Hunting down the deadly – It’s a Snake Eagle’s world

Snakes can’t fly. So when they drop down from the sky, something is amiss, right? An incident that occurred in June 2021 in Kitui caused quite a stir. A man was bitten by a snake while driving. The snake landed on the car’s roof and made its way inside through an open window. It then tangled around the man’s arm and bit him. 

Luckily, passersby came to the man’s rescue, killing the snake and freeing him from the deadly grip. More drama ensued. As the passersby prepared to burn the dead snake, a large bird swooped, grabbed the snake and made away with it. The spectacle left many baffled. Social media platforms and news outlets were full of speculations, bordering from bizarre theories to superstition. 

Being a bird enthusiast and naturalist, let me share some insights into the mysterious bird’s action. Many reports indicate it was an eagle. The peculiar behaviour displayed by the bird is typical of a bird of prey. My guess is a Snake Eagle. 

Snake Eagles, as the name suggests, specialize in hunting snakes. Like other eagles, Snake Eagles are agile, have a very sharp vision, and strong feet equipped with great curved talons. Additionally, a thick overlay of scales protects their feet from snake bites. Snake Eagles are medium-sized eagles with large rounded heads, striking yellow eyes, bare legs and an upright stance when perched.

A Snake Eagle hunts from a perch, or while soaring up in the skies. Once it spots prey on the ground, the eagle descends and snatches it, then quickly flies upwards. When it comes to hunting down some of the swiftest and deadliest snakes in the world, like cobras and black mambas, there is no room for errors. Neutralizing any potential harm comes first. The eagle crushes or rips off the serpent’s head while airborne. It then swallows the entire snake, head first. 

Occasionally, the snake may break free from the eagle’s grip and drop to the ground. Such was the case in Kitui. 

Several species of Snake Eagles occur in Kenya. They include the Black-chested, Brown, Southern Banded and Western Banded Snake Eagles and the rare Short-toed and Beaudouin’s Snake Eagles. The Beaudouin’s is listed as Vulnerable, and Southern Banded as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

Indeed, eagles are fascinating birds of prey that display unique hunting skills. Unfortunately, many of these raptors are experiencing a decline in their populations. Habitat destruction, collision with energy infrastructure, hunting, and pollution are among contributors to the dwindling numbers. A lot needs to be done to keep these skilled, soaring hunters airborne.