The Aquila nipalensis, or steppe eagle, as its name suggests is a bird of prey that prefers a wide, open habitat and is native to both Europe and Asia.
The steppe eagle is a member of the subgenus Aquilinae, or “booted eagle”, which means that it has feathered legs. A large, physically strong, and intimidating bird, the steppe eagle’s fierce expression belies its somewhat approachable nature.
Usually dark brown, the steppe eagle has a thick neck and seemingly small head, which again adds to its physically intimidating appearance. It has long wings and a long tail, and yellowish-brown patches on the back of its neck and head.
Juvenile birds tend to be paler than adults, and their dark brown eyes fade to the more common hazel color that all adult eagles have as they reach maturity.
Adults can vary in size but are usually between sixty-five and eighty centimeters, or two and a half feet in length, can weigh anywhere between four and eight pounds (two to four kilograms), and have an average wingspan of one and a half to two meters, or four to six feet.
Male vs. Female
As with most raptors, the female of the species is usually bigger than the male, in some cases up to fifteen percent larger.
While they have the same physical characteristics and coloring, the easiest way to tell if a steppe eagle is male or female, without getting a little closer than either the bird or you would probably be comfortable with is by their size.
Females are longer and weigh more than smaller males do.
Are They Aggressive?
Despite the fact that the steppe eagle is a notoriously solitary bird and is usually only found in the company of its mate, it sometimes migrates in packs with other members of its species.
Steppe eagles will also cooperate with each other when they indulge in kleptoparasitic behavior and steal from other birds of prey.
Regarded as being approachable and relatively tame, the steppe eagle isn’t an usually aggressive bird and will only engage in violent confrontation if it feels threatened or senses any danger.
They do, however, occasionally indulge in aerial territorial displays to warn any potential “invaders” to stay away.
What Adaptations Do They Have?
The steppe eagle is the species of Aquilae to predominantly nest on the ground rather than in trees or raised rocky outcrops. They are also predisposed to walking, and will “strut” around with the tips of their wings raised slightly above ground level.
It’s an unusual behavioral pattern for an eagle to adopt but seems to be one that the steppe eagle enjoys almost as much as it does soaring and gliding high above the steppes of Russia and Mongolia and the wide-open plains of Africa.
Breeding / Reproductive Behaviour
The age at which steppe eagles reach sexual maturity hasn’t been properly established but is assumed to be somewhere in the region of forty-eight months, at which point the males will abandon their traditionally solitary existence and seek a female to mate with.
The female usually lays one to four eggs at a time, that are incubated for forty-five days, and as the species isn’t prone to cainism (in which larger and older siblings prey on the smaller members of the family), each nest usually produces two or three fledglings, that are capable of leaving their parents sixty days after they first hatch.
Their Calls / Sounds
Unless they’re breeding, or searching for a mate, steep eagles tend to be unusually quiet birds.
Their main call resembles that of a tawny eagle and is a deep, continuous bark, and they have also been known to croak, shriek, and unusually for an eagle, even whistle. They are, however, for the most part, a silent predator.
What Do They Eat (Diet)
The steppe eagle has an incredibly specialized diet that varies with the seasons. Their summer prey is usually the ground squirrel and the steppe eagle has adapted to become particularly adept at finding, catching, and eating the rodent.
During the winter months, when it’s increasingly difficult to hunt ground squirrels and other small mammals due to the eagle’s migratory patterns, it relies on a diet of insects such as termites, and locusts and also preys on small songbirds.
The species is also incredibly well-versed in the art of theft, and if given the opportunity will steal the prey of other raptors, often working in conjunction with other steppe eagles in order to guarantee success and avoid any potential conflict.
Where Do They Live (Habitat)
While it used to be far more widespread in Russia, the steppe eagle is now only found in the area of the country to the North of the Caspian Sea.
While it is also found in China and Mongolia, the primary stronghold of the steppe eagle is Kazakhstan, a country where it still seems to be, to a certain extent at least, thriving.
What Are Their Nesting Habits?
Unusually for an eagle or any other raptor for that matter, the steppe eagle prefers to nest on the ground, although some also seem to be unusually attracted to power pylons.
The nests are built from sticks and can be up to twenty inches (seventy-five centimeters) deep and four to five feet (one to one and a half meters) in diameter.
They generally seem to prefer to build their nests in open spaces but have been known to take advantage of the security that bushes can offer, and sometimes build their nest inside them.
How Long Do They Live (Lifespan)?
The oldest steppe eagle on record, which was kept in captivity, lived to the age of forty-one, but the average lifespan for a bird in the wild, providing they reach adulthood (up to seventy percent of all eagles die before they reach full maturity at five years of age), is between twenty and twenty-five years.
What Predators Do They Have?
When they reach adulthood, there are few animals brave enough to try and prey on a steppe eagle.
But, due to the bird’s nesting habits, their young are often preyed upon by small carnivorous mammals like foxes, which oddly enough are also preyed upon in turn by adult steppe eagles, if they can’t find their favored ground squirrels.
Young eaglets, while still in the nest, are also preyed on by other raptors, a behavior that isn’t uncommon in every species of eagle.
What Do Their Feathers Look Like?
Steppe eagles have an incredibly thick coating of feathers, which can make the bird look scruffy and disheveled. The feathers on their legs are smaller than the ones that cover their torsos but generally tend to be the same dark brown color.
The “fingers” at the back of their wings are nearly always black, and the underside of the wing can appear to be mottled and striped as the color of the feathers tends to be lighter.
What Does Their Poop Look Like?
Eagle poop is pretty much universal across the entire genus, and steppe eagle poop tends to look like the poop of every other eagle.
That is, it’s mostly liquid “whitewash” but has some solid, darker fecal matter and occasionally includes fur and other parts of their prey that they were unable to properly digest.
Do They Migrate?
The steppe eagle is a migratory bird and spends the winter months in Eastern and Southern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India. They fly south for the winter and only return to their country of origin and native land(s) when the seasons change.
The steppe eagle recently moved from least concern to endangered due to a loss of habitat through an increasing number of steppe fires, nest failure due to human intervention (birds being caught and captured in Kazakhstan) and the young being preyed upon by other animals, and a lack of education about the habitat of the bird among farmers, who often view it as a pest rather than a natural pest controller, that can and will take care of any possible rodent infestations.
While it’s almost impossible to ascertain actual numbers as the population of the steppe eagle is in decline, there are thought to be twenty thousand pairs in Russia, slightly more in Kazakhstan and less in China and Mongolia.
The steppe eagle is the only eagle to primarily make its nest on the ground, a behavior that’s only shared by one other raptor, the harrier.
It is one of the only eagles that is regarded as being a specialized predator, as it tends to favor hunting ground squirrels in summer and insects in winter.
They are also particularly skilled thieves, and will often team up with other steppe eagles in order to steal food from other birds of prey. The behavior is known as kleptoparasitism and while it isn’t uncommon in nature, it is less common among birds of prey.
The steppe eagle is solitary by choice and nature, and only seeks the company of other eagles when it is stealing food, migrating (which it can do by itself or in large flocks) or when it finally decides to mate after reaching sexual maturity.
It is a strange, unorthodox, and unusual bird and the ongoing decline in its numbers is a sad reflection of humanity’s lack of understanding of the natural world.