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Tawny the survivor

On the 16th March 2024 we lost a good friend. “Tawny” died on a small mound at the front entrance to the verandah overlooking her three fellow eagles and forest glade. It was a favourite place where there was always something going on to amuse her. There were either other eagles to associate with (or steal food from), a family of dik-dik, feeding zebra or more recently a remarkably tame Slender mongoose and her half grown young. Sometimes Tawny would get to the other end of the glade and stand on a rock pile for a better view. There I have seen her occasionally behind a group of feeding buffalo and more worryingly behind a group of hyena. She was always smiling back at me as if to challenge me to go and pick her up.

She seemed to assume this sentinel duty as important and would often go and usurp the Fish Eagle from his perch or lie down beside him, always on the look-out for a piece of food, for she was a glutton. Despite her disabilities she would hop from her night kennel outside the workshop and go under a gate, along a wooded path, around the front of the house and get to her small mound every morning. There she would oversee all things, but shift location depending upon the heat and moving shadows. The front glade is enchanted and a great place to pass the day for any eagle.

Tawny taking her sentinel job very seriously

In the afternoon, she would hop her way all the way back. Normally she would go into her kennel on her own but sometimes she needed some persuasion, such as a good meal to be placed inside. If it was raining hard she would make her way back and go into the kennel. Two of us would then pick up the kennel because it was so heavy and move it indoors out of the way of hyena and leopards. We take her box out and return it inside every morning and every evening. Sometimes we’d forget about her being inside knowing that her routine was so strict that she’d always be there ready to go to bed. She’d just be in the box when needed. She was ironically the “freest” of all our rehab birds yet one of the most crippled.

She was a creature of habit in much the same way as is a dog. This endeared her to us all at the centre and those that stayed or visited. Because she was missing her right leg and wing it was possible to leave her outside untethered by jesses or a leash. Initially in an enclosed courtyard of her own, but later when she figured out how to escape and go off and hang out with her buddies, we learned to let her be. Initially we panicked and thought the worst when she vanished, but each time sure enough she was smarter than we gave her credit for, and never strayed. Those visitors that saw her were always impressed at how very glamorous she was. Her eagle stare and set slightly downturned then up turned mouth would change her demeanour depending upon the angle she would look at you. If she looked down her nose, she looked stern, if she looked right at you she would smile. Tawny (as in a ruddy reddish brown) is in reference to the colour of these eagles, but they are no less golden than is the Golden Eagle. Recent DNA work has moved them very close to the Imperial Eagle. They are the African Imperial Eagle and should demand as much attention especially as they are in such perilous decline.

A magnificent eagle

She was especially beautiful. There are many colour morphs in Tawny Eagles. Interestingly her plumage changed from being a soda lake bleached blonde to a russet dark streaked plumage. I mean bleached because Tawny Eagles exposed to high UV and/or air-bore soda from alkaline lakes do lose colour quickly at every age. What I did not appreciate until recently was that the eroded distal tips of feathers that looked arrow shaped rather than round can happen in second year (and older) birds. Not just the feathers bleach, but they wear out quicker. In the highlands of the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia where the sunlight is very harsh it appears that a higher percentage of Tawny Eagles are pale morphs…and on the soda flats of Danakil, Natron, Magadi and Etosha they are also generally paler. Very pale almost white Tawny Eagles are usually late first year juveniles at just one year old. Then the top of their nose moults showing dark brown feathers that proceed over the head and down confusing so many.

The plumage change from pale to permanent dark russet brown was due to her easy life perched in the shade and out of the alkaline winds of the lake shore where she had nested. It had a little to do with her age too. I believe from her moult that she was a 2nd to 3rd year near-adult when she came in. Her eyes were not solid dark brown like the 1st year juvenile but khaki and the iris fringed with fine streaks, denoting greater age. Eye colour does help in ageing Tawnies, but it is not a sure thing. That she was breeding was important as sub-adults tend to breed in populations that have experienced high adult losses. Originally I thought she was a male and named her “Douglas” after Douglas Bader the WWII fighter pilot with two missing legs. Male raptors are smaller than females. She wasn’t that big but then again, her missing limbs gave her a smaller stature. Her weight misled me for a while until I realised I had to consider the weight of the limbs she had lost. Tawny weighed about 1850 grams after the amputation(s), (within the male range) but gained weight to 2300 grams which is within the female weight range. But add on her missing leg at some 60 grams, and her missing wing at some 300 grams and you have 2660 grams and she is a medium sized female. Her head shape was robust and the eyebrows deep and the head more angular than the more gracile, wider eyed, rounded skull shape of the male. But there was nothing feminine about her. In eagles there never is.

