A Crowned Eagle and chick captured by remote
 camera in their nest in Giba Gorge, Hillcrest.

The Crowned Eagle is rated the most powerful raptor in Africa.  Worryingly, throughout the continent data shows that their population is on the decline.  For some reason, however, in the open spaces and DMOS (Durban Metropolitan Open Space) areas of the Durban region, the population remains stable.

Mr Shane McPherson, an MSc student from UKZN’s School of Life Sciences in Pietermaritzburg, is undertaking research to determine why Crowned Eagles appear to be doing so well in the urban open spaces around Durban.  His research project is titled, the ‘Breeding Ecology of Peri-urban Crowned Eagles (Stephanoaetus coronatus) in KwaZulu-Natal.’

 ‘This is by no means an easy undertaking,’ said McPherson. ‘The Crowned Eagles that will be studied all have firstly to be located, before the juveniles can be carefully taken out of their nests to be ringed.  Then all their research data needs to be collected and collated.’

One of the Crowned Eagle pairs being studied by McPherson resides in Giba Gorge, a densely wooded area on the outskirts of Hillcrest. McPherson explained the process of ringing the juvenile of this pair.  

‘Along with ornithologist Dr Mark Brown, we made the journey into Giba Gorge to start the process  to gather all the data,’ he said.  ‘Our aim was to study an 11-week-old Crowned Eagle nesting high in a Makaranga tree on the slopes of Giba Gorge.’

After making a climb of 15 metres to the raptor’s nest, McPherson first set up the camera before very carefully lowering the juvenile bird to his helpers on the ground. ‘The camera takes a photo of the nest every minute over a four week period,’ explained McPherson. ‘These cameras are expensive but the information that they collect is invaluable.’

Once the juvenile was carefully on the ground the team quickly set to work collecting all the data they needed to get their research going. This entailed weighing the young chick; measuring its wing span and length of beak; photographing the feather patterns; and ringing one of its legs.

With the juvenile eagle safely back in its nest, McPherson was confident that he had successfully collected all the data he needed to feed into his valuable research project.

McPherson’s supervisor, Professor Colleen Downs, explained that the human-dominated landscapes of the Durban-Pietermaritzburg area sustain pairs of the apex predator, the Crowned Eagle, at a relatively high density.  ‘Research into this population is intended to investigate the novel circumstances presented regarding peri-urban breeding distribution, breeding productivity, diet, prey availability, and habitat use,’ said Downs.

Downs, who is the top published female researcher at UKZN, said that McPherson’s research project forms one of a cluster of multi-disciplinary postgraduate research projects under her supervision within the School of Life Sciences, which focus on the impacts of changing land use, especially urbanisation, on biodiversity (particularly birds and small mammals).