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About the Steppe Eagle

Пара степных орлов: слева – самец в возрасте 1-го года (второе лето с момента вылупления), справа – самка в возрасте 5 лет (шестое лето с момента вылупления). Фото И. КарякинаAppearance
The Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis) is a large eagle, with broad, long wings and a short rounded tail. Adult birds are brown in colour. The undersides of the wings are either the same colour as the wing coverts and belly or darker, with visible barring. There is a white patch on the upper tail coverts. The nape has either a rusty-coloured or ochre patch, which differs considerably in size across birds. In juveniles and immature birds the underside of the wing has a narrow white band, formed by the large lower wing coverts (the so-called ‘juvenile’ band), which serves well to distinguish Steppe Eagles of this age from other eagle species.

The female is larger than the male, with similar coloration in plumage.
Weight of Male: 2.2-4.6 kg, Weight of Female: 3.5-5.5 kg.
Body Length of Male: 65-77 cm, Body Length of Female: 53.6-65.5 cm.
Wingspan of Male: 174-199 cm, Wingspan of Female: 192-262 cm.

Пуховые птенцы степного орла. Фото И. КарякинаAge-related Changes
The down plumage of the juvenile is white. Flight and wing feathers are light brown with ochre edges, and the wing coverts are dark-brown. Over the course of its life the Steppe Eagle undergoes three sets of age-related plumage changes, with the colouration changing from a moderate to a light brown colour (1 year) to a reddish to dark fawn (2-5 years) to dark brown (6 years or older). The colour variation at different ages act as indicators for the great diversity of transitions in each moulting stage.
The adult bird is aged 6 or older. It usually has the darkest brown plumage, with the wings and tail feathers having visible, and a reddish or ochre-coloured patch on its nape. The ‘juvenile’ band will not be present on the underside of the wing.
0. Until the age of 1, the juvenile or immature Steppe Eagle will be uniformly brown, the shade of which will be lighter than that of the adult bird, but darker than the subsequent sets of plumage up till the age of 6. The tips of the large upper wing primaries, the secondaries and the tail feathers have large ochre patches, often bordered by white around the wing edges. The juvenile band along the underside of the wing is formed from pure white feathers and is as wide as the ochre band edging the wing. The fathers and tail feathers are either monocoloured or have light diagonal streaks.
Оперенные птенцы степного орла. Фото И. Карякина1. At the age of 1 (the second year of its life) the plumage lightens to a light brown, and the ochre patches on the large upper wing coverts, secondaries and tail feather tips remain and gradually fade away in the second year. These ochre spots on the wing and tail feathers may not be visible by the end of summer as they get worn out. The juvenile band along the underside of the wing is formed from pure white feathers and is wider than the ochre band edging the wing, especially at the end of summer. The wing and tail feathers have light diagonal streaks.
2. At the age of 2 (the third year of its life) the juvenile’s plumage lightens to a light brown or fawn colour, and the ochre patches on the tips of the upper wing coverts narrow and form a thin band along the ends of the coverts, and the ochre patches on the tip of the secondaries and tail feathers will no longer be present. The ‘juvenile’ band along the underside of the wing remains, but unusual feathers with a black colour base along the quill and white edges will appear among the white feathers of the large lower wing coverts. The wing and tail feathers will lighten in colour and form obvious bands of colour.
Слёток степного орла в возрасте 65 дней. Фото И. Карякина3. At 3 years of age (immature birds in their fourth year) the plumage starts to darken again to a brown colour. When moulting, the light-brown underparts of the body will usually be of a darker brown than the patch formed by the new feathers, and the ochre patches at the tips of the large upper wing coverts remain, forming a thin stripe along the edges of the coverts. The ‘juvenile’ band on the underside of the wing remains, but all the white feathers of the large lower wing coverts will be replaced by with black feathers edged with white. The flight feathers and rudders will see streaking. At the age of 3-4 years the Steppe Eagle begins to breed.
4. At the age of 4 years (in its fifth year of its life) the plumage colour is darker than birds a year younger, but is still lighter than the dark brown remiges and tail feathers, and so the contrast between the remiges and coverts is preserved on both the under and upper parts of the body. The thin strip along the edges of the coverts on the upper part of the wing, which was formed by the ochre patches at the tip of the upper secondary coverts, disappear. Полувзрослый степной орёл в возрасте 3-х лет. Фото И. Карякина The ‘juvenile’ band along the underside of the wing becomes discontinuous, since the majority of the lower secondary coverts are now black-brown and the white edged feather is not present in all the feathers. The remiges and tail feathers have visible streaking.
5. At the age of 5 (in the sixth year of its life) the lower body becomes dark-brown, with an identical colour to the wing and tail feathers, and the contrast between the coverts and remiges on the underside of the body disappears, but remains on the upper part, since a large part of the upper coverts are still lightly-coloured, nevertheless, at this age the majority of birds have a mass of dark-brown feathers identical in colour to the remiges. The ‘juvenile’ band on the underside of the wing either becomes broken up or retains those feathers with white borders, which are unevenly dispersed along the secondary coverts. The remiges and tail feathers are streaked.
Взрослая птица в возрасте 5 лет. Фото И. Карякина6. At six years of age (as a adult bird in the seventh year of its life) the underside of the Steppe Eagle’s body is dark-brown, the lower coverts, remiges and tail feathers are of the same colour and no contrast is present. The ‘juvenile’ band will not be present. The colouration of the upper body is different. At this the upper and lower body of eagles usually become dark-brown, with the coverts having the same colour as the remiges and tail feather, and a reddish or ochre-coloured patch, especially visible with sunlight, will form on the nape. However, in some birds only the back and the upper wings darken in colour, and the head, through (and rarely the upper part of the chest), shoulders and front parts of the wing become lighter than the rest of the plumage. Such a plumage can apparently be preserved for the entire lifespan of the adult Steppe Eagle. In some birds of different ages, the adult plumage can have separate feathers from the ‘juvenile’ band, but their appearance is random and may be asymmetrical in the left and right wings.

