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What is a Martial Eagle?

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  • Written By: R. Britton
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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A martial eagle is a very large carnivorous bird of prey. Scientifically this very shy bird is known as Polemaetus bellicosus. Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the martial eagle is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as near threatened. These nonmigratory birds are very slow breeders, usually only laying one egg every two years.

Measuring up to 32 inches (83 centimeters) in length, the martial eagle has a wingspan of 8.5 feet (2.6 meters), making it one of the largest predatory birds in Africa. This bird has white legs, a cream colored body, and gray, black and white plumage on the head, back, and wings. It has a large, strong, curved beak designed for tearing prey and big, strong talons to hold prey in a vice-like grip.

The martial eagle has a varied diet, consisting of whatever prey is available in its large home range. Medium-to-large-sized mammals, such as monkeys and small deer, form a large part of the diet. Medium sized birds and reptiles are also consumed when mammals are hard to find. Despite its bad reputation among farming communities, the martial eagle does not venture into areas of human habitation unless it has no choice. This bird is sometimes responsible for eating young livestock, such as lambs and goats, but only when absolutely necessary because wild prey is scarce.

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Restricted to sub-Saharan Africa, this species does not migrate but remains in the same territory for many years. The birds make very large bowl-shaped nests in which to raise their young. The nests are usually high up in large trees, but have also been spotted on top of electrical pylons. Generally only one chick is raised every other year, meaning that each egg or juvenile lost is a blow to the survival of the martial eagle.

With an estimated population of 30,000, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature states that this species is near threatened because of a continued decline due to a variety of threats. Eggs are illegally poached by specimen collectors, and adult birds are hunted for sport. The martial eagle is also under threat from livestock farmers who trap, shoot, and poison the birds in an attempt to protect livestock, even when it is unlikely that these birds are responsible for harming animals. This species have a long history of being killed for rituals and medicines, and an increasing number of birds die after colliding with power lines.

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