The Eagles of Africa

The Eagles of Africa

The quintessential bird of prey and symbol of strength, courage, and prestige, among others—varying across cultures, the eagle is one of the most heralded animals on Earth. Eagles belong to the Accipteridae family, which includes other hook-billed raptors such as hawks, kites, honey buzzards, Old World vultures, and harrier hawks

Of the near-seventy species of eagles, most are native to the continents of Africa and Asia. Africa alone boasts over twenty breeding or resident eagle species. 

These majestic raptors can be split into four groups. Booted eagles, also known as true eagles, are named for the feathering on their lower legs. The ten genera of true eagles belong to the Aquilinae subfamily, which has almost forty species. Another large family is that of the snake eagles.

As the name suggests, these eagles specialise in hunting snakes and other reptiles. Similarly, fish eagles, or sea eagles, are named for the primary component in their diet. The only eagle group not present in Africa is the Harpy eagle subfamily—also known as the giant forest eagles. These are large eagles that inhabit tropical forests. Let’s take a look at the eagles of Africa.

Fish eagles

The African Fish Eagle is one of the most notable African eagles found throughout the continent, south of the Sahara, where its piercing cry has become synonymous with the African bush.

African fish eagle

It is a large, unmistakable raptor with a white hood, brown body plumage, and powerful black wings—the only one of its kind on the continent, comparable with the American bald eagle.

African fish eagles live near rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. They perch in tall trees near the water, from where they can swoop down on their prey, catching them with barbed feet adapted for grasping slippery fish.

The only other fish eagle in Africa is the critically endangered Madagascar fish eagle, which is at risk due to habitat destruction and over-fishing.

Madagascar fish eagle

Booted eagles

Arguably the most powerful raptor in the African sky, the martial eagle is a large, opportunistic predator of the open savannah. Its plumage is dark brown above and white below with dark spots.

Its dark brown hood extends over its upper breast and shoulders.  It has a short, angled crest, piercing yellow eyes, and a characteristic aquiline silhouette, giving it a commanding demeanour. 

Martial eagle

At nearly three feet, with a wingspan that can reach up to seven feet long, the martial eagle is the largest eagle on the continent. It has remarkably keen eyesight, long legs, and sharp talons. Marshall eagles are bold, aggressive hunters that prey on mammals, reptiles, and birds.

Nicknamed “the leopards of the sky, these apex predators hunt while soaring—swooping down on their prey, which can range from geese and rock hyraxes to large ungulates, monitor lizards, and medium-sized wildcats. Marshall eagles have vast territories across sub-Saharan Africa. They are heavily persecuted by farmers due to their penchant for livestock and game. The species is endangered due to a sharp decline over the last few decades.

The crowned eagle is the only other African species that may rival the martial eagle.  It is often deemed the most powerful raptor on the continent, and pound-for-pound may be one of the strongest land animals, preying on mammals far larger than itself.

Crowned eagle

Primates make up a large portion of their diet—especially in forested areas— much like the harpy eagle of the Americas. They can also be found in woodlands, wooded hillsides, and rocky outcrops, where they prey on ungulates, rock hyraxes, and other mammals.

Another impressive African bird of prey is the Verreaux’s eagle. Also known as the black eagle, it is a very large eagle with jet-black plumage and a gray bill.

Verreaux’s eagle

Its bright yellow seer and eye rings stand out, as does a white V shape across the back, rump, and upper tail, visible in flight.

Black eagles inhabit koppies,which are dry, rocky environments that can range from rocky hills to high mountains. Most populations are found in southern and eastern Africa, where their predominant prey are rock hyraxes, known as dassies in southern Africa. Black eagles are seldom found outside their preferred habitat type.

The tawny eagle has an extensive yet discontinuous range across Africa, and is also found in the Indian subcontinent. Named for its tawny brown plumage, it is a somewhat scruffy-looking raptor. Tawny eagles are often confused with other raptors due to their wide distribution and variations in plumage. 

Tawny eagle

They can be found in a variety of habitat types, including savannah, woodlands, forests, thornveld, and semi-deserts. Their highly variable diet comprises over 200 species, and they also feed on carrion. Despite their vast range, tawny eagles are facing many threats, such as habitat loss, inadvertent poisoning, climate change, and collision with power lines.

Another booted species with an expansive range is the African hawk-eagle. It is, however, absent in the north, southernmost, and west-central regions of the continent.

African hawk-eagle

These woodland eagles are aggressive predators that hunt medium-sized mammals and other birds, often preying on animals larger than themselves. While not endangered, hawk eagles are in decline due to habitat loss and persecution, like many other species.

One thriving African raptor is the Long-crested eagle, named for its distinctive, floppy crest. It is found in moist woodlands and forest edges across sub-Saharan Africa and predominantly feeds on rodents. Populations of this species are believed to be increasing due to the wide availability of their food source.

