Visit any part of Southern Africa blessed with mountainous terrain or rocky hills and gorges inhabited by dassies (or hyraxes) at a time when the thermals are rising and there is a good chance that you will see a pair of large black birds soaring to great heights. With wings narrow at the base and broader at the distal end, with white windows in the primaries; and with a broad white Y-pattern visible on its back as it wheels, this is the majestic Verreaux’s eagle.
With a length greater than 80 cm and a wingspan approaching two metres, the Verreaux’s eagle (formally called the Black eagle) is a formidable bird. The sexes are alike in plumage, although the female is a little bigger than the male and has more white on its back. They feed mainly on dassies but may also take hares, monkeys, squirrels and other mammals, as well as a variety of birds such as guineafowls, korhaans and doves. They have been known to carry tortoises aloft and drop them to break open their shells and rarely they will dine on domestic stock like lambs and chickens.
Verreaux’s mate for life and will usually be seen in pairs. They are highly territorial and, like many other territorial species, the size of their territory will often correlate inversely with the food supply; in this case dassies. They hunt by surprising their prey in a fast stoop, but may also hunt from a perch. They are most active at dawn and at dusk and will often spend the hotter part of the day in the shade.
Their nest is a platform of sticks up to two metres in diameter with a bowl 30-40 cm deep lined with leaves, usually located on a cliff ledge rather than in a tree. The same nest may be used for many years. The clutch is usually of two creamy-white eggs that hatch after an incubation period of about 45 days.
These graceful hunters are mostly quiet, but may utter a variety of mewing and whistling calls.
The scientific name for the Verreaux’s eagle is Aquila verreauxii; aquila from the Latin for an eagle and verreauxi honouring Jules Verreaux (1807-1873) and perhaps also his brother Édouard Verreaux (1810-1868). Thus Verreaux’s eagle, which makes sense.