The wedge-shaped tail gives the eagle its name. ©Getty Images

The wedge-shaped tail gives the eagle its name. ©Getty Images

There are 59 species (different kinds) of eagle in the world, found everywhere except Antarctica.

The wedge-tailed eagle is  Australia's largest bird of prey and is among the largest eagles in the world.  Its distinctive wedge-shaped tail has given it its name.

Habitat and Distribution (where they are found)

The wedge-tailed eagle is found throughout mainland Australia, Tasmania and sometimes in southern New Guinea. They prefer forested areas and open country.

Appearance and Behaviours

Adult birds are a dark blackish brown colour, females being a bit lighter in colour than males. The young are a lighter brown with reddish brown heads and wings.  Newly hatched chicks are covered in white fluffy feathers called down, but feathers start to develop from the second week and it takes just a few weeks for the young to look like their parents. They become darker brown as they grow older.

The hooked beak is as large as its head. ©Getty Images

The hooked beak is as large as its head. ©Getty Images

Females are larger than males, weighing over 4 kg. Males weigh about 3.5-4kg. The wings of a wedge-tailed eagle are about 2.5 metres from tip to tip. The birds are about a metre in length. Their legs that are feathered all the way to the base of the toes. They fly high, reaching heights of about 2 km, soaring and gliding on air currents.

Outside of their nesting territory there are home ranges where the birds hunt but which they do not defend. Several breeding pairs and non-breeding birds share parts of the same home ranges. 

Like all birds of prey, wedge-tailed eagles have excellent eyesight, and from high in the sky they can spot small prey on the ground or flying below them. They have sharp, hooked beaks that are as long as their heads, with a hook on the end to pull and rip meat. Eagles have long strong claws called talons, which they use to grab their prey to carry it and to hold it as they tear off pieces of meat to eat.

Feeding on carrion ©Getty Images

Feeding on carrion ©Getty Images

Diet

The most common food of wedge-tailed eagles is rabbit, but they also eat lizards, birds and mammals.  However, they also eat carrion, meaning animals they find already dead, such as lambs or animals killed on the roads, which is important for keeping the bush clean.

Wedge-tailed eagles may hunt alone, in pairs or in larger groups. Working together, a group of eagles can attack and kill animals as large as adult kangaroos. An eagle can lift a carcass about half its own weight.

Life Cycle

Wedge-tailed eagles stay with the same partner for life. Breeding pairs establish a nesting territory of around 10 hectares and live there all year, defending it from other eagles. They build their nests in places where they get a good view of the surrounding countryside, usually in the tallest tree in their territory. In places where there are no tall trees, they will make nests in small trees, shrubs, cliff faces or even on the ground. The nest is a large platform, sometimes about 2 metres wide and 3 metres deep, made of dead sticks.The platforms have a shallow cup on the top, lined with fresh twigs and leaves. The eagles often reuse the same nest.

Wedge-tailed eagle nest ©Getty Images

Wedge-tailed eagle nest ©Getty Images

Most breeding takes place April to September, though this varies according to the availability of food. Both male and female build the nest together, incubate the eggs and feed the young.   

After mating with a male, a female lays 2-3 speckled eggs over several days. The eggs hatch at different times between 42-45 days after being laid. The first chick is bigger than the second, which is bigger than the third. The biggest chick has the best chance of surviving, and is often the only one that does. In a very good year when there is plenty of food, two chicks may survive. When food is scarce, the biggest chick will kill and eat the smaller ones. For five weeks parents put food into their mouths to feed them, but after that bits of food are placed on the floor of the nest and the chicks feed themselves. If threatened, chicks lie flat in the nest, and will defend themselves if necessary, because the adults do little to defend them. After leaving the nest, young stay with the adults for 11-12 weeks before moving away to other places, sometimes quite a distance away.

Conservation Status and Threats

©Getty Images

©Getty Images

In mainland Australia, wedge-tailed eagles are more common than many other large eagles around the world.  However, the clearing of forests has reduced nesting areas available for them. For many years, wedge-tailed eagles were killed in the belief that they killed lambs. They are now protected and it is illegal to kill them deliberately.

A major threat is indirect poisoning: animals that die because they are poisoned by pesticides or baits are eaten by eagles which then are poisoned themselves. Eagles are often killed or injured by vehicles because birds of prey don't take off quickly and are often hit by cars as they try to fly out of the way when feeding on dead animals killed by other cars.  

In the island state of Tasmania, wedge-tailed eagles are different because they developed in isolation from those on the mainland. They are classified as Critically Endangered, threatened by habitat loss, nest disturbances and by being killed by trapping or shooting.

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