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< White Stork (Ciconia ciconia)

Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis)


Scientific classification:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Genus: Aquila
Species: Aquila nipalensis

Description

The Steppe eagle is a relatively large and handsome bird of prey belonging to the genus Aquila. The species is divided in two subspecies: Aquila nipalensis nipalensis and Aquila nipalensis orientalis which slightly differ in coloration and size. In general Aquila nipalensis nipalensis is darker and larger. Usually Steppe eagles achieve a body-length between 60 and 81 centimeters and a wingspan between 165 and 214 centimeters. The weight ranges between 2, 4 to 3, 8 kilogram and the female birds are slightly larger and heavier than their male con-species. The plumage is brown to dark brown and on the back of the head are sometimes yellow spots. Flight feathers and tail are blackish. Often the birds have a lighter or even white bond at the wings. The eyes are brown and the hooked tip is dark gray but in the beginning the bill is bright yellow colored. The tail is short and wedge-shaped. Immature young birds are less contrasted and often have a white spot on the neck. In an age of 3 – 4 years a Steppe eagle gets the adult plumage and reaches sexual maturity. In wild the lifespan reaches 30 years in captivity Steppe eagles can reach over 40 years.

Range and Habitat

The original distribution area of the Steppe eagle ranged from Eastern Europe to Central Asia (Tibet, Manchuria) and the East Asian Mongolia. But in Europe the species is now only found in Russia north and north-west of the Caspian Sea. Formerly Steppe eagles also nested in Moldova, Romania and Ukraine but it is long extinct in those countries. Outside of Europe the species is found in the steppes of central Asia eastwards to Mongolia, eastern Kazakhstan, Tibet and northeastern China. In autumn the eagles migrate to their winter territories. Most European birds and those from western Asia spend the winter in eastern and southern Africa. Some also spend the winter on the Arabian Peninsula. Birds from farther east spend the winter in India and neighboring countries.

As the name indicates the Steppe eagle prefers open and dry landscapes as semi-deserts, savannahs and grass steppes. The birds are living up to a height of 3000 meter, but can overcome heights up to 7900 meters. An average home territory comprises between 30 and 50 square kilometers but sometimes even encompass more than 100 square kilometers.

As Steppe eagles are living in areas with very few trees they often build their nests on the ground, the slope of a hill and also on bushes and power poles.

Diet

To find food the Steppe eagle flies over its territory. When it discovers prey it rushes down and kills it on the ground with its powerful claws. Prey comprises predominately small mammals, especially gophers, but also small birds, insects and reptiles. The also feed on fresh carrion or steal prey from other animals. The Steppe eagle has a crop in the throat which allows it to store food before it is moved to the stomach or regurgitated in order to feed its offspring.

Behavior

Steppe eagles are migratory birds. In their breeding territories they are specialized on hunting gophers. During winter the eagles migrate to southern regions as India and Near East. Old birds start their flight to the breeding sites in the middle of February while young birds start around one month later.

Remarkable is the velocity that Steppe eagles can achieve during their flight. They can reach up to 60 kilometer per hour and when they dive they fall with a speed up to 300 kilometer per hour. Compared with other birds Steppe eagles spend relatively much time on the ground.

Steppe eagles are very quiet birds and use rarely vocalization for communication, except during the breeding season.

Reproduction

In March the southern breeding places are populated. During April and May breeding takes place. Nests are built by both partners on small elevations as hills, bushes, little trees or even on sandbanks. The nest is a pile of grass or hay. The female lays 1 to 3 white eggs and after an incubation time of 45 days the white-downed chicks hatch. After 60 days the young eagles have their young bird plumage and can leave the nest. The success of reproduction is directly linked with the population number of gophers.

Conversation Status

The species suffers from declining and destruction of natural habitat. The large scale destruction of steppe habitat and conversion of steppes to agricultural land (and the following reduction of prey like gophers) is the major reason for the decline of the Steppe eagle. Especially in western ranges the number of populations is decreasing. However, at the moment the number of individuals is relatively high and the species is not seen as endangered. Therefore it is qualified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Eagles in culture

Eagles had always a place in the history of human culture. In antique mythology the eagle was the bird of the Greek god Zeus and a symbol for power and victory. After the lion eagles are the most used animals on coat of arms. In many countries they are the official national animal. Several native American tribes worship eagles as sacred and their feathers and claws were often used in religious ceremonies. Among Native American tribes one can also find whistles made out of the bones of eagles’ wings. These whistles should encourage warriors in battles.

Short Facts

  • The call of the Steppe eagle sounds like a barking crow.

  • The Steppe eagle is the national animal of Egypt.

  • During a dive Steppe eagles can reach a speed of 300 kilometers per hour.