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Wedge-tailed Eagle

Wedge-tailed Eagle

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Wedge-tailed Eagle

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Nov 17, 2005


Australia’s Wedge-tailed Eagle belongs to the family of eagles, which together span the world. Eagles are powerful predators, with exceptional powers of flight and sight. They may kill to survive, but they also sleep, play, enjoy a bath, make tender parents, and form lasting relationships.

This book gives a comprehensive overview of Australia’s largest true eagle and one of the country’s few large predators and scavengers. First appearing in Aboriginal rock-paintings more than 5000 years ago, the Wedge-tailed Eagle was little more than a curiosity to the early European settlers. The book traces the subsequent changes in perception—from its branding as a vicious sheep killer to an iconic species worthy of conservation—and covers distribution, habitat, hunting, relationships, reproduction and chick development. A final section deals with threats to the existence of this magnificent bird.

Winner of the 2006 Whitley Award for Best Natural History of an Iconic Species.

Nov 17, 2005

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Wedge-tailed Eagle - Penny P. Olsen



There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.

Hebrew Bible. Agur, son of Jakeh, in Proverbs 30:18–19.




Illustrations by Humphrey Price-Jones

Photographs by Peter Merritt

© Penny Olsen 2005

All rights reserved. Except under the conditions described in the Australian Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, duplicating or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. Contact CSIRO PUBLISHING for all permission requests.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Olsen, Penny.

Wedge-tailed Eagle.


Includes index.

ISBN 0 643 09165 3.

1. Wedge-tailed Eagle – Australia. 2. Endangered species –

Australia. I. Price-Jones, Humphrey. II. Merritt, Peter.

III. Title. (Series : Australian natural history series).


Available from


150 Oxford Street (PO Box 1139)

Collingwood VIC 3066


All photographs by Peter Merritt unless otherwise specified;

illustrations by Humphrey Price-Jones

Front cover photo: Greg Holland, www.birdphotos.com.au

Back cover photo: David Whelan

Set in 10.5/14 Sabon

Cover and text design by James Kelly

Printed in Australia by BPA Print Group

Please read this important information

Readers are warned that this book may contain images and other

references to deceased Indigenous people, which may cause sadness

or distress, particularly to the relatives of these people.



Chapter 1 Musings

Chapter 2 Eagles and Aborigines

Chapter 3 Early records and names

Chapter 4 Eagles and their relatives

Chapter 5 The eagle’s country

Chapter 6 Eagle specifics

Chapter 7 Flight and sight

Chapter 8 Reproduction

Chapter 9 From egg to adult

Chapter 10 Hunting and prey

Chapter 11 Threats

List of scientific names




The Wedge-tailed Eagle is one of the most impressive and better-studied of Australia’s birds so it somewhat surprising that there has been no previous attempt to summarise what is known in a dedicated book, although the eagle has not been without its scribes, particularly for a young audience. This book draws on the hard work of several people including Michael Brooker, Nick Mooney, Stephen Debus and Bill Brown, and discussions with eagle enthusiasts such as Nicky Birks, Tony Ross and Robert Bartos. To them and others over the years who have shared their ideas about eagles, I owe much.

I am especially grateful to Michael, Nick, Michael, Stephen and Bill for reviewing the draft and generously contributing some of their own observations. Terry Dennis provided the estimate of eagle numbers on Kangaroo Island. Thanks also to others, evident in the reference list, with the energy to observe, study and communicate their understanding of eagles.

Volume 2 of the Handbook of Australian New Zealand and Antarctic Birds and the Raptor Information Centre’s bibliographic database— http://ris.wr.usgs.gov/—made compiling the bibliography relatively painless. Stephen also sent me his bibliography of Australasian eagle species, which yielded some overlooked references, and his careful editorial eye picked up several silly errors.

This would be a very dull book indeed without the marvellous images that bring the mighty eagle to life. Australia is fortunate to have so many talented artists and photographers of the natural world, and I am fortunate that two in particular were willing to contribute to this modest book. Peter Merritt’s luminous photographs go beyond mere technical excellence, and Humphrey Price-Jones’ beautifully drafted illustrations show his depth of knowledge of the bird.

