NDEGE WETU: A Tribute to the Birds of Kenya (Part 4 – A Name that Says A Lot)

There are many birds in Kenya with interesting names. A name might describe a bird’s appearance, behavior, call/song, habitat or location where it is found. Of all the birds found in Kenya, one stands out to me as having the most legendary name of all. It’s a bird with a prominent reputation not just in Kenya but all over Africa. This is none other than the Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus).

Martial Eagle at Game Ranching, Machakos

The Martial Eagle’s name alone says a lot about it. It’s scientific name (Polemaetus bellicosus) roughly translates to ‘war-like eagle’. Polemaetus is derived from the Greek words ‘polemos’ (meaning battle) and ‘aetos’ (meaning eagle). bellicosus comes from the English word ‘bellicose’, which means aggressive or always willing to fight. The English name ‘Martial’ comes from ‘martial arts’, which are sports that involve fighting. Clearly, this is an eagle with a fierce character.

An adult male in Nairobi National Park

The size of prey that it kills is not unusual for an eagle of its size (it mainly hunts gamebirds, mammals up to the size of young antelope and monitor lizards), but it has a reputation of being extremely bold, particularly when hunting. Martials have been known to face off against adult antelopes as large as Waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) that are trying to defend their young from the attacking eagle. Young Martials can be particularly reckless, sometimes taking on extremely dangerous prey. The most impressive records I know include a young Martial successfully killing an adult Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer) and another that attacked an adult Black-backed Jackal (Canis mesomelas)! One in the Masai Mara even tried to catch a lion cub, but the lioness was quick enough to deflect the attack before the eagle got to the cubs!

Martial Eagle collecting material to add to its nest – Nairobi National Park

The Martial is reputedly Africa’s largest eagle, although the Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) and Verreaux’s/Black Eagle (Aquila verreauxii) are of very similar size. Be that as it may, the three have very different behaviors. Some people call the Crowned Eagle the ‘leopard of the sky’. It’s a fitting name as it’s a well-camouflaged powerful hunter of forests and woodlands, just like a Leopard (Panthera pardus). I guess you could call the Martial ‘the lion of the sky’, since it shares the brave warrior-like character of the Lion (Panthera leo) and occupies the same savanna habitat. The fact that we have fairly good numbers of this impressive eagle in Kenya is something that Kenyans should be proud of. It’s a national heritage that should be conserved.

A young Martial Eagle near Lake Naivasha

Martial Eagles can be seen in most of Kenya’s major national parks and reserves. If you would like recommendations of expert safari guides that can help you get great sightings of Martials and other impressive eagles in Kenya, feel free to get in touch. And if you see a Martial Eagle anywhere, please send your record (with date, GPS coordinates and photos if possible) to kenyabirdmap@naturekenya.org to contribute to the Kenya Bird Map project.

If you enjoyed this ‘episode’ of Ndege Wetu, look out for the next one next Thursday!

Martial Eagle in flight – Silole Sanctuary

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Sidney is a Kenya-based ornithologist and photographer specializing in the birds of Africa, with an especially keen interest in the birds of prey (raptors) of Kenya.

About Sidney Shema

Sidney is a Kenya-based ornithologist and photographer specializing in the birds of Africa, with an especially keen interest in the birds of prey (raptors) of Kenya.

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