The Bateleur Eagle (Terathopius ecaudatus) is my favourite bird. I love it because it is so distinctive, even in the air. It has unusually long wings and a very short tail (from which its scientific name comes) and when it glides over the treetops in the Lowveld, it rocks from side to side, as if its wings are the arms of a tightrope walker gaining her balance.
This is how the bateleur is thought to have got its name, when the eccentric 18th century French traveller Francois le Vaillant first saw it at the Keurbooms River Lagoon, a part of the world I know well. Le Vaillant was the first to describe many of our birds for the scientific community, but because he rejected the Linnaean system, he is not credited in the official literature. He is a fascinating figure who was strongly influenced by the writings of the philosopher Jacques Rousseau. Like the Marquis de Sade, he was imprisoned during the French Revolution.
The patterning on the wings differs between the sexes, which means it’s possible to identify whether a bird is male or female – relatively unusual in raptors. A small to medium-sized eagle, the bateleur specialises in catching snakes though it will also take carrion. In protected areas, bateleurs enjoy wonderful freedom. They have no natural enemies, and little to fear. But their numbers are under threat for the usual reasons – loss of habitat through human activity, and the poisoning of carcasses either to kill predators considered vermin, or for the muti trade.