Reputation overhaul: 3 myths busted about our magnificent wedge-tailed eagles

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Reputation overhaul: 3 myths busted about our magnificent wedge-tailed eagles
Wedge-tailed eagle in flight. Credit: Mark Lethlean

The protected wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax) has a reputation it doesn’t deserve. Its imposing size and tendency to be first on the scene following an animal death have given it a bad name as a livestock killer.

Yet this magnificent creature has scarcely any adverse impact on the sheep industry and is vulnerable in our landscape due to habitat loss, climate change and illegal persecution.

Plus it has an important role to play in our environment and on our farms.

To better understand Australia’s largest bird of prey, let’s debunk the top 3 myths about wedge-tailed eagles and highlight the positives.

Myth #1:Wedge-tailed eagles are the number one cause of lamb deaths

While it seems logical that lambs would be easy prey for such a powerful hunter, research has shown that eagles are often the secondary cause of lamb deaths and a very small percentage (less than 1%) are killed by eagles. Research has found similar results on other continents world-wide.

Wedge-tailed eagles are better described as scavengers who play a key role in removing dead and dying animals, helping to reduce flystrike and clean up the landscape.

It’s important to investigate the cause of death before laying blame on wedge-tailed eagles.

Myth #2: Livestock are an important part of the wedge-tailed eagles’ diet

As juveniles, wedge-tailed eagles travel vast distances – as far as 600km in a week – to find food to help sustain their growing bodies.

They commonly hunt for carcasses, such as road kill and farm animals that have died from lack of nutrition, mis-mothering or fox predation.

They also have a taste for rabbits and foxes, helping to control pest animals. In fact eagles mostly eat rabbits. A pair of wedge-tailed eagles can eat an estimated 700 rabbits a year, with rabbits making up between 30 to 70% of their diet.

Eagles are also one of the few predators to kill feral cats. In doing so, they help to control the exotic disease toxoplasmosis that can cause a ewe to abort its foetus.

Reputation overhaul: 3 myths busted about our magnificent wedge-tailed eagles
Wedge-tailed eagle feeding on carrion. Credit: Mark Lethlean

Myth #3: There is an abundance of wedge-tailed eagles

It’s true that eagles closely watch other eagles and scavenger species in their hunt for food.

In drought-affected and marginal areas where food is scarce, they can quickly gather in numbers at these sources of carrion, giving the impression of abundance.

However, wedge-tailed eagles face many threats to their survival, including extreme temperatures and lack of food due to climate change, wind turbines in the landscape and shooting and poisoning by landholders.

An investigation in 2011 by the SA Department for Environment and Water revealed a level of persecution unprecedented in SA with about 300 eagles reportedly killed on one property alone (6km2) over a 3-year period.

Wedge-tailed eagles are fully protected by the National Parks and Wildlife Act SA1972. It is illegal to kill, trap or poison them.

Fast facts about wedge-tailed eagles

  1. Female wedge-tailed eagles are larger than their male counterpart, with a wingspan of about 2.3m compared to about 1.9m for a male.
  2. They form a pair bond for life, only changing when one of the pair dies.
  3. They usually breed once a year, but only when food is sufficiently abundant to raise young.
  4. Wedge-tailed eagles can live to more than 30 years of age.
  5. Juvenile eagles travel vast distances to scavenge food. When they reach sexual maturity at about 5 years of age, they find a territory to raise a family.
  6. Most territories have several nests within a few hundred metres. There are reports of nests being used for more than a century.

More information

Contact your local landscape board for help with caring for land, water and nature in your region. Contact details for all boards are on the home page of this website.

Read this wedge-tailed eagle fact sheet to learn more about living with these magnificent raptors in an agricultural setting.

Reputation overhaul: 3 myths busted about our magnificent wedge-tailed eagles
Wedge-tailed eagle. Credit: Shutterstock

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