The Bateleur as the Bird of the Year 2024

BirdLife South Africa recently announced that the Bateleur is Bird of the Year 2024. “Surely a Bateleur soaring high above the African bushveld, with its rocking, gliding motion, is one of the most iconic sights of our country and indeed our continent?”

With its unmistakable appearance the Bateleur is often seen as a favourite subject for wildlife photographers. The numbers of these beautiful birds are unfortunately decreasing rapidly, but there is a lot that can be done, particularly by farmers, to help saving this species.

A Bataleur flies low over the ground.
The Bataluer (Carin Malan)

The Bateleur, or ‘Short-tailed Eagle’ as it was called in Afrikaans in the past is called by many names. The scientific Terathopius ecaudatus refers to a “beautiful face” (Terathopius) and “tailless appearance (ecaudatus). Francois Levaillant called it Bateleur in English, the French for a wagon leader, referring to the bird’s rocking flight. This flight pattern is seen as an adaptation to compensate for its short tail. All of these names have some truth to it in that it describes the unique characteristics of this iconic bird.  

This BIRD is usually seen as one of our most iconic and popular Bushveld birds. In flight they can typically and without much effort glide with upturned wing-tips, reaching a speeds of between 50 km/h and 80 km/h. The Bateleur can fly for up to 400 km per day while they are looking for prey. They tend to not fly on cloudy days. They are unmistakable when perched with black plumage, red facial skin, grey shoulder markings with wings extending beyond the very short tail. It generally has a chestnut coloured back even though some birds (rarely and mostly males) have a cream back and tail. The cere, featherless face and legs are bright red. 

Of all the eagles and snake eagles it is only with the Bateleur and African Crowned Eagle where marked differences can be observed when males and females are compared. When perched, the male shows black flight feathers, while the female shows a grey wing panel. In flight the male shows a thicker black trailing edge to the wing, while the female shows more white in the wing with a thinner black trailing edge. The immature bird is brown with a greyish-green cere and facial skin and its tail appears longer than that of the adults. It takes up to six years for the black feathers to start developing and around seven to eight years to reach full adult plumage. 

The Bateleur is more closely related to snake eagles than to eagles – note that the legs are not fully feathered. It is the only eagle that makes a flapping sound with its wing during display flights during the breeding season. Smaller mammals represent the largest proportion of its food items even though birds and reptiles are also taken. Their search for mammals unfortunately makes them vulnerable for road kills. Tawny Eagles also often rob them of their prey. 

These days, sadly, Bateleurs only occur in the larger game reserves and adjacent areas. They prefer Kalahari habitats, savanna and mopanie thickets and do not operate in   mountains (despite its Afrikaans name), well wooded areas and treeless habitats. No wonder then that the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the Kruger National Park and the lager reserves in Zululand are regarded as its last outposts in South Africa. The numbers of Bateleurs have decreased dramatically recently with a 50% decrease over the last 40 years. I is now seen as threatened. It is estimated that there are less than one thousand pairs left and that their numbers will dwindle by a further 20% over the next 27 years. 

These decreases in numbers are largely due to poisoning even though habitat loss also plays a significant role. This causes less prey being available. It is concerning to note that these decreases also occur in their strongholds in large reserves due to poisoning when they forage in areas adjacent to the reserves. It is clear that the encouragement of buffer zones around these reserves will have to be prioritised. The use of Bateleurs in the muti industry will also have to be investigated. To crown it all Bateleurs only lay one egg per breeding season. If this egg fails they will only try again a year or more later. It is also known that Bateleurs tend to easily leave their nests when disturbed and that they often do not return. The cumulative effect of all of these factors clearly does not paint a rosy picture for the future of this iconic species. 

Fortunately there are indications that these problems can be addressed meaningfully. Awareness and educational campaigns with land owners and farmers in the Northern Cape have shown that the poisoning of these birds can be minimised. It is hoped that BirdLife South Africa’s ‘Bird of the Year’ campaign during 2024 will contribute significantly to the conservation of this wonderful bird and its habitats. 

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