Short-toed snake-eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Also known as: short-toed eagle, Short-toed snake eagle
GenusCircaetus (1)
SizeLength: 62 - 67 cm (2)
Wingspan: 170 - 185 cm (2)
Male weight: 1.2 - 2 kg (2)
Female weight: 1.3 - 2.3 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The short-toed snake-eagle is a large, long-winged eagle with a broad head, a relatively small beak, and long, bare legs. The plumage is quite variable, but is usually brown above, with a brown head, throat and chest, and a white lower breast and belly, marked with dark bars or blotches. The flight feathers of the wing are usually dark, and the tail bears three to four dark bands. The eye is bright yellow (2) (4) (5). The male and female short-toed snake-eagle are similar in appearance, although the female is heavier and has a slightly longer tail. Juveniles resemble the adult (4). The short-toed snake-eagle is rather noisy during the breeding season, using a range of calls including a harsh, plaintive jee, a melancholy peek-o and a rather weak ok-ok-ok (5). The species can be distinguished from the related Beaudouin’s snake-eagle (Circaetus beaudouini) and black-chested snake-eagle (Circaetus pectoralis) mainly by its paler colouration (2) (4).

The short-toed snake-eagle has a wide distribution, occurring from southwest Europe and northwest Africa, north to the Gulf of Finland, and east to Central Asia. Populations also occur in the Indian subcontinent and the Lesser Sunda Islands, in Southeast Asia. Western populations of the short-toed snake-eagle are migratory, wintering in the Sahel zone of sub-Saharan Africa, whilst elsewhere the species is resident year-round (2) (4) (6).

The short-toed snake-eagle uses a range of habitats, from fairly dense forest, to open woodland, to arid grassland and semi-desert (2) (4) (6). It generally prefers mixed habitat that combines open areas, rich in reptile prey, with tree cover for nesting (2) (7).

As its name suggests, the short-toed snake-eagle specialises in feeding on snakes, which can measure up to 150 centimetres or more in length and are usually eaten whole, head first (2) (4) (8). Although some venomous species are taken, most are non-venomous. Other reptiles may also be taken, particularly lizards, as well as occasional amphibians, small mammals, and, rarely, birds or invertebrates. Most hunting takes place in open areas, the eagle soaring or circling, sometimes at great heights, and often hovering as it searches for prey (2) (4) (5).

The short-toed snake-eagle breeds from April to October in western parts of its range, and from December to May in the Indian subcontinent. The nest, which is relatively small for such a large bird, is built in a tree, and is constructed from sticks and twigs and lined with green leaves or grass. A new nest is built each year, although the breeding pair may also take over the old nest of another bird species, or, more rarely, nest on a cliff ledge. A single egg is laid, hatching after an incubation period of 45 to 47 days. Fledging takes place after 60 to 80 days, although the chick may move from the nest into the surrounding branches 10 to 15 days before this. The young short-toed snake-eagle becomes independent soon after fledging, and may live up to 17 years (2) (4).

The short-toed snake-eagle has a wide distribution, and, despite declines during the 19th and 20th Centuries, thought to be a result of habitat loss and shooting, the population is now thought to be relatively stable (2) (4) (6). However, shooting is still a problem in some areas, particularly on migration, with many birds illegally shot at the crossing point of Malta each year (2) (4). In 1993, 50 birds arriving on Malta in a single day were all shot (2) (4).

As well as receiving some protection from international trade under its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (3), the short-toed snake-eagle is listed on Annex II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) (9), and is protected under Annex I of the EC Birds Directive (10). BirdLife Malta are working to monitor and prevent the illegal hunting of migratory birds on Malta, meaning the short-toed snake-eagle, together with many other migratory species, may be safer at this important crossing point in future (11).

To find out more about the short-toed snake-eagle, and about bird conservation on Malta, see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CITES (June, 2009)
  4. Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World. Helm Identification Guides, A & C Black Publishers, London.
  5. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (2001) A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  6. BirdLife International (June, 2009)
  7. Moreno-Rueda, G. and Pizarro, M. (2007) Snake species richness and shrubland correlate with the short-toed eagle (Circaetus gallicus) distribution in south-eastern Spain. Ann. Zool. Fennici, 44: 314 - 320.
  8. Gil, J.M. and Pleguezuelos, J.M. (2001) Prey and prey-size selection by the short-toed eagle (Circaetus gallicus) during the breeding season in Granada (south-eastern Spain). Journal of Zoology, 255(1): 131 - 137.
  9. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (June, 2009)
  10. EC Birds Directive (June, 2009)
  11. BirdLife Malta (June, 2009)