There aren't many birds of prey, either in far distant times or right now, that reach a size large enough to attack and kill a hominid. There aren't many, but there are a few.
Several years ago we interviewed a U.S.-government researcher about his stint in the forests of Uganda. One of his objectives was a study of a very unique raptor, the crowned hawk-eagle. This research brought him in contact with local people who told stories of harrowing encounters with the great forest eagle. There was even a survivor with only one arm—an eagle allegedly ripped the limb from his body when he was a young boy. Healthy skepticism of such stories slowly turned to astonished conviction on the part of the scientist. He came back from his field site with the opinion that many of the stories concerning attacks and injuries from crowned hawk-eagles were not fabrications.
After talking to him we uttered a collective "wow," and agreed we'd just received some pretty provocative information. Crowned hawk-eagles have been known to prey successfully on large primates such as adolescent mandrills (adult members of this forest baboon species reach 60 pounds) and young bonobos (adult males weigh nearly 100 pounds), and one primate probably looks just like another from an eagle's perspective. So—next step—could we find any corroboration of the Ugandan lore regarding this bird of prey as a predator of small, or young, humans?
We made a decision to follow this lead with copious literature searches, internet quests, and calls to ornithologists.
The last option does not turn out to be one of our greatest ideas. "Eagles do not kill people!" is enunciated with heat and not a little exasperation from the bird experts. "We know that," we say "and, of course, we don't think eagles are a threat to humanity. But we're looking for the possibility of eagle predation on early hominids. You know, 60-pound australopithe-cines?" After we assure the raptor connoisseurs of our purely academic interest, they relent enough to admit that the crowned hawk-eagle seems to be in a class by itself as far as predation is concerned. Yes, rumors of human predation by crowned hawk-eagles do circulate. But rumors of eagles flying off with babies are the fodder of many folktales—all of which have served in the past to help justify a slaughter of eagles that took place in the Western world up until the late twentieth century. It was only in the last thirty years or so that conservationists engendered an appreciation for endangered raptors in the public mind and heart.
Next step in our quest: the ubiquitous internet concordance, google.com, is consulted. It furnishes little assistance, although the photos of crowned hawk-eagles are magnificent. Steely eyed raptors with an attitude, they won't be the ones to blink in any staring contest!
Literature searches hit pay dirt. A classic 1983 volume, entitled Birds of Prey of Southern Africa by Peter Steyn, contains the following passage:
One grisly item found on a nest in Zimbabwe by the famous wildlife artist D. M. Henry was part of the skull of a young African. That preying on young humans may very occasionally occur is borne out by a carefully authenticated incident in Zambia where an immature crowned eagle attacked a ... [44-pound] seven-year-old schoolboy as he went to school. It savagely clawed him on head, arms and chest. . . . the boy was nowhere near a nest, so the attack can only have been an attempt at predation.1
Steyn, the author of this passage, is a well-known eagle authority and the citations he provides in his bibliography are faultless. Further delving unearths the full story of the unfortunate schoolboy from the primary source, a senior biologist with the Zambian Department of Veterinary and Tsetse Control Services. The story: Young Damas Kambole was walking to school, as his older brother bicycled, when an eagle swooped down from a tree onto him, ripping open gashes in his head, arms, and chest (he was wearing a khaki school uniform that probably saved him from fatal injuries). The boy grabbed at the eagle; a woman walking the same road to her fields ran to help the child. She was carrying a sharp garden hoe and killed the eagle with it. The boy was taken to a local hospital and received urgent care from the mission sisters in residence. The eagle was a subadult with a wingspan of over 6 feet, the eagle's foot measured 7.5 inches in width, and one claw measured 2.5 inches in length. The biologist investigating the attack surmised that the bird mistook the child for prey since the method of attack was standard crowned hawk-eagle hunting behavior. After 3 months the child's wounds had healed, but his father's fearful interpretation of the incident had not. Damas' father perceived the attack as a bad omen and moved the boy to another location.2
Was this article helpful?