Steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis)

French: Aigle des steppes
GenusAquila (1)
SizeLength: 72 – 81 cm (2)

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

A relatively large, handsome bird of prey, the steppe eagle closely resembles a number of related eagle species such as the tawny eagle, Aquila rapax, that occur within its extensive range (2). The plumage is mostly dark brown, with well-defined bars on the flight and tail feathers (2) (4). The main distinguishing features are the reddish-brown patch on the nape of the neck, the oval nostrils, and the long, wide gape. There are two recognised subspecies of steppe eagle, Aquila nipalensis nipalensis and Aquila nipalensis orientalis, the latter being slightly smaller, with paler plumage. The juvenile steppe eagle resembles the adult but is paler brown, with a characteristic broad white band running along the underside of the wing (2).

The steppe eagle is an extremely widespread species, which makes long-distance migrations between summer breeding grounds and wintering sites. Subspecies Aquila nipalensis orientalis breeds in extreme south-east Europe, southern parts of the Russian Federation, and Central Asia as far east as eastern Kazakhstan. During the winter, it migrates to the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula and eastern and southern Africa. By contrast, Aquila nipalensis nipalensis breeds from the Altai Mountains, south to Tibet, and east as far as north-east China and eastern Mongolia, and mostly winters in southern Asia (2).

As its name suggests, the steppe eagle mainly inhabits vast, semi-arid areas of grassland, known as steppe, although it also frequently occurs in semi-desert. During the breeding season, Aquila nipalensis orientalis can be found in lowlands and low hills, whereas Aquila nipalensis nipalensis occupies mountainous areas up to elevations of 2,300 metres (2).

An opportunistic predator, the steppe eagle is known for using a wide variety of hunting techniques (2) (5). Typically, this species soars high above its prey, before making a steep dive and seizing the animal in its powerful talons (2), but it may also steal prey from other raptors while in flight, or catch prey while on the ground, often by waiting outside a burrow entrance (2) (5). Interestingly, a steppe eagle in East Africa was observed to ambush burrowing blind and semi-blind mole rats (genus Spalax) by watching for soil movement, before pouncing and burying its talons under the earth (5). Small mammals form the major part of this species diet, in particular various species of suslik (genus Citellus) which, during breeding, may comprise over 98 percent of prey taken by Aquila nipalensis orientalis. Carrion is also frequently consumed during migration, while winged harvester termites provide an abundant source of food for wintering birds in South Africa (2).

Steppe eagles arrive at their summer breeding grounds around April, at the start of spring. Large nests, up to a metre wide, are constructed from twigs and lined with various materials, such as old rags and camel dung. While the nests are usually placed on the ground in a position allowing a good view of the surroundings, as a result of habitat alteration and persecution, nests are increasingly being found in trees, bushes and on artificial structures. The female lays a clutch of between one and three eggs which are incubated for 45 days, with the chicks being brooded for a further 55 to 65 days before fledging. The steppe eagle is remarkably long lived, reaching up to 41 years in captivity (2).

Although generally considered common throughout its range, as a result of persecution, collision with power lines, and the conversion of steppe to agricultural land, the steppe eagle has disappeared from Romania, Moldova and Ukraine (2). Nevertheless, it remains the most common eagle species of its size in the world (2), and is therefore not considered to be threatened (1).

While there are currently no specific conservation measures in place for the steppe eagle (1), it occurs in numerous protected areas throughout its range (6).

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  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)