When the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were discovered by the first European adventurers in the early 16th century, and more fully investigated in the 19th century, one of the intriguing discoveries made amongst the magnificent stonework was several carved statues of what has come to be called the “Zimbabwe Bird”. These statues were carved from soapstone and set on stone monoliths within the great city, probably during the 11th century, by the ancestors of the present-day Shona people. Subsequently becoming a symbol of Zimbabwe and being featured on the national coat-of-arms as well as on banknotes, coins, and stamps, the “Zimbabwe Bird” is now thought to have been modelled on the Bateleur.
And the Bateleur is truly a magnificent bird, both at rest and in flight, and would have been a worthy model indeed for the ancient sculptors.
It is an eagle of medium size, male adults being about 70 cm in length, with predominantly black plumage except for a chestnut-coloured mantle and grey tail. The bare facial skin and the legs are bright red; the bill is black. The males and females have similar plumage, although the females have grey rather than black secondary flight feathers.
The white underwings with a black trailing edge, together with the very short tail (the feet extend beyond the end of the tail) make the Bateleur very distinctive when in flight. The black band along the trailing edge of the wings is wider in the males.
The prey of the Bateleur consists mostly of birds up to the size of a Sandgrouse, as well as small animals. They will also prey on snakes, and are sometimes referred to as snake-eagles as a result. They will also feed on carrion.
Bateleurs are found through most of Africa south of the Sahara, where they prefer open savannah country. They are monogamous and will often occupy the same nest, a platform built from sticks and located below the canopy of a tree, for several years. The female lays a single egg, which hatches after an incubation period of about 42 days.
The name “Bateleur” derives from the French for an acrobat or tightrope walker. With its very short tail and long wings, the Bateleur is capable of quite spectacular aerial manoeuvres, which apparently led to the adoption of its common name.
The scientific binomial for the Bateleur is Terathopius ecaudatus; Terathopius from the Greek for “marvellous looking” and ecaudatus from the Latin meaning “lacking a tail”. Thus a marvellous looking bird with no tail. Can’t say fairer than that.