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Tawny and Steppe eagles: Birds of the same feather?

A Steppe eagle (All Photos: Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)

Is it a Tawny eagle or a Steppe eagle? I was confused because they both look so similar like twins brothers or sisters of Bollywood movies and only their mothers could identify the difference between the two – and mostly it used to be an invisible small mole. 

But Tawny and Steppe eagles are neither twins nor relatives. Their habitats are poles apart.  While Tawny are residents of India, Steppe eagles breed in grassland in Siberia. Yet they look alike. 

A tawny eagle

“To identify them, take a close look at the beak and face. The gape of a Steppe eagle is much wider than that of a tawny, and extends to the back end of the eye, whereas a tawny’s gape only extends to the middle of the eye,” says the veteran wildlife photographer Kamal Sahansi.

The narratives of Steppe and tawny eagles have remained intriguing for me in the sense that similarities are ironic and differences hardly discernible. I did try to look at the slightly longer gape in Steppe eagles to distinguish them from Tawny but it was hard to measure the differences in milimeter.

Till as early as the 1990s,Tawny and Steppe eagles were considered closely related and treated as conspecific of the same species but then it was turned out that appearances could be deceptive too. The researchers found that though Tawny and Steppe eagles look alike, genetically they are different and they were split based on pronounced differences in morphology and anatomy, two molecular studies, each based on a very small number of genes, indicate that the species are distinct but disagree over how closely related they are. 

A Tawny eagle

According to ornithologists, although similar in size (Steppe eagles are slightly bigger), shape and colour, there is a way to differentiate between the species other than the length of gape. 

Though both Tawny eagle and Steppe eagle have broad baggy leggings, the former is paler than the latter. Steppe eagles mostly hunt on the ground and even make nests on the ground. On the other hand, Tawny eagles are smaller in size and prefer to nest on tree branches. Tawny eagles are resident of the Indian sub-continent  and African continent while Steppe eagles are migratory from Eastern Europe and Siberia.  

Recently, A steppe eagle named Kenzhika, which was tagged in Altai-Sayan region, has come to Jorbeer on a winter sojourn after covering a distance of 4,686km. This is the third time any tagged steppe eagle was recorded in Jorbeer, the hub of migratory birds of prey in Rajasthan.

Ornithologists who are tracking the migration path claimed that the bird flew from Russia to Bikaner taking the route of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (via Jaisalmer and Jodhpur).

A Steppe eagle

Ironically both the species are in danger – while Steppe eagles are in the “endangered” category of the IUCN, Tawny eagles are “threatened” in the list. 

The Steppe eagle is the national bird of Egypt. Egyptians believe that the visitor steppe eagle is a proud bird, rarely associating itself with dead animals. It only eats fresh meat from animals it has killed itself and this pride might have been the reason the steppe eagle was actually considered to be the national symbol of Egypt.

Steppe’s former relative the tawny eagle is the national bird of Ghana. This bird was chosen as a symbol of protection by strength. Two tawny eagles appear on the country's crest, where they are seen with vigilant eyes as they are watching for signs of trouble. 

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