How The Peregrine Fund is Helping
The Peregrine Fund doesn't work directly with Wedge-tailed Eagles, but our efforts in scientific research, habitat conservation, education, and community development help conserve raptors around the world. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation.
Where They Live
The Wedge-tailed Eagle makes its home in southern New Guinea, and throughout Australia - including the island of Tasmania.
Throughout its range, this powerful eagle occupies pretty much any terrestrial habitat it can find. From inland plains and coastal heaths, to dry woodlands and grasslands. It is also found in a number of different forest types including rainforest, sub-alpine, and dwarf coniferous forests.
Despite its ability to adapt to all different types of habitats - it is wise enough to avoid areas heavily occupied by humans.
What They Do
When you first heard the name Wedge-tailed Eagle - what sort of tail did you think this eagle would have? If you guessed a very pointy tail, shaped almost like a diamond, you would have been right. Though the unique tail isn't as obvious when the bird is perched, in flight, there is no mistaking the "wedge tail" that gives this magnificent eagle its name. But there is more to the Wedge-tailed Eagle than just its tail. Overall, this eagle is a dark shade of brown - like coffee or dark chocolate - with rusty-colored feathers along its nape and some golden flecks in its wings. Females and juveniles, or young birds, tend to be slightly lighter in color, overall. It has dark eyes and a large, imposing beak. Its legs are covered in feathers all the way down to its feet, which are yellow, large and powerful. The Wedge-tailed Eagle usually obtains its adult plumage at around 6 or 7 years of age.
Imagine standing on a mountain peak watching a large brown eagle with a decidedly pointed tail, soaring high above you, past hills and escarpments; or perhaps you might imagine seeing one flying below you over flat plains as it searches for prey. That would be an incredible sight, for sure, and is a relatively common one for those lucky enough to live among Wedge-tailed Eagles. When not soaring, this bird can often ben seen perching in tall dead trees or on rocky outcrops.
Like many raptors, these eagles are top predators. Top predators are those species which hunt other animals for food but no animals hunt them on a regular basis. For example, a snake, which is a predator that may feed on mice, birds, and other animals, is also prey for many species of animals - including several birds of prey such as the Secretary Bird. Therefore, a snake is a predator, but it isn't considered to be a top predator because it is preyed upon by other animals. Other examples of top predators include jaguars, sharks and tigers. For most top predators, their only threat is humans. Top predators, such as the Wedge-tailed Eagle, play an important role in nature by helping to control populations of prey animals and maintain a balance in the ecosystems where they live.
Why They Need our Help
For the most part, the Wedge-tailed Eagle is doing quite well. It is widespread and common in Australia, and, in fact, has actually benefitted from the introduction of rabbits to the island. However, as you may have guessed, all is not perfect in the Wedge-tailed Eagle world. On a national level, the species' population has declined by 28%!
Sadly, this species is still shot, trapped, and deliberately poisoned in some areas by farmers who think it is a serious threat to their sheep. However, studies have indicated that sheep make up a very small percentage of this eagle's overall diet and much of the sheep it does consumed is in the form of carrion. The Wedge-tailed Eagle is also threatened by habitat destruction. Other causes of mortality include being struck by vehicles, being electrocuted on power lines, and even by accidentally crashing into wind turbines, fences and wires.
Though adult Wedge-tailed Eagles are rarely killed by any other animal but humans, their young can and do fall prey to predation from several species including corvids and currawongs and even other eagles.
What They Eat
The Wedge-tailed Eagle is a skilled hunter and not a very picky one, at that! It feeds on everything from mammals to birds, to fish, and to reptiles, including a species known as a Tree Dragon! Like California Condor, Yellow-headed Caracara, Bald Eagle, and Hooded Vulture, to name just a few - it also feeds on carrion, which are animals that are already dead. The Wedge-tailed Eagle has a particular affinity for road kill. When it does find a carcass to feed on, this eagle is usually the dominant species at the feast, meaning it usually feeds first while other, smaller scavengers wait their turn.
Some items found on a Wedge-tailed Eagle's menu include rabbits, hares, young kangaroos and wallabies, bandicoots, sheep, lambs, lizards, opossums, flying foxes, as well as crows, cockatoos, magpies, and waterfowl, though they can take birds as large as cranes and bustards.
