The population of crowned eagles - rated as the most powerful raptor in Africa – is on the decline yet in open spaces in the Durban/Pietermaritzburg region their numbers are stable.

Research around this is being undertaken by Mr Shane McPherson, an MSc student from UKZN’s School of Life Sciences in Pietermaritzburg.

‘This is by no means an easy undertaking,’ said McPherson. ‘The crowned eagles being studied have to be located and then juveniles carefully taken out of their nests to be ringed.  Then all their research data must be collected and collated.’

A crowned eagle pair being studied by McPherson live in Giba Gorge, a densely wooded area on the outskirts of Hillcrest.

McPherson explained the process of ringing the pair’s juvenile.  ‘Ornithologist Dr Mark Brown and I went to Giba Gorge to start the process of gathering all the data,’ he said.  ‘Our aim was to study an 11-week-old crowned eagle nesting high in a makaranga tree.’

After climbing up about 15 metres to the raptor’s nest, McPherson first set up the camera before very carefully lowering the juvenile bird to helpers on the ground. ‘The camera takes a photo of the nest every minute over a four-week period,’ explained McPherson. ‘These cameras are expensive but the information they collect is invaluable.’

Once the juvenile was on the ground the team quickly set to work collecting all the data they needed to get research going. This entailed weighing the young chick; measuring its wing span and length of beak; photographing the feather patterns; and ringing one of its legs.

With the juvenile eagle safely back in its nest, McPherson was confident they had successfully collected all the data needed to feed into his valuable research project.

McPherson’s Supervisor, UKZN’s Professor Colleen Downs, explained that the human-dominated landscapes of the Durban-Pietermaritzburg area sustained pairs of crowned eagles at a ‘relatively high density’. 

‘Research into this population is intended to investigate the novel circumstances presented regarding peri-urban breeding distribution, breeding productivity, diet, prey availability, and habitat use,’ said Downs.

Downs, who is the Top Published Female Researcher at UKZN, said McPherson’s research project was one of a cluster of multi-disciplinary postgraduate research projects under her supervision within the School of Life Sciences, focusing on the impacts of changing land use, especially urbanisation, on biodiversity (particularly birds and small mammals).

author email : frosts@ukzn.ac.za