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Predator: Verreaux's Eagles in South Africa Living Best in Agricultural Area

Feb 11, 2016 02:17 PM EST
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Surprisingly, eagles have been living well in an agriculture-heavy landscape in South Africa, researchers noted in a new paper. The raptors in question are even doing better than others living in a wilder mountain habitat.

The study looked at an apex predator in the southern regions of Africa, Verreaux's Eagles, Aquila verreauxii. The birds, which have a wingspan of 5 to more than 7 feet, are in decline.

Researchers including Megan Murgatroyd at the University of Cape Town wanted to learn whether habitat loss from increasing agricultural use of the land might be to blame, according to a release.

However, they found that a group of the eagles had higher breeding success in the agricultural Sandveld region than another (and smaller) group in the nearby Cederberg Mountains. In fact, the group in the farming area had the highest breeding success of any Verraux's Eagle population studied, ever.

It could be that there's just a really wide and available base of prey for the eagles in the Sandveld. Also, maybe the more rolling, less challenging terrain might be easier for the eagles to navigate. That said, the scientists note that there could be a threshold of agricultural development at some point at which the Sandveld's eagle population might fare less successfully. In particular, they think that the Sandveld area's management should keep in mind anything that would lead to eagle deaths, like the development of wind energy systems.

The study took place over four years, with researchers visiting nest sites in both areas every 2-3 weeks during the breeding season.

"The Cederberg is a beautiful natural wilderness area, so we were surprised when it became apparent that the Verreaux's Eagles breeding there are far less productive than those in the Sandveld, which has been extensively converted for agriculture since the 1980s," Murgatroyd said in the release. "This comparison has highlighted the potential importance of an agricultural landscape to Verreaux's Eagles, but further research, in particular with a focus on adult and subadult survival rates, is still needed for a better understanding of the long-term persistence of these populations."

Findings on this were recently published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications.

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