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16 Sep, 2021
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African Fish Eagle

The Call Of Africa!- Article by Gareth Jones

The Call Of Africa: The African Fish Eagle!

A few years ago, we witnessed an incredible and very rare natural event at the Hyena dam in the Nairobi National Park. A fish eagle landed on the bank of the dam and stood for a while, as it surveyed the water in front of it. Then it suddenly took off and flew rapidly up as it swooped and dived down with its talons outstretched, as if to try and catch a nice big fish, however, this “big fish” turned out to be a crocodile. The crocodile responded in a flash and nearly succeeded in pulling the fish eagle under the water. After a brief struggle, amazingly the fish eagle had enough strength to break free….. and live another day!!! I wonder if the fish eagle saw movement near the water surface and mistakenly tried to catch a “big fish” crocodile? It’s difficult to try and understand why? One probability is that the angle of the sun on the water might have had a blinding reflection that only allowed the fish eagle partial sight, as it saw a flash of movement on the top of the water. That flash of movement was most likely the snout of a crocodile that I estimate was over 2 metres in length. The fish eagle actually flew directly onto the head of the crocodile with its talons trying to grab this “big fish”. We truly did witness a very rare occurrence!

The African fish eagle is very impressive. Did you know that there are two species of fish eagle in Africa? Namely, the African fish eagle and the Madagascar fish eagle.  Did you know that the African fish eagle is the national bird of four countries? These four countries are where the bird is found in abundance: Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Sudan. Not only is it their national bird, the fish eagle features on the coat of arms of all these countries. It is estimated that there are around 300,000 fish eagles in Africa. This vast population is spread across most of East and Southern Africa. It makes them one of the most numerous eagle species.

They are kleptoparasitic, meaning that they actively steal food from other birds. Goliath herons and saddle-billed storks are their common victims, but fish eagles can scavenge like the best of them and will take from almost any other bird. You could call them the pirates of Africa’s rivers and lakes! African fish eagles aren’t just scavengers they have an incredibly diverse dinner menu. They do not feed purely on fish. Fish is supplemented by other birds and mammals. They are incredibly efficient hunters, picking on ducks, waterfowl, and various birds. In East Africa, they even feed on flamingos. Other prey includes lizards, frogs, and carrion. African fish eagles sometimes eat monkeys and small crocodiles. These raptors are such strong hunters they sometimes target unusual prey. Who would think that a fish eagle can carry off a baby crocodile or a small monkey?

African fish eagles can carry prey that’s up to ten times its own body weight. Rather than carrying it high into the sky, it will drag its prey across the water surface until it reaches a safe place to land. They grab prey with their remarkable feet and talons; like most raptors, African fish eagles use their feet to grab prey. These birds have very rough soles and long talons, enabling them to grab animals from the water. Anything taken from the water is slippy, which is why the eagles need such rough and long feet. Then they use a hook-shaped beak to open up their prey. Fish eagles are loyal birds. They mate for life, with the actual mating taking place during the dry season when the waters are lowest. Every season the loved-up couples return to nests they have used before. Nests are built upon, and some reach over two metres across.

Fish eagles have a very distinctive almost yodelling, yelping cry. It’s a sound that resonates across Africa and some people call it the “sound of Africa or the call of Africa”. Amazingly, these birds at times seemingly duet with resident hippos. Fish eagles provide the treble while hippo grunts offer the baritone in this animal orchestra. The call perhaps goes a little like heee-ah, hyo-hyo, weee-ah, heeeah-heeeah. However mere words do not do the real sound any justice, in reality, it is a fantastic call that echos far and wide as the Fish Eagle throws its head back in perfect timing to emit the “call of Africa”.

They have a striking black, white, and chestnut appearance, thus making a distinctive regal appearance. Adults have a brown body with a striking bald white head, plus large black wings. Their tails are white and easily recognizable when spotted from below. Females are larger than males. This sexual dimorphism is common for birds of prey, particularly raptors. Females grow to have wingspans of 2.4 metres. Males are a little narrower at 2 metres across. As their name might suggest, fish eagles live close to where there is fish – i.e. next to the water. African fish eagles are one of the highlights of any African safari. They can thrive in marshes, rainforests, grasslands, deserts, coastlines, swamps, and savannahs.

It is also interesting to note that eagles as a species that are highly respected in many cultures and nations. Eagle emblems are often used for logos and flags. Mankind has sayings that also elevate eagles when referring to human lifestyles and habits, for example, the well-known saying “don’t squawk like turkeys, rather rise like eagles”.The Holy Bible also refers to eagles in many scriptures, for example, “but those who wait upon the Lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles….. !”- Isaiah 40 vs 31. Yes, eagles are indeed majestically regal birds and are a protected species in many parts of the world.

To have eagles living so close to a major city like Nairobi is unique. They need to be protected, and the Nairobi Park is a safe haven for them to nest and breed. However, as they can fly, they often fly out of the park boundary, citizens need to be aware of the vital role of raptors such as Eagles, Hawks, Owls eat rodents, frogs, lizards, and snakes, and therefore ensure a healthy balance in nature.

God has created so much amazing diversity, and fish eagles are truly an incredible creation. Next time you visit the Nairobi National Park, or any other place where there are natural lakes and rivers in a wildlife area, be on the lookout for the majestic fish eagles. If you listen you will hopefully be rewarded to listen to their memorable cry, the “call of Africa”. I’m sure that many people who visit the wilds of Africa can identify with the fact, that for those who have heard the unmistakable call of a fish eagle, it is indeed unforgettable & it will remain etched in the pleasant memories of minds of those who listened.

 

African Fish Eagle
Gareth Jones – Nairobi Park Diary – A passionate writer & photographer

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