There are other photographers to thank. Greg Holland provided the evocative cover photo and, with Leon Keasey at www.birdphotos.com.au, has always responded with great generosity to requests for photos for Wingspan, the membership magazine of Birds Australia, which I edit. David Whelan supplied the silhouettes on the back page, taken as part of his quest to alert authorities that Yaloak Vale—then, but happily no longer, mooted for development as a windfarm—was heavily populated with eagles at great risk of collision with the turbines. The Australian National Wildlife Collection, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, kindly allowed use of a slide of the Port Jackson Painter painting, taken by Ederic Slater many years ago at the British Museum of Natural History, Tring. As publication date loomed, Robert Gosford alerted me to the work of Woodrow Denham, who was particularly helpful in providing images of Aborigines and eagles.

At CSIRO Publishing, Nick Alexander contributed more than is usually required of a publisher, overseeing design and editing the manuscript, and Briana Elwood managed the project. Thanks to Nick for taking on the book, and to CSIRO Publishing for continuing to offer natural history writers one of the few options for publication in Australia today, and for doing it so well.

I wrote this book while I was a Visiting Fellow at the Division of Botany and Zoology, The Australian National University, and thank Andrew Cockburn, Mike Double, Janet Gardner, Peter Marsack, Sarah Legge, Steve Murphy and Libby Robin, among others, for their companionship and encouragement. Not least, I am grateful to my parents, for the opportunities they have given me, and to my children Anna and Peter, for their special love and support.

‘I rode up to one sitting on a small tree, on a plain west of Duck River, which allowed me to approach within fifteen yards, and would perhaps not have flown away at all if I had not stopped on my horse.’

Lonsdale Holden in A.J. North (1911–1912).



‘The story of the great Wedge-tailed Eagle of Australia—the

second largest eagle in the world—is one to thrill the imagination

and enlighten the mind of young and old alike.’

Will Lawson, poet, balladist, in foreword to Monarch of the Western Skies: the Story of a Wedge-tailed Eagle, C.K. Thompson (1946).

Every nation has its eagle, the biggest, boldest and most beautiful in the world. Eagles fire imaginations and fuel obsessions. Even their parts promise as much as their whole: mighty wings for freedom, eyes for insight, talons for power. We have them lead battalions to war, yet some would have them blamed and tamed for the loss of a few sheep.

To me, quintessential Australian landscape is one in which two great dark shapes soar above in dignified solitude. Hence, my perceptions of eagles stem from this view of them as one of the more majestic players in nature’s game. Clearly early explorers and surveyors felt similarly, reflected in the number of landmarks named for eagles or eaglehawks.

As a teenager I crested a hill on horseback and we, horse and I, came suddenly upon a huge black bird perched on a fence post. The eagle looked back over its broad shoulders deep into my eyes. After some minutes’ contemplation it turned away and launched gracefully off the hillside. We were within three metres but not a scrap of fear was apparent all round. I couldn’t say that there was a meeting of souls, but the mutual calm acceptance between the three of us had a certain unforgettable spiritual quality.

Much of my adult life has been spent studying falcons but I have often come across Wedge-tailed Eagles, if only at the end of a frenzied attack by one or another of the Peregrine Falcon pairs I was studying. On one memorable occasion, Tony Ross and I were standing beside our boat only a few metres from a flock of Wood Ducks resting prone along the riverbank, unfazed by our recent arrival. The scream of wind rushing over taught wings reached us seconds before a huge dark form sped over from behind, its draught ruffling the hair on our heads. The backs of our necks bristled. Almost in sequence, the line of ducks tipped their bodies and fell the half metre or so to the water, and the eagle swept on between the trees and up through the canopy, empty-handed.

My first hands-on encounter with a Wedge-tailed Eagle was with a scrawny brown bird with a twisted leg that had spent several years in Melbourne Zoo before being transferred to the Australian National University to be used in research on vision. The project was at its end and euthanasia and a visit to the taxidermist were on the agenda. We offered a home and a name—Boris. Over the years we came to realise that Boris was in fact a very sweet female, and imprinted on humans. The latter we discovered when Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve was closed to the public for the trial of a new strain of myxomatosis on the reserve’s numerous rabbits. This presented an opportunity to ease Boris back into the wild while there were plenty of sick or dead bunnies for her to eat. The rangers agreed to

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