Going about my business I would cast an eye around to see where she was. And sure enough, whether it be lying down under the overhead water tank outside the workshop, or standing proud outside the verandah among the others, there she was always looking back. She had that eagle habit of blinking the one eye that looked at you the most. It’s a sign of mutual recognition. It’s a slower than usual blink and I would do my best to acknowledge it in return. Eagles do this a good deal when looking at distant eagles. You could say it was to clear the eye and to see all the more. But here’s the thing. When an eagle sees you nearby it will stare hard with both eyes and blink in an exaggerated way. They will turn their head to look at you with one eye and blink again. It’s almost a wink, not so much a blink. As if to emphasise her benign mood, a crescent of pale feathers below and behind the eye would subtlety make itself clear. It gave a soft humorous look. When an eagle is staring hard into the sky and blinking fast even a fool would understand that the eagle would wish you to look in the same direction. Sure enough, if you have the wit to follow the gaze, you will see a distant speck and know it’s another eagle. How I treasured knowing that somewhere she stood vigil looking on and never missing a thing.

She was a great poser for portrait photos. A photographer friend, David Gulden, vastly impressed by her imperious look sought another photo - that of her massive, cruel and totally avoidable injuries as well as that indomitable stare. He was never to get it.

Tawny, never one to feel intimidated by size, would sometimes join Girl on her perch on the verandah. Both unreleasable, these eagles have educated thousands of people regarding their plight in the modern world.

She had been electrocuted on the new lethal concrete poles with metal crossarms and short insulators now quite probably the leading cause of mortality for most medium sized raptors in East Africa today and one that is avoidable if correct measures are taken. Virtually all protected areas in East Africa have these lethal pole designs today and they are relentlessly increasing with almost no acknowledgement of the hazards they pose to wildlife. Many raptors survive a “shock” to fly away and have their arms and legs die and rot off and then they starve to death. These walking wounded never survive and are one of the least represented when it comes to enumerating deaths from electrocution. She had been electrocuted on the conservancy and was one of the pair that nested by the salt pan. (That same section of just 5km has between Jan-March 2024 killed 5 Tawny Eagles, twice as many as the territory holds, showing the rate of removal is far greater than recruitment).

There had been a chick in the nest, but shortly after she was brought in I went to check it out and there was no eagles to be seen. It was a colleague Paul Gacheru, of Nature Kenya who had picked her up in early Oct 2022 under the powerlines during a survey. When one is assumed to oppose power distribution one can be ostracised as anti-development. But surely the signature of a developed country would be the placement of wildlife friendly infrastructure? Besides, when each raptor gets electrocuted the power supply “trips” and can go off. Given the amount of power outages the economic loss alone is justification to make very sure these “short circuits” do not occur. I spoke to some electrical engineers’ while doing a survey and they kept referring to “short circuits” until I realised they meant “birds”. To the industry it is one and the same, and to national conservation obligations this is one area we can work together to ensure safe infrastructure.

Enjoying a bath

Tawny had a prosthetic leg. It was a simple metal design that had a cup at the top and an angled “foot” beneath held together with the brass casings of spent bullets. We had tried out many versions but the best was the simplest. It would sometimes stay for 2 to 3 months, sometimes 2 to 3 days, you’d never know. When it fell off she’d struggle a great deal to get about. Sometimes, if she was bad and going on long walkabouts I would remove her leg. This didn’t always work and she would still belligerently stomp her way to wherever she so wished.

The photos below show the prosthesis in the wing and on the leg. Two titanium Intraosseous Transcutaneous Amputation Prosthesis (ITAPs) are in the ulna and radius. There is an external cup prosthesis on the right leg. The titanium implants were custom made in the Czech Republic, and while one did osseointegrate the distal humerus ultimately died requiring that the whole wing be amputated.

Late last year (2023) she developed a tumour that was above the prosthesis cup and unrelated to any friction abrasions. On Christmas day 2023 I had to do an operation and it was very alarming to see a vicious well vasculated rapidly growing tumour. I had to tie ligatures and cauterise so many vessels but finally was able to ease out the plum sized growth. I packed the wound with silver nitrate gauze, aiming to return and take it out. Clearly there was more going on inside her body I did not know. The silver nitrate did its job and the tumour vanished and we had a reprieve.

