The Short-toed Eagle is also known as the European Snake-Eagle, or Serpent Eagle, which is very apt, since its main food source are snakes.
One of its adaptations for catching snakes is the evolution of short talons, which are ideal for gripping snakes, which explains the name Short-toed Eagle.
Since snakes hibernate during the winter in most parts of Europe, the Short-toed Eagle is a highly migratory species that spends the winter in sub-saharan Africa.
The best opportunity for observing Short-toed Eagles is at migration hotspots like Gibraltar and Bosporus, where they cross the Mediterranean in large numbers on their passage to Africa.
Short-toed Eagle facts
The Short-toed Eagle is highly specialized on hunting snakes, and is only found in regions with sufficiently large snake populations that it can hunt in open ground.
Short-toed Eagle size
- Wingspan: 170-190 cm
- Length: 61-68 cm
- Weight: 1,300-2,300 g (female), 1,200-2,000 g (male)
Since Short-toed Eagles often fly very high in the air, it can be difficult to judge exactly how big they are.
However, if you have the fortune of seeing one up close, it’ll become clear why the Short-toed Eagle is grouped with the eagles, even though it is not directly related to any other species of eagles in Europe.
The overall appearance of the Short-toed Eagle is that of a large raptor with long, broad wings, and a short tail. Most individuals have a pale colored underside combined with a dark brown head, which makes them easy to distinguish from other birds of prey found in Europe.
Similar to most other raptor species found in Europe, female Short-toed Eagles are larger than their male counterparts, but this difference is much smaller than for most raptors, and the two genders largely overlap in size.
A maximum age of 28 years has been documented in the wild.
Scientific name and taxonomy
The scientific name of the Short-toed Eagle is Circaetus gallicus. No subspecies are known, but it is closely related to Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle and the Black-breasted Snake Eagle, which both occur in Africa.
Short-toed Eagle distribution
The Short-toed Eagle is found all around the Mediterranean sea in Europe, with the largest populations in France, Spain, and the European part of Russia. Smaller populations are found in Turkey, Greece, and Italy.
Since the Short-toed Eagle is highly dependent on snakes as its main food source, it doesn’t occur in northern parts of Europe, since there are not enough snakes in northern latitudes. Outside of Europe, it is found estwards to Kazakhstan.
Short-toed Eagle habitat
The Short-toed Eagle prefers open landscapes with low vegetation, since this is where it hunts snakes. Other than that, it lives in a wide range of habitats, ranging from farmland to dry brush country, and in south eastern Europe also wetlands.
In addition to open landscape, the Short-toed Eagle also requires forests for nesting, although it also nests in cliffs in some cases.
Short-toed Eagle population size
The European population of the Short-toed Eagle is estimated to be between 8,400 and 13,000 breeding pairs by BirdLife International. The largest population is found in southern Russia, followed by Spain and France.
The entire global population of Short-toed Eagles is estimated to be between 12,000 and 26,000 pairs, suggesting that a large percentage of the global population breeds in Europe.
Short-toed Eagle behavior
The most common behavior observed from Short-toed Eagles is soaring and flying slowly at high altitudes, while scanning the countryside below for snakes.
When there is enough wind, it also likes to hunt by hovering. And when a suitable animal is spotted, the Short-toed Eagle drops down like a rock to swoop down on its unsuspecting prey.
Feeding and diet
The main food source of Short-toed Eagles are snakes, followed by a small percentage of lizards, frogs, and mammals. All of these are taken on the ground in open country.
The most common snake species eaten by Short-toed Eagles are grass snakes and other non-venomous species, though it also takes venomous snakes.
The Short-toed Eagle builds a large stick nest in a tree, or rarely also on a cliff. The female lays 1 egg, which is incubated for up to 47 days. After hatching, the young eagle stays in the nest for up to 79 days, and continues to be fed by its parents after leaving the nest. The parents stop feeding their young when the autumn migration starts.
Short-toed Eagle migration
The Short-toed Eagle is a strict migratory species which spends the winter in Africa south of the Sahara. A handful of wintering individuals are observed in Spain every year.
Similar to other large raptors, the Short-toed Eagle migrates along migration corridors and crosses the Mediterranean sea at its narrowest straits, which provides an ideal opportunity for observing this beautiful raptor.
Short-toed Eagle conservation status
While the Short-toed Eagle population has declined significantly during the last century due to changes in agricultural cultivation practices, it currently appears to be stable, and the conservation status of the Short-toed Eagle is hence classified as “Least Concern” by BirdLife International.
The main threat to Short-toed Eagles is destruction of habitat due to intensification of agricultural methods, which causes a decline in the population of snakes.
In previous centuries, the Short-toed Eagle was more common in areas with farmland, as extensive cultivation methods favored snakes and other reptiles more than modern intensive agriculture.
After habitat loss, the biggest threat is illegal hunting, which occurs mainly on migration.