For crowned eagles living in South Africa, the sunny city of Durban is a pretty sweet hang out. Peppered with green spaces that are home to a host of wild species, the city and its surrounds are perfect hunting grounds for urban-adapted raptors. And crowned eagles are leading the flock. These birds of prey have long been nesting in residential gardens and urban parks in the greater Durban area, picking off rock hyraxes from stormwater drains or plucking baby hadedas from their nests.

Occasionally, an inexperienced bird may try it’s luck at nabbing someone’s pet – just like one young eagle did recently in Queensburgh, a town just south of the city bowl:

The startling attack was captured on a security camera last week by homeowner Grant Rust. As per his typical morning routine, Rust ushered his six Jack Russell puppies outside for a little runaround while he prepared to head off to work. “[The] next minute we hear our tenant upstairs screaming ‘There’s an eagle flying around!’” Rust told a local news outlet.

By the time he responded to the cries, the raptor had already swooped in, clutched a puppy, and – fortunately for the dog – dropped it almost immediately before perching on a nearby fence. “We gathered all the little puppies … and we noticed that one wasn’t too happy, so we checked it out – it had three little claw marks on it,” Rust recalls.

Much to the relief of Rust and his family, the eight-week-old puppy made a full recovery, but the incident has once again sparked some concern from pet-owners about the dangers of sharing a habitat with large raptors. So just how often do crowned eagles aim their talons at Durban pets? According to Dr Shane McPherson, an wildlife ecologist who has spent the last seven years studying these forest raptors, attacks on pets are rare. “Our camera trap study of nest sites shows that in resident breeding pairs, 94% of prey is wildlife species, 5% can be chicks (in some areas), and 1% cats,” he explains.

Dr Shane McPherson holds an eaglet that has just been fitted with an identification tag as part of his research. 

In fact, McPherson has not recorded a single instance of a dog being delivered to the nest of a breeding eagle. That’s not to say, however, that this is an entirely isolated incident. In 2015, a maltese poodle named Buttercup was killed by a crowned eagle in Durban’s western suburbs, while some 80 kilometres inland a chihuahua-pekingese-cross succumbed to a similar fate.

The culprits of attacks like this are usually juvenile or subadult eagles, McPherson explains. “These individuals are still learning their niche in the urban ecosystem and may be unskilled or unfamiliar with prey choice,” he points out. The fact that the raptor struggled to hold onto the puppy could also be an indication of inexperience.

Timing plays a role here too. In summer, prey items like hadeda ibis nestlings are readily available, however, crowned eagles have to work a bit harder for their meals in the cooler autumn and winter months. This forces some younger birds to get experimental with their prey options. Adult eagles also reduce the amount of food they deliver to juveniles during winter as they try to encourage their youngsters to develop vital hunting skills.

Mitigating eagle-pet conflict is a complex problem and McPherson acknowledges that there are no simple solutions. In his time researching crowned eagles, he has discovered at least 31 nests in the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System - a patchwork of interconnected nature reserves, rural lands and private properties that are chockfull of biodiversity and collectively form a viable network of urban wildlife habitats.

“I hope, as many others do, that the crowned eagles remain an integral and appreciated part of this urban wildlife community,” he says. “With this many crowned eagles producing young, there is going to be a perpetual conflict between young eagles trying to find their way in the world, and the occasional run-in with pets such as cats and dogs. There are quite a few examples of homeowners with a nest site just past [their] backyard, [who] haven’t had incidents for years. But further afield one is not often aware of a dispersing eagle until an incident occurs. Obviously if one is aware of a juvenile eagle showing up then greater vigilance and perhaps enclosures for the pets is advised. If the eagle is unsuccessful it will typically move on in a week or two,” he adds.

If you spot a crowned eagle in your area, report the sighting to the Crowned Eagle Research Project.

Header image: Peter Steward