As you can imagine, a species with such a varied diet might also employ a number of different hunting strategies, depending on where and what it is hunting. The Wedge-tailed Eagle might hunt by flying low and slow over open fields, by searching for prey while soaring high up in the sky, or by taking a "wait and hunt" approach - meaning it sits still waiting for prey to pass close enough for it to grab. The Wedge-tailed Eagle snatches prey from the ground or from the canopy of a tree. On rare occasions, this eagle will catch its prey in flight, or snatch them from tree hollows.
Scientists have documented pairs of Wedge-tailed Eagles working together to take down larger prey and then sharing in the feast. The Wedge-tailed Eagle has even been known to steal (or pirate) food from other raptor species.
Nests, Eggs and Young
As breeding season, the Wedge-tailed Eagle engages in a number of beautiful courtship displays. The male and female often perch close to one another, preening (or cleaning) each other's feathers. The pair might also engage is impressive display flights as they dip and dive in the sky around their territory. At times, the male will dive at top speed toward the female. Sometimes he will pull up at the last minute and other times they will lock talons and tumble through the sky together before releasing.
The monogamous pair will work together to build a very large nest made of sticks and lined with green leaves. The pair will most often build their nest in a large tree, but they can also nest on cliffs, or even on the ground as long as the nest site is protected from human access. The Wedge-tailed Eagle pair will re-use their nest for many years in a row, adding new nesting material each year. Just like an Osprey nest, Wedge-tailed Eagle nests can grow quite large over the years, measuring between 6-16 ft (2–5 m) deep and wide.
The female can lay 1-4 eggs, but 2 eggs are most common in a clutch. The eggs are white overall, but are usually covered with colorful splotches that range from purplish-brown to reddish-brown. Both the male and female will share incubation duties. Eggs need to be incubated for more than 40 days before the young chicks hatch. When the young hatch they are covered in fluffy white down. However, the nestlings will grow quickly and in just a few short months will be fully feathered and ready to fly. As you can imagine, they need to eat a lot to remain healthy and strong. When the nestlings are very young, the adult male will do the majority of the hunting. But once the nestlings are big enough, the female will help provide food for them, too. When an adult arrives to the nest with food, the young often begin to make begging calls -signaling that they are hungry and ready to eat. The adult will share the catch with the young, tearing off small pieces of meat and delicately feeding them to the nestlings.
When the young are about two and a half months old, they will begin "branching out" from their nest. Literally. This means they will leave the nest and begin to climb the branches of the nest tree. They might make short hops from branch to branch or cling to a branch and flap their wings vigorously! All of this helps them get in shape for their first flight, which occurs when they are about 90 days old.
The young Wedge-tailed Eagles will remain dependent on their parents for another 4 months or so. The start of the next breeding season is their signal to disperse from their parents' territory and begin living on their own.
Wedge-tailed Eagle and the World Center for Birds of Prey
The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about raptors. Interactive activities, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets and quizzes to costumes and a touch table are available for the curious mind. We also have several different birds of prey on display year-round, including several eagle species! Come for a visit, and get up close to a Bald Eagle, Bataleur, Ornate Hawk-eagle, and even a Harpy Eagle. Our knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about Wedge-tailed Eagles or other raptors.
Bekessy, S.A., Wintle, B.A., Gordon, A., Fox, J.C., Chisholm, R., Brown, B., Regan, T., Mooney, N., Read, S.M. and Burgman, M.A., 2009. Modelling human impacts on the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax fleayi). Biological Conservation, 142(11), pp.2438-2448.
Burnett, S., Winter, J. and Russell, R., 1996. Successful foraging by the Wedge-tailed Eagle Aquila audax in tropical rainforest in north Queensland. Emu-Austral Ornithology, 96(4), pp.277-280.
Debus, S. and G. M. Kirwan (2020). Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.weteag1.01
Olsen, J., Judge, D., Fuentes, E., Rose, A.B. and Debus, S.J.S., 2010. Diets of wedge-tailed eagles (Aquila audax) and little eagles (Hieraaetus morphnoides) breeding near Canberra, Australia. Journal of Raptor Research, 44(1), pp.50-61.
Richards, J.D. and Short, J., 1998. Wedge-tailed eagle Aquila audax predation on endangered mammals and rabbits at Shark Bay, Western Australia. Emu, 98(1), pp.23-31. "
Wedge-tailed eagles do battle with mining giant's drones, knocking nine out of sky". The Sydney Morning Herald. 17 November 2016.
Global Raptor Information Network. 2018. Species account: Wedge-tailed Eagle Aquila audax. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 27 Mar. 2018 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedge-tailed_eagle