Cowies Hill nestles in the suburbs of Durban, South Africa. Alongside spacious family homes are supermarkets, shops and schools, all bisected by busy roads. If Shane McPherson, a scientist from the University of KwaZuluNatal, wants to check on his charges, this is the unlikely but perfect place.
Shane parks outside a house and walks down the garden path to a sturdy eucalyptus tree. This is an ideal nest-site, not for a ‘birdie’ but for a fully-grown raptor perfectly at ease in the vicinity of people’s homes: the crowned eagle.
Named for the distinct plumage adorning its head, the crowned eagle inhabits the tropical forests of sub-Saharan Africa, and is also found along the east coast from Tanzania to South Africa. It’s a large but shrinking kingdom, where once-pristine forests of mahogany, Macaranga and African yellow-wood have been increasingly replaced by lucrative timber and sugar cane plantations. According to the IUCN – which lists crowned eagles as Near Threatened – between 5,000 and 50,000 adults exist across Africa today. But Shane believes the IUCN underestimates the severity of the situation: with habitat degradation continuing apace, the raptor could be in a far more threatened state than the figures suggest.
In the city
Shane does not look like your typical scientist. Usually clad in a batik shirt, a knife on his belt and never without his climbing gear, the New Zealander is a cross between a hippy and Indiana Jones. He has spent the past eight years studying crowned eagles in South Africa, particularly those that live and breed in the city, and can monitor up to three nests per day – which requires him to scale nesting trees to heights of 40m.
Over the course of a year, Shane and his team oversee about 70 crowned eagle nests, 30 of which are located in Durban. Some of these urban nests have been present for 20 years or more. A pair can use the same nest for many years, protecting it fervently against intruders – competition for nest sites is most pronounced where prey availability is highest.
The fact that the greater metropolitan area of Durban is home to about four million human inhabitants does not deter the birds from reaching their highest densities (in the entire African continent) within the city‘s boundaries. The reason is simple: while habitat dwindles elsewhere, Durban still holds plenty of green space. Private forests and sanctuaries such as the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve and Paradise Valley, both characterised by deep gorges and broad rivers, are part of a green network of roughly 94,000ha that offers crowned eagles ideal opportunities to hunt and thrive.
What stands out is the small territories these birds hold in the city. In rural areas dominated by sugar cane plantations, fragmented forest and limited prey resources, the birds normally use territories spanning 30–50km². An urban pair, by contrast, will happily cope in a patch of 10– 15km² – with the nest sites of neighbouring pairs often little more than 2km apart. “Finding such incredible densities in Durban really surprised us,” says Shane.
As year-round residents of a particular territory, the eagles are acquainted with every corner of it, relying on a detailed mental map of their forest patch. Sitting in the shadows of thick tropical evergreen, overlooking promising game trails, is their favourite pastime. As ambush predators, they will wait for the perfect moment to attack their unsuspecting prey, expending little energy as they swoop in for the kill. Besides antelopes such as duikers, the eagles feed on vervet monkeys, rock hyraxes and hadeda ibis.
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