Open photo gallery of the juvenile Steppe Eagle at different ages >>>
Photo gallery of the immature Steppe Eagle’s plumage >>>


A male’s cry. Author: Kraev A.V. Sonogram of cry available on link >>>.

A female’s cry. Author: Kraev A.V. Sonogram of cry available on link >>>.

Vociferance of the pair in captivity (the female on the nest, the male near the nest on the perch). Author: Kraev A.V. Sonogram of cry available on link >>>.



The Eurasian Steppe Eagle subspecies was previously classified into the Tawny Eagle species, which inhabited the whole of the Afro-Eurasian region. At present the Northern-Eurasian Steppe Eagle is recognised as an independent species (Aquila nipalensis Hodgson, 1833), divided into two subspecies: nipalensis и orientalis. Орлы (слева взрослые, справа - молодые) сверху вниз: беркут, могильник, степной орёл, большой подорлик. Фото И. КарякинаThe western subspecies (A. n. orientalis) nests in Northern Eurasia in an area stretching from the Black Sea coast to the hills in Eastern Kazakhstan and Russian Altai, and the eastern (A. n. nipalensis) nests in an area stretching from the latter to Khingan. (Dementev, 1951; Stepanian, 1990). In Russia, the zone of intergradation between the subspecies is very narrow and lies in Central Altai. The nipalensis nests in South-Eastern Altai, but the orientalis inhabits the whole of the western Altai periphery (the Charysh basin, Anuya, East of Peschanoy until the Seminski Pass inclusive). The distribution density of the Steppe Eagle in nests in these intergradation zone is very low, and so intensive mixing does not take place.
The Western subspecies is smaller and lighter-coloured than the Eastern subspecies, but because of the wide range of sizes and colouration of the adult Eastern and Western subspecies, the differences between the subspecies can be determined only by a very large sample, and it is, in most cases, not possible to classify definitely which subspecies a bird belongs to even if it is being examined in the hand. It is only with very large birds (with wingspans of more than 56.8cm for the males and more than 60.5cm for the females) that one can identify it definitively as belonging to the Eastern subspecies.

