The Bateleur Eagle

Jul 6, 2009

We chose this enigmatic bird as our emblem because its plight is symbolic of conservation in Africa.

It is amazing to think that the type specimen of the Bateleur was recorded in Knysna in the southern Cape. Today, the closest population of this, Africa’s most colourful eagle, is a handful of pairs struggling to keep a hold in the Kalahari. Bateleurs still do well in the savannah regions where their low-altitude soaring with characteristic wobble is an emblem of wild Africa; but where small livestock are farmed in the arid regions, this precious bird has been lost from the skies. This is because farmers still insist on putting out tiny pieces of meat laced with poison to get rid of the jackal problem. Ironically the jackal problem is still with them but they have inadvertently lost a beneficial and wonderful element of nature. The scientific name of the Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus, translates as wonderful face, without a tail.

The Mashona name for the Bateleur, Chapungu, translates as ‘Spirit of a Departed One’. The Nguni name, Ingqungqulu, means ‘Warrior Bird’ or as translated by Credo Mutwa – “The Watchful Bird That Thunders.”

So unusual is the flight design of the Bateleur that juvenile birds are provided with a starter-kit plumage which includes a longer tail for stability. When the birds have learnt the basic flight skills they earn their adult high performance ‘wings’. These are so long and thin that they enable the eagle to cut through the rising thermals off the African plains with practically no drag or loss of height, even on windless days. From this low altitude flight path and with its magnificent vision, the Bateleur spots any tiny movement or carcass in the grasses below and this is what has made them so susceptible to poisoning. “The most curious of all this interesting group is the Bateleur. Indeed it is one of the most remarkable of all birds and, if an emblem were required for African skies, the Bateleur would surely be chosen. Bateleurs inhabit all types of country from open plains to rather dense woodland, and occur from sea level to twelve thousand feet. They differ from all other snake eagles – and for that matter from all other birds of prey – in their exceptionally long wings which have twenty-five secondaries, more than in all but vultures. The very long wings combine with a very short tail in the adult Bateleur to produce the appearance of a delta-wing aircraft as the bird sweeps grandly across the sky. Add to this almost brilliant colouring, a black body contrasting sharply with a chestnut back, bright red legs and face, and silvery white underside of the wing in flight and one has a bird that is hard to beat, to many the most magnificent creature that flies in Africa.”(sic.Leslie Brown) Like the Bateleur our pilots have the ability to detect anything amiss with our environment. Some malpractices are best detected from the air and often fall into place with that perspective. Unlike the Bateleur, we are in a position to do something about our environment and its wildlife.    

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