Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, is an unusual environment and as a result, 90 percent of its plant and animal species are endemic. It has 23 species of raptors, 17 diurnal and 6 nocturnal. Of these, 13 are endemic to the island.
The Madagascar Serpent Eagle (Eutriorchis astur) is one of the world’s most endangered raptors. It is a medium-sized eagle, with a body length of around 50 cm (20 in) and a wingspan of up to 1.5 meters (5 feet). A rare bird, it was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1993 by the Peregrine Fund. Also known as the Madagascar Harrier-Hawk, the bird is a forest-dwelling species that primarily feeds on chameleons and geckos; snakes are only a minor part of its diet. It will also eat lizards, frogs, and even lemurs on occasion. The bird’s name comes from its ability to take down large snakes, which it immobilizes by wrapping its wings around the snake’s body.
Living in pristine eastern rainforests, the eagle spends a large part of its day looking for prey while perched below the forest canopy. It hunts by moving from branch to branch to catch prey with its powerful talons. It also forages on the forest floor. It may search in epiphytes and under the leaf litter with its feet in order to flush some concealed prey. It spends very little time flying or soaring.
Based on the information from only two nests, the female lays one white egg which is incubated by both parents. After about 40 days, the young bird hatches. The male will then spend a lot of time hunting, making sure that there is enough food for the family. Once the nestling is about three weeks old, the female will join in the hunting. After about two months the young eaglet will be able to fly but will depend on the parents for a few months until it learns to hunt independently.
The Madagascar Serpent Eagle is classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with a population of less than 250 individuals remaining in the wild, although some recent estimates range up to 999. The species has suffered significant declines due to habitat loss and degradation, with much of Madagascar’s forested areas having been cleared for agriculture and other human activities.
Conservation efforts are underway to protect the remaining populations of the Madagascar Serpent Eagle, including habitat restoration and protection, and captive breeding and reintroduction programs. The bird is protected by law in Madagascar and is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) . The Peregrine Fund has been studying the Madagascar Serpent Eagle since the early 1990s.
The scientific name urges some explanation. The prefix eu- is Greek for “good”. Triorchis means “having three testicles“. This funny misinterpretation of anatomy might have come about by someone mistaking an adrenal gland for a testicle. Astur is Latin for hawk.