Electrocution can cause internal damage and I suspected this was its legacy. In order to recover she spent more time without the prosthesis. From then on we had a battle balancing her using the prosthesis and going without. I wasn’t happy doing an ITAP (placing a titanium screw in the bone and having the metal exit the skin to mount an external prosthesis) as these on the leg had mostly failed in the past. But we had been through worse times, and slowly she recovered. Tragically but somewhat not surprisingly she was on her way to a full recovery when she died.

Over the last few months we have had quite a few visitors. They have seen the two new Lesser Kestrels found electrocuted in Feb 2024 but alive (with wings and leg now missing). Many were concerned about the lack of attention being given to raptors being electrocuted all over Kenya. Tawny, standing before them was a living testimony of the problem and an incredible ambassador to the cause to stop these deaths. She was worth more to the conservation of her species being crippled than if she was whole. She had done her part time after time convincing young and old of the senseless deaths we commit each day. Not a single bird (or giraffe or monkey) needs to get electrocuted if the poles are correctly designed and or insulated).

She died of an aneurysm or split major blood vessels near her heart in the afternoon of the 16th March 2024, the day after we received an electrocuted juvenile female Martial Eagle for treatment. Mwanzia told me he was going to fly the Fish Eagle on the hill and I took a visiting friend to a neighbours house. Tawny stood outside as usual on her mound looking after things. I was to be away for a while because my next door neighbour lives a long way away but I knew Mwanzia would be back shortly. It was on my return that Mwanzia phoned. Typically the network is poor and so I only caught a few words. But I did hear “Tawny” and my sinking heart had an awful premonition. I raced back as fast as I could, fearing perhaps she had been injured by a rogue hyena that had taken to walking through the house in the middle of the day, or perhaps Girl the Crowned Eagle, though blind, had jumped on her.

I stamped on the brakes and jumped out and ran to the verandah but I saw Mwanzia leaning over her staring blankly in disbelief. Tawny was where we had left her but lay dead with blood coming from her mouth. I gave a groan and sank to my knees beside her and for reasons I never understand, I gently stroked her feathers on the back of her head. I looked around and all three eagles, especially the Fish Eagle were staring back. They know when something dies. I was shattered. I’m an adult, have seen hundreds of dead raptors and I shouldn’t be crushed. There really isn’t enough room for more despair, but my chest hurt. We had looked to Tawny as a survivor and an inspiration. Battered and with severed limbs she had risen above it all. Her dying seemed to betray us.

More to maintain morale, Mwanzia and I scoured the scene for footprints. But for a few scrapes in the dust and a few feathers there was nothing. I have had cobras kill some of my birds and I carefully looked around for any sign, or any alarming bird calls. At one point Mwanzia, always stoic, sat down and when he thought I wasn’t looking, stroked the feathers down on the back of her head just as I had done.

We had to get to the bottom of this and I did a post mortem before all of the grief overtook me. There was no subcutaneous hematoma to be seen. That ruled out a bite and blunt trauma. I then looked at the heart and liver and noted massive lumps of coagulated blood and inflamed vessel walls. I could not continue and I closed the body and lay her as dignified as possible in the clinic for the next day.

Tawny and Fish Eagle spent much time together. Note the pale ring below the eye used when she wished to show no threat

The next day was a Sunday and I had to take Mwanzia out of the forest to safely walk to the shops off the conservancy. I returned to bury her and to examine another electrocuted eagle on my own. This time a Martial Eagle hatched at Olerai Conservancy in Kajiado and whose yellow fever woodland is looked after by the local community. This massive and stunningly beautiful eagle died six days later early on the 21 March, after a slow downward progression. She was very submissive and kind to us handling, treating and feeding her. Martial Eagles are sensitive creatures much more nervous and susceptible to stress than any other eagle. There was, as was the case with Tawny, almost nothing to show for the lethal wounds the electricity caused. Just a slight seeping from the “hand” and a roughened part of her opposing hind talon. On post mortem we saw multiple organ failure, an usual consequence of electrocution.

Electrocution is by far the greatest threat to Kenya raptors today and we aim to do something about it. We must because if we continue to ignore it, it and it alone can eliminate most of our resident raptors. In addition it will make massive inroads to migratory raptors, and this will conflict with our ability to secure loans from funders who are under legal obligations to mitigate against these threats.


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Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

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