Tightrope Walker

Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), Londolozi, South Africa

Rocking gently from side-to-side, the Bateleur cut a unique shape as it glided above the dry woodland. It peered down intently at the open savanna, paying particular attention to the sand tracks used by safari vehicles where prey or carrion would be most exposed. Suddenly, a second Bateleur appeared and flew directly at the first bird. The two eagles gained height and I could see now that it was a male bird pursuing a female. They chased and dived at each other in the cloudless sky, swooping almost to the ground in a spectacular display of acrobatics. At one point, the female rolled onto her back in mid-air presenting her talons to her partner.

This was the courtship dance of Africa’s most distinctive raptor. Bateleur is a French word meaning ‘tightrope walker’, or ‘acrobat’, and describes perfectly the way in which this remarkable eagle flies above the treetops. Equally apt, is its scientific name of Terathopius ecaudatus (derived from Greek) which, loosely translated, means ‘marvellous face without a tail’. Of course, it does have a tail, albeit an extremely short one.

Bateleurs pair for life. A single egg is laid in a bulky stick nest, always situated within a main fork and below the canopy of a large tree. In contrast to other large eagles, in which the female does most or all of the incubation, both Bateleur parents share this task. The nest is lined with fresh green leaves to provide a soft carpet for the hatchling. The youngster develops rapidly, being fed regular meals by both parents. At the age of about six weeks the juvenile is flapping at the edge of the nest but it will be between four and six months before it leaves its parents. Remarkably, it will be seven years before the youngster attains the colourful adult plumage and seeks a mate.

Since it includes a great deal of carrion in its diet, the Bateleur is particularly susceptible to poison baits laid out by stock farmers to control ‘vermin’. Tragically, this reckless and indisciminate practice has led to the extermination of this majestic bird outside of national parks and game reserves in South Africa.

Londolozi, South Africa, May 2011

About Duncan Butchart

Duncan Butchart is interested in all aspects of the natural world, with a particular fascination for birds and their ecological relationships.
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