by Robert Mulvihill, National Aviary ornithologist
Picture a turkey vulture with its pink unfeathered head, soaring on uptilted wings, teetering from side to side as it adjusts to the wind and scanning the ground below for an animal carcass to feed upon.
Now give that vulture talons and the ability to not only feed on carrion but also to kill prey with its feet, and you’ve got the bateleur eagle.
Sometimes simply called the bateleur, this very distinctive and beautiful eagle is found throughout the open grasslands and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.
Like a vulture it feeds extensively on carrion, but it also will prey on a variety of mammals, birds and reptiles, including venomous snakes. In fact, the bateleur is most closely related to African eagles in the genus Circaetus, commonly known as “snake eagles.”
Bateleurs, with their unfeathered scarlet red facial skin and yellow beak, resemble a Western Hemisphere scavenging raptor called the crested caracara.
In both species, the bare facial skin probably is adaptive for scavenging in the same way as a vulture’s head — unfeathered skin is more easily cleaned and disinfected by the sun’s ultraviolet light when these birds consume carrion contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria.
Bateleurs spend many hours each day on the wing, traversing their large territories in search of food.
Their sometimes wobbly appearance in the air, rocking from side to side like a tight-rope walker holding a wide balancing pole, is the origin of their name, which is French for tight-rope walker.
Although they are still fairly common in parts of their range, their official conservation status is “near threatened,” because of recent declines in some populations due to loss of habitat, pesticides and poisoning, and illegal capture for international trade.
Like the native bald eagle, the feathers of young bateleurs are all brown, and it takes them several years and multiple molts before they attain the striking black, brown and white plumage of the adults.