African Fish Eagle (The Paddling Raptor)

The African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer), also known as the African sea eagle, is a large eagle found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa wherever there are large bodies of open water with an abundant food supply.

Namibia and Zambia have labeled this unique eagle as their national bird where it appears on pendants, coats of arms and tourist memorabilia. It is known in many languages as a result of its wide range of habitat. Names such as nkwazi in Chewa, aigle pêcheur in French, hungwe in Shona, inkwazi in isiZulu, and ‘nthu’ (pronounced “ntjhu”) in Northern Sotho are good examples of it’s widespread fame.

This white breasted raptor, resembles the bald eagle in appearance; however, despite being related, part of the genus Haliaeetus, each species live on different continents, with the bald eagle residing in North America.

Coat of Arms of Zambia Featuring the Fish Eagle

Physical Description of the African Fish Eagle

The African fish eagle is a big bird with a long tail. Females weigh 3.2–3.6 kg (7.1–7.9 lb), while males weigh 2.0–2.5 kg (4.4–5.5 lb). In birds of prey, sexual dimorphism is common. Males have wingspans of about 2 meters (6.6 feet), while females have wingspans of 2.4 meters (6.6 feet) (7.9 ft). The body length is between 63 and 75 centimeters (25 and 29.5 inches).

The fish eating raptor has a mostly chestnut body with a white head and bib, similar to that of the bald eagle, and broad, strong black wings. This African eagle has a snow-white breast and tail which stops at the featherless face, which is yellow up to the brows. The bird’s eyes are a deep brown color. Yellow with a black tip, the hook-shaped beak is ideal for a carnivorous lifestyle.

The feet have rough soles and powerful talons that allow the eagle to grasp slippery aquatic prey. While this species primarily feeds on fish, it is opportunistic and may take a wider range of prey, including even small waterbirds.

Fantastic facts About The African Fish Eagle

  • The fish eagle’s distinct cry is evocative of the spirit or essence of Africa for many and has been described as a, “yodeling yelp.”
  • If it’s prey is too big the Fish Eagle can be seen ‘swimming’ with it’s wings in the water, in order to drag the fish or bird to the bank.

Habitat of African Fish Eagle

While they can often be found along the coast at the mouths of rivers or lagoons, this species is still very common near freshwater lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. African fish eagles are native to Sub-Saharan Africa and can be found in the continent south of the Sahara Desert.

The Orange River in South Africa and Namibia, the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and Lake Malawi, which borders Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique, are all locations where the fish eagle has been spotted. The African fish eagle, too is known to be found in large numbers near Lake Victoria and other large lakes in central Africa, particularly the Rift Valley lakes.

Sub Sahara Africa
African Fish Eagle Habitat

This species is a generalist, requiring only open water with enough prey and a good perch, as shown by the variety of habitat types in which it can be found, including grassland, swamps, marshes, tropical rainforest, fynbos, and even desert-bordering coastlines like Namibia’s. The African fish eagle is not found in arid regions with little surface water.

Reproduction of the African Fish Eagle

During the dry season, when water levels are low, African fish eagles breed. They mate for life. Pairs sometimes keep two or three nests, which they reuse. Nests can grow very large as they are reused and built upon over time, with some reaching 2 m (6.0 ft) across and 1.2 m (3.9 ft) deep. The nests are made entirely of sticks, twigs, and other pieces of tree matter, and lined with leaves, papyrus, reed, or typically grass.

The African Sea Eagle
The African Sea Eagle Swoops At 20 mph

The female fish eagle lays one to three eggs that are mostly white with some reddish speckles. The female does the majority of the incubation, but the male incubates when the female embarks on hunting trips. Before the chicks hatch, incubation lasts 42 to 45 days.

Siblicide is uncommon in this taxon, and the parents frequently successfully rear two or three chicks. Chicks fledge between 70 and 75 days of age. After three months of post-fledgling dependence, juveniles become nomadic and may congregate in groups away from territorial adults. Those who make it through their first year have a life expectancy of 12 to 24 years.

Diet of the African Fish Eagle

The African fish eagle eats mostly fish, which it snatches from the water with its huge, clawed talons as it swoops down from a tree perch. The eagle then returns to its perch to consume its prey.

The African fish eagle, like other sea eagles, has spiricules on its toes that allow it to grasp fish and other slippery prey. This adaptation is also seen on the osprey, a winter visitor to Africa. When an African fish eagle catches prey that is more than ten times its weight, it is too large for the eagle to raise, so it drags the fish across the water’s surface before it hits the shore.

African Fish Eagle Dragging A Large Fish to The Bank

This great aquatic vulture will dive into the water and paddle to the nearest shore with its wings while clasping onto an overweight fish rather than lose it.

In a behavior known as kleptoparasitism, the African fish eagle is known to steal the catch of other bird species (such as goliath herons). It also eats waterbirds like ducks, greater and lesser flamingos, small turtles and terrapins, baby crocodiles, lizards, frogs, and carrion. It may occasionally transport mammalian prey such as hyraxes and monkeys. It has also been noted

The behavior of African Fish Eagle

There are two distinct calls made by the African Fish Eagle. The tone is similar to that of an American Bald Eagle when in flight or perched crossed with a deep seagull call. When it’s close to the nest, the raptor makes a ‘quock’ sound; the female’s call is a little sharper and less mellow than the male.

The call of this bird is so well-known and distinct that it is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s voice.” During and outside of the breeding season, African Fish Eagles are often seen in pairs, sometimes sharing kills. They spend more time perched than flying, and after killing, they normally retire for the day by 10 a.m., but they can kill at any time of day.

The Seagull Like call of The African Fish Eagle

Conservation Status of African Fish Eagle

Least concern by the IUCN
Least concern by the IUCN

The IUCN has classified this species as of least Concern. The population is estimated to be around 300,000 raptors, with a distribution area of 18,300,000 km2.

Q & A About African Fish Eagle

What is the favorite food of the African Fish Eagle in Africa?

Lungfish and catfish are the fish eagle’s favoured prey.

Are African fish eagles nocturnal?

African fish eagles are active during the day (diurnal).

How Fast are African Fish Eagles?

African fish eagles can swoop at 20 mph

What are threats to the African fish eagle?

Human activities such as pesticides and pollution of the water ways can impact on African sea eagles lives.

In which order do African fish eagles belong?

African fish eagles belong in the order: Accipitriformes

Which habitat do African fish eagles like to nest in?

African fish eagles prefer to nest in tall trees such a the acacia, near waterways, away from humans.

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