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Steppe Eagle

Aquila nipalensis

  1. Not Evaluated
  2. Data Deficient
  3. Least Concern
  4. Near Threatened
  5. Vulnerable
  6. Endangered
  7. Critically Endangered
  8. Extinct in the Wild
  9. Extinct

About Us

The Steppe Eagle is a large and handsome bird of prey, belonging to the Aquila, or Eagle, family. As its name suggests you will find it living in steppe habitats, or dry grasslands, across Eastern Europe. You will also find them on the national flag of Kazakhstan, pictured flying beneath the sun. They are fast for their size, reaching flying speeds of up to 37mph, and incredible speeds of up to 186mph when diving. When migrating for the winter they can fly an incredible 220 miles in a day.

Here at Woburn we have one Steppe Eagle, Goran. He is a gentle giant, with a laid back attitude to life. His call is more like a chicken than an eagle! He was hatched in the Czech Republic, but has settled into life at Woburn well.

Distribution
Eastern Europe, central Asia and Mongolia. Winters in Africa and south-western Asia
Habitat
Frasslands known as steppe, semi-desert, lowland hills
Height
62 - 81cm in length
Weight
3.5 - 5kg
Lifespan
Wild up to 30 years, in captivity up to 40 years
Threats
Habitat loss, accidental electrocution, shootings

Physical Features

The steppe eagle is a large bird of prey, belonging to the Aquila family, or eagle family. It was once thought to be a subspecies of the tawny eagle, but they are now known to be a distinct species.  There are in fact two subspecies of the steppe eagle, Aquila nipalensis nipalensis and Aquila nipalensis orientalis which slightly differ in coloration and size. In general Aquila nipalensis nipalensis is darker and larger.

Their plumage is mostly dark brown in colour, with light barring on the flight and tail feathers. There is a patch of reddish-brown on the nape of the neck. The nostrils, or nares, are oval in shape, and the steppe eagle is the only species in Aquila which the gape, or opening of the mouth, reaches beyond the eye. The beak is yellow with a dark tip. The juvenile is similar to the adult, but paler in colour, and with a broad white band on the underside of the wing.

Diet and Hunting Behaviour

The main diet of the steppe eagle during the summer consists of small mammals, especially gophers and suslik (small squirrels), but also small birds, insects and reptiles.  During the winter months they will rely heavily on winged harvester termites, and become more resourceful in finding food. Some have been witnessed, in South Africa, to ambush burrowing blind and semi-blind mole rats, by watching the soil for movement, to then plunge their  feet into the ground and seize them. They will also take carrion when migrating, and have been known to steal food from other raptors, in mid-flight.

The steppe eagle is an opportunistic feeder, usually soaring above its prey, and taking steep dives, of up to 186mph towards the prey. The strong feet and talons are used to catch the prey and kill them, before either tearing them apart with the strong hooked beak, or if they are small, swallowing them whole.  They will occasionally wait outside burrows of small mammals, waiting for them to emerge.

They usually have a territory of around 30 to 50 square kilometres, but it can be as large as 100 square kilometres.

The steppe eagle will produce a pellet every day, a small package of all the parts of their food they cannot digest fully, such as the bones and fur or feathers, regurgitated. This removes the indigestible parts of food, but also cleans the digestive tract of any debris and bacteria.

Communication and Migration

The steppe eagle is a quiet bird, only vocalising during the breeding season. Their call sounds somewhat like a barking crow.

During the winter months the steppe eagle will migrate to warmer climates. Around autumn they will start to move from northern breeding grounds in central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia. They will travel to wintering grounds across the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula and eastern and southern Africa. They have been found to fly very long distances, with some individuals travelling 220miles in a single day.  They return to summer grounds at the start of the breeding season, in April and May. During migration their diet varies considerably.

Breeding

The breeding season is between April and May, when birds start to return to their summer breeding ground from the winter migration. The breeding grounds are usually at higher elevations, in lowlands and low hills, and even mountains of up to 2,300metres.

Steppe eagles tend to nest on the ground, or in bushes, and occasionally on electricity pylons and other artificial structures. Ground nesting allows a good view of surroundings, for protection, but as habitat loss and habitat conversion to agricultural land occurs more, the steppe eagle has to use higher nest sites. The nest is made of sticks and twigs, and is lined with camel dung and old rags. It is usually around 1metre in diameter.

The female will lay 1 to 4 eggs in the nest, and will incubate them for 45 days.

Once hatched, the young will stay in the nest for around 60 days. Usually 2 to 3 of the young will survive to fledging. During this time the male will bring food to the female and young in the nest. The success rate of chick survival in the steppe eagle is directly linked with the population number of gophers, their main food during the breeding season.

It is not known exactly when a steppe eagle reaches sexual maturity, but it is estimated at around 3 to 4 years old, when it gains its adult plumage.

Husbandry

All of our birds of prey are flown daily. This has many benefits to the animal. Firstly it allows the animal to exercise, keeping them fit, and developing flying muscles. It also allows them to perform their natural behaviours, for some of our birds of prey this may include various hunting techniques such as catching prey mid-flight, and chasing down ground prey, or killing a (rubber) snake.

Each bird has a varied diet, just as it would in the wild, mimicking the varying nutritional properties of each food type and the quantities.

Threats and Conservation

They are listed as least concern by the IUCN red list, however the population of steppe eagles is declining, with numbers estimated to be less than 10,000. They have now become regionally extinct in Moldova, Ukraine and Romania. Even with such low numbers the species is found throughout such a large range that it is actually one of the most commonly found eagles of its size.

The biggest threats facing steppe eagles are accidental electrocution, habitat loss, and shootings. Birds will perch on power lines, accidentally electrocuting themselves, a problem for many bird of prey species. The conversion of grasslands into agricultural crop land has caused a lack of hunting ground and a decline in prey populations in general. They have also been heavily persecuted and shot by landowners and farmers.

There are no specific conservation programs in place for the steppe eagle, however many parts of its range are protected.

They are listed as appendix II of CITES, which means the trade and export of this species is heavily regulated and controlled to protect them.

Fun Facts

Their call is not as impressive as their size; they make a call similar to a crow!

They are lazy hunters, and will often sit outside burrows of small mammals, and wait for them to come out to eat them!

They can live over 40 years in captivity!