Similar Species
Within the Steppe Eagle’s nesting sites, similar breeds of eagles exist- the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Imperial Eagle (A. heliaca) and Greater Spotted Eagle (A. nipalensis). All the above-listed species, as well as the Lesser Spotted Eagle (A. pomarina), which is most similar to the Steppe Eagle, migrate to the same areas, which makes identification of species difficult.
When trying to identify eagles, attention must be turned to the colour of the underside of the wing. The young Steppe Eagle can be distinguished from the other eagles by the ‘juvenile band’, formed cleanly by white lower coverts. With age the band turns black and by the age of 5 it will have almost completely disappeared. At this age the key indicators identifying the Steppe Eagle will be its wing and tail proportions, wing position in flight, and the length of the foot relative to the tail.

Photogallery of eagles in flight >>>

Further detail about determining Eagle species >>>

Fledglings of the Steppe Eagle can be distinguished easily from other eagles by its longer beak and the colour of the primaries developing from pins, tail feathers and remiges on the upper and undersides of the body. After the opening of the primaries, the juvenile can be easily distinguished from that of the Golden Eagle and the Eastern Imperial Eagle: the upper coverts of the spine and shoulder are brown, and the remiges and tail feathers are ochre-coloured.

Оперяющиеся птенцы беркута (слева), могильника (в центре) и степного орла (справа). Стрелками показаны ключевые участки оперения, на которые следует обращать внимание для определения вида птенца. Фото И. Карякина и Р. Бекмансурова.

Distribution and numbers
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Steppe Eagle inhabited a vast area stretching from the Lower Danube, Bessarabia, and eastern Ukraine to Eastern China (Dementev, 1951). The southern boundary of the continuous breeding area of the European (Western) Steppe Eagle passed south to the Black and Caspian Seas. Isolated birds probably always existed and, until recently, were preserved in Turkey (Kirwan et al., 2008). In Central Asia the Steppe Eagle nested up to the east of Turkmenistan in the East of the Caspian Sea (the Caspian and Gaplaňgyr plateaus) and in Uzbekistan in Ustyurt, but did not nest in Kyzyl Kum and continued to not do so (Mitropolskiy et al, 1987; Karjakin et al, 2011), although it nested in the East up till the Karatau and the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau. Beyond the border of the USSR the Steppe Eagle is likely to have nested in Iran (Zarudniiy, 1896). The mountain ranges of South-Eastern and Eastern Kazakhstan were also inhabited by the Steppe Eagle, but at present its nests dot the area randomly, and what might have been the case in the past is unknown.
Динамика гнездового ареала степного орла за последние 50 лет и его численности за последние 25 летIn the Altai mountains, the Steppe Eagle was and is continuously distributed in all the area suitable for nesting on basin steppes and tundra mountains. In the northern Altai-Sayan region the breed nests up till the Chulyma basin in Khakassia and populates all the forest-steppe parts of the Yensei and Minusinskaya basins’ right banks. It can also be spotted, albeit rarely, in the Krasnoyarsk forest-steppes. Further to the east of the Altai-Sayan region to the South-Eastern Transbaikal, including the steppes, the Steppe Eagle nests on practically all the steppes and forest-steppes of the basin, to the north until the Balagan-Nukutsky forest-steppes (Karyakin et al., 2006).
Beyond the borders of the former USSR, the area inhabited by the Steppe Eagle covered the whole Mongolian territory, and, seemingly, ran in a narrow strip along the north of China, and a separate enclave is known in Dzungaria, and in Northern Tibet, till Khingan in the East with a possibility of running till Manchuria, but from there, reliable discoveries of nests do not exist (Gombobaatar, Monks, 2011; MaMing, Zhao, 2013).
By the end of the ’70s, the Steppe Eagle had already stopped nesting on the large steppes of Ukraine, and the last nesting sites of this Eagle in Southern Ukraine disappeared at the beginning of the ’80s (Koshelev et al., 1991), the western boundary of the breed’s habitat retreated to the east to Kalmykia. At present the collapse of previously known Steppe Eagle nesting groups in Russia has been documented. The situation in Kazakhstan is deteriorating, although the Steppe Eagle population there remains large enough on the whole. In Mongolia, the once-common Steppe Eagle has been significantly reduced in numbers, being especially affected in the period from 2002-2004, when large-scale disinfestation of the grassland rodent took place (Karyakin, 2010).
Пара степных орлов на гнезде. Фото А. КоваленкоIn 2012, the global population size of the Steppe Eagle was preliminarily estimated at 53-86 thousand breeding pairs, of which there were 2-3 thousand in Russia, 43-59 thousand in Kazakhstan, 6-18 thousand in Mongolia, and 2-6 in China (Karyakin, 2013). This estimate of the Steppe Eagle population outside of Russia had a low degree of reliability, as it did not take into account the trend of the past two decades. At the roundtable discussion on the Steppe Eagle, which was held within the conference “Eagles of Palearctic: Study and Protection” in 2013, it was able to collect the main specialists for this species and refine estimates of number for several problem territories.
Following the conference, the global population size of the Steppe Eagle was estimated at 34.8–59.2 thousand breeding pairs, of which there are 2.4–3.6 thousand in Russia, 30–50 thousand in Kazakhstan, 2-5 thousand in Mongolia, and 0,4–0,6 thousand in China.
It is only in the European part of Russia that the Steppe Eagle population numbers have fallen by 92%, from 15, 000-25, 000 breeding pairs in the ’90s (Gorban et al. 1997) to 1176–1895 pairs in the span of 30 years. Given the similar trends in a number of populations of Kazakhstan and a catastrophic decline in the numbers of steppe eagle in Mongolia and Southern Siberia in 2002-2004, and the almost complete absence of publications on this species in China over the past 10 years, we can expect overestimation of Steppe Eagle numbers outside of Russia.
At present the global population size of the Steppe Eagle based on published data and results of monitoring of the Steppe Eagle in the framework of the project “Improving the coverage and management efficiency of protected areas in the steppe biome of Russia” UNDP / GEF / Russian Ministry of Nature, is estimated at 26.0–36.7 thousand breeding pairs, of which there are 2.1–3.1 thousand in Russia (source >>>).

