.
Close up shot of a Crowned Eagle
Crowned eagles occupy a vast strip of land stretching across all of Sub-Saharan Africa, extending to both West, East and South Africa. Preferred habits are mostly heavily forested with a wide selection of sheltered, tall trees.
Some Crowned eagles may reside in more isolated or arid plains, so long as they can find a safe, tall tree to create their large nests. Their nests are intensive to build and require strong, stable tree-forks ideally surrounded by healthy, dense foliage.
Crowned eagles are distributed across Sub-Saharan Africa, stretching south to South Africa and west to Guinea, Senegal, The Gambia, Sierra Leone and Cameroon. In East Africa, the Crowned eagle can be found from Ethiopia to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Also, they are distributed throughout Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe with isolated populations in Angola.
Fewer Crowned eagles may be found centrally in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Young Crowned Eagle in a tree
Crowned eagles are non-migratory and tend to be sedentary, occupying reasonably small, fixed territories. Crowned eagles even inherit nests from other pairs - nests are maintained across generations.
Crowned eagles are officially classified as Near Threatened, meaning that their populations are decreasing. The current population is estimated at 50,000 adult pairs maximum but could be as low as 15,000. Crowned eagles face pressures via persecution through trapping and shooting, as well as deforestation and nest destruction.
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