Long-crested Eagle

Other native species of this group include Wahlberg’s eagle, Ayer’s hawk-eagle, golden eagle, Bonelli’s eagle, and the eponymous booted eagle. 

Species that breed outside of Africa and spend their winters on the continent include the lesser and greater spotted eagles, the eastern Imperial eagle, the Indian spotted eagle, and the steppe eagle.

Snake eagles

Arguably the most notable snake eagle in Africa is the brown snake eagle. It is a large, powerful raptor with chocolate-brown plumage and golden-yellow eyes. Its whitish flight feathers are visible in flight.

Brown snake eagle

Snake eagles have thick skin on their legs and natural physiological defences against snake venom. The brown snake eagle has been known to prey on some of the most venomous species, from black mambas to spitting cobras.

This is a solitary species of dense woodlands native to West, East, and southern Africa. It is likely the largest and most powerful of the snake eagles. 

The black-chested snake eagle is another notable species, found mainly in eastern and southern Africa and sporadic pockets in West Africa—its range overlaps that of the brown snake eagle.  It has a dark,  brownish-black head, upperparts, and chest for which it is named. Its underparts are white with dark barring at the outer edge of the wings and tail.

Black-chested snake eagle

Black-chested snake eagles inhibit a wide range of habitat types, including savannah, woodlands, grasslands, thornveld, and deserts, avoiding forests and mountainous regions. They are often found around human habitations, where they may nest in human-made structures.

Like the brown snake eagle, they also prey on venomous snakes. In addition, they also take small mammals, lizards, frogs, and insects. The species is widespread and locally common in parts of its range. 

A close relative of the black-chested snake eagle is the Beaudouin’s snake eagle of the Sahel. These two species form a “superspecies” with the short-toed snake eagle, meaning they are so closely related that the lines that distinguish them are unclear.

Both Beaudouin’s snake eagle and the short-toed snake eagle have grey-brown upperparts, contrasting against white underparts, similar to the black-chested snake eagle. Beaudouin’s snake eagle is more grey than brown, and the short-toed has a brown wash on its chin, throat, and breast and dark spots on its underparts.

Unlike the short-toed, Beaudouin’s snake eagle is only found in Africa. It is usually seen on a prominent perch in open woodlands, scanning for snakes and small vertebrates. They are also found in wooded savannahs and cultivated lands. Little is known about the species, but it is believed to be threatened by habitat loss due to deforestation, overgrazing, and urbanization.

Short-toed snake eagles are native to Europe and western Asia, including the Indian subcontinent, with many populations wintering in sub-Saharan Africa. Like other snake eagles, they eat snakes and lizards, often becoming entangled with larger snakes on the ground.

Another poorly studied species is the Congo serpent eagle, found in Central and West Africa, where it lives in the tropical rainforests and hunts in the dark understory for snakes, lizards, amphibians, and possibly small mammals.

Congo serpent eagle

It is a slender eagle with a large head, short, rounded wings and a long tail typical of forest birds. Its plumage is dark brown above and white below with dark spots. It has large, yellow eyes adapted for the dim light of the forest. The Congo serpent eagle was once popular in the exotic bird industry. Populations are dwindling due to deforestation.

A close relative of the snake eagles, the Bateleur is named for its acrobatic aerial displays. The French word Bateleur means “street eagle,” and they are among the most majestic creatures in the African sky. 

With its ruffly, cowled hood and dramatic plumage coloration, the bateleur looks like something that emerged from the fantasy genre. Its red cere, red facial skin, and scaly red feet are conspicuous. It has piercing, dark eyes and a small, hooked bill. Its bow-shaped wings are exceptionally long, and it has a very short tail.


Juvenile bateleurs are distinctively different from the adults, with brown plumage and long tails. They can take up to eight years to mature and fully develop their adult plumage. This species is found in savannah-woodland habitats, as well as thornveld and shrublands, often seen gliding over the bushveld.

Other African snake eagle species include the fasciated snake eagle, the Western banded snake eagle, and the Madagascar serpent eagle.

Final Thoughts

The raptor-rich African continent has a diversity of eagle species. And while eagles are among the most admired birds, they are also among the most persecuted birds in Africa. Larger species are especially vulnerable, as they often attack livestock and game animals, putting them at odds with farmers. 

Finding resolution to conflict between humans and raptors involves sustainable, nature-based approaches that promote the peaceful and harmonious coexistence between people and wildlife.

Join the discussion

  • Why don’t farmers who have rapters on there land promote bird watching tours like we have in the UK they do tours for animals why not birds.? The income would off set any losses of there stock .I’m a bird of prey supporter through n through .I would rather see these magnificent birds flying than dead on the ground any day.😃👍