“To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival”
I always think of the mythical Phoenix when I see this beautiful and critically endangered bird. Not in as much as its story has any real bearing on the bird of the mythologies of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, et cetera – though it would be marvellous if numbers could rise anew from the kaingin ashes – but because its stunning, elongated crest feathers, resembling a war-like headdress, its huge wings and its long tail more-or-less fulfil my visual expectations of the legendary, sacred firebird.
But the majestic Philippine eagle is far from mythical, although in some parts it may seem so. Formerly known as the monkey-eating eagle, it was once abundant in the Philippines. Now it exists on only four of the Philippine islands: Luzon in the north, Mindanao in the south (where most of the birds are found) and Leyte in the Eastern Visayas. A recent rare sighting has also been made on Samar, again in the Eastern Visayas, bringing fresh hope to the islanders who had thought the species to be all but extirpated in their locality.
It is easy to see why the Filipinos are so proud of the eagle. This impressive raptor is one of the world’s largest birds of prey. Its seven-foot wingspan and long tail serve it well as a skilful hunter; swooping low with great agility and speed, and manoeuvring gracefully through the dense, tangled foliage of the rainforest. Civets and flying lemurs (which are not true lemurs, incidentally – those are only found in Madagascar) are its first choice of prey, and they are able to catch these with consummate ease. Unfortunately, such skills are no longer used as much as they were, since their prey, along with their habitat, is fast disappearing and they are struggling to survive. Vast tracts of tropical forest on the islands have been cleared and any further forest loss within their range must be prevented if the species is to have any future.
Incessant, needless deforestation by commercial logging, agriculture, settlement and open-pit mining has hastened the Philippine eagle along the path of extinction. Over ninety percent of its forest habitat has already been destroyed, hampering its chances of survival and making it the most exploited and most endangered avian species on earth.
The Philippine eagle has been aggressively hunted for food, shot as trophies and persecuted by local farmers in the belief their chickens are vulnerable to capture. Juveniles have been poached for zoos and other illegal wildlife trade markets, catering for private and public greed and display. Precious eggs have been stolen and sold for a high price on the black market. And to add to all that, the uncontrolled and widespread use of pesticides has brought about further fatalities amongst the populations and may have had an effect on reproductive output, which, at best, is extremely slow.
And let’s not forget the series of cataclysmic floods and mud slides which have occurred over the past few decades, and which have affected both human and non-human species. Whether or not such ‘natural’ disasters can be totally attributed to deforestation and mining in the islands is debatable. But clearly such actions have contributed enormously to the catastrophic effect, and the environment and its biodiversity has been irretrievably altered by them.
That is not to say, help is not being given. A great many Filipinos are working hard to prevent the loss of their eagle. These birds are endemic to the Philippines and are part of the nation’s cultural heritage.
Conservation plans to protect the eagles are already in place and laws have been passed prohibiting hunting and protecting nests. Awareness is being raised and educational lectures are being given by the Philippine Eagle Foundation, in the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao City, Mindanao, to all visitors.
Whereas killing a Philippine eagle carries a relatively severe punishment, deaths are still occurring. Several captive eagles, which had been released back into the wild, have regrettably been found dead. Some had been shot, and, in one case, the cause of death unknown, only the feet were found buried in the ground.
Sadly, the magnificent Philippine eagle is a very easy target for malefactors. Weighing anything up to eighteen pounds, being well over three feet long and having a wingspan of between six and seven feet, this is one very large and conspicuous bird.
The crown and crest of the bird is a pale caramelly-brown with black flashes. The large bill is blue to grey. The top of the body is covered with long, deep-brown feathers with pale tips and the undersides and chest are creamy-white. The tail is brown with darker bars and a white edge, and the feet are heavy and noticeably yellow. Needless to say, it has extremely powerful talons, perfectly adapted to its own hunting techniques.
Hunting in pairs, they operate as a duo. One bird will act as a decoy, while the other swoops in to attack. They are, in fact, opportunists and will often prey upon whatever they see first, although they do prefer prey living high in the trees, and the double-act can work well when spotting a group of monkeys.
Pairs seem to be a bit of thing for these birds. They are monogamous and will pair for life. Unless one dies, in which case the surviving eagle will find another mate. These pairs will nest once every two years. The breeding season is very much dependent on the location. When the time for egg laying approaches, the female becomes sickly and refuses food. This can last for up to ten days. At the same time she will drink a lot of water and make a lot of loud calls. Her wings become droopy and she begins to look altogether rather seedy. The name for this condition is “egg lethargy”.
At this point nest-building begins. A single egg will be laid in the finished nest. There is an incubation period of up to sixty-eight days. Both parents will help with the incubation of the egg, but the female will take most of the day-time shift. Following successful incubation, the newly hatched chick will remain in the nest for up to five and a half months before taking its first flight. It will not leave its parents at this point, and will remain in their care for a further twelve months.
From the time the pair first come together to the time the juveniles leave the parental territory, a period of two years will have lapsed. This illustrates further the problems these eagles are facing in trying to replenish their numbers in the wild.
Sadly, there is also a very high mortality rate amongst young chicks, but for those who do survive, a long life can be expected. Philippine eagles have been recorded as living up to forty-one years in captivity, though, as with other species, their life expectancy in the wild will be less.
A few extra thoughts…
John Whitehead, a British naturalist and explorer, was the first person to collect a specimen of the bird whilst visiting the island of Samar in 1896. After being told by the locals of Samar its diet consisted exclusively of monkeys, he named it first “Pithecophaga”, derived from the Greek “pithecus” meaning ape or monkey and “phagus” meaning eater of. The second name he chose, “jefferyi”, was in honour of his father who had backed all his expeditions.
For decades Pithecophaga jefferyi continued to be commonly known as the monkey-eating eagle. In 1978, during the “Marcos Dynasty”, a presidential proclamation declared by President Ferdinand E. Marcos renamed it the Philippine eagle. In 1995, a further proclamation was issued by President Fidel V. Ramos declaring the Philippine eagle the national bird, automatically replacing its predecessor, the maya.
Remnant patches of mountainous and lowland forest.
The islands of Luzon, Samar, Leyte and Mindanao. The majority can be found on the island of Mindanao.
What they eat
Flying lemurs, palm civets, flying squirrels, snakes, rats, monkeys and other such small to medium mammals.
Forest destruction and fragmentation, through commercial logging. Mining, more specifically, open-pit mining. Uncontrolled hunting for subsistence food. Capture for zoos and wildlife trade, and accidental capture. Pollution by pesticides is also playing a large role in the decline of the species, and occasionally, electrocution. A slow reproductive cycle is hindering any thoughts of rapid re-population.
Status: Critically Endangered
The Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered. It is also listed on CITES Appendices I and II. In the Philippines, the species is protected by law. Killing a Philippine eagle carries a twelve year prison sentence. There are thought to be less than five hundred individuals left in the wild.
A major captive breeding programme conducted by the Philippine Eagle Foundation exists at the Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos, where currently thirty-six Philippine eagles are housed, half of which have been bred in the centre. In this centre, positive efforts are made to return the eagles to the wild.
Various protected areas exist throughout the species’ restricted range.
Pagasa: Philippine Eagle bred in captivity turns 22
New protection areas set out for Philippine Eagle
4th Philippine Eagle hatched in Zamboanga del Norte’s forests
Getting to know the Philippine Eagle through the people
Foreign hunters kill endangered birds in the Philippines
Groups call for Samar forest protection