In most parts of its breeding range, the Steppe Eagle is typically an inhabitant of the open steppes and semi-desert spaces. In contrast to other eagles, it has truly mastered overland habitats, and thus a wide range of landscapes.
Типичное гнездо степного орла в настоящей степи. Фото А. КоваленкоThe habitats of the Steppe Eagle can be categorised into the following:
1. Low steppe hills
2. Valley-beam systems in steppe zones, including in agricultural landscapes.
3. Vast, flat territories of undisturbed dry desert steppes, semi-deserts, and northern argillaceous scree deserts.
4.Steep slopes and cliff plateaus of steppe and semi-desert zones.
5. All types of open spaces in the hills, regardless of the high-altitude zone (steppe valleys, forest steppes around their peripheries or mountain plains, upper boundaries of forests, alpine tundras).

View the habitats of the Steppe Eagle in satellite images and photographs (Karyakin , 2012 : pp. 24-35 ) >>>

Самка степного орла на гнезде с птенцами, спрятанном среди камней. Фото А. КоваленкоOne of the main conditions determining the Steppe Eagle’s nesting sites is the presence of typical habitats of large colonies of burrowing rodents and lagomorphs of the middle-sized class. First in importance is the Little Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus pygmaeus), Dauricus Ground Squirrel (S. dauricus) and Long-tailed Ground Squirrel (S. undulatus). Next in importance are the pikas – the Darian Pika (Ochotona daurica), Mongolian Pika (O. pallasi) and Alpine Pika (O. alpina). Larger ground squirrels, such as the Russet Ground Squirrel (S. major), Red-cheeked Ground Squirrel (S. erythrogenys) and Yellow Ground Squirrel (S. fulvus), as well as the Great and Mongolian Gerbils (Rhombomys opimus, Meriones unguiculatus), are sub-optimal prey for