The Verreaux’s Eagle (or Black Eagle) is a denizen of rocky hills and mountains, often surrounded by savanna, grasslands or arid scrub, from sea level to 5000m high – the favoured habitat of its most common prey species; the rock hyrax (dassie), which makes up between 60% and 90% of their diet. They will also hunt other mammals (up to the size of springbok and baboons), reptiles (especially tortoises, which they drop from on high so that the carapace shatters) and birds, but they have seldom been seen to eat carrion. Verreaux’s Eagle pairs often hunt together; one bird flushing the prey while the other scoops it up, and then sharing their prey. They do most of their hunting in the early morning and late afternoon, when the hyraxes are sunning themselves on exposed rocks.
With a wingspan of up to 2.3 metres and a weight of between 3 and 7kg, the Verreaux’s Eagle is one of the three biggest eagles to be found in South Africa (the others being the Crowned and Martial Eagles). Females are slightly larger than males.
Verreaux’s Eagles pair for life, and pairs are fiercely defensive of their territories. Their massive stick nests are usually built on cliff ledges (sometimes on equally inaccessible trees or man-made structures). In South Africa they usually start breeding during winter. Two eggs are laid and mostly incubated by the female for 44-48 days, while her mate brings food to her on the nest. The stronger (usually oldest) chick invariably kills, and sometimes eat, its weaker sibling within a few days of hatching. The young eagle starts flying at about three months old and becomes independent of its parents about 7 months after hatching. Immature Black Eagles roam widely before settling down with a mate.
Verreaux’s Eagles are distributed over large areas of East, Central and Southern Africa, wherever suitable mountainous habitat and sufficient populations of dassies are found. With a stable population estimated in the tens of thousands, the IUCN considers the species of least concern. In South Africa, where they occur in all provinces, Verreaux’s Eagles are sometimes hunted due to an undeserved reputation as a threat to small stock, though farmers have of late realised the benefit of these eagles keeping dassie populations under control. In traditional African folklore many people regard them as a messenger from the ancestors.
A pair of Black Eagles have been resident at Johannesburg’s Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens since the 1970’s, offering probably the most easily accessible viewing of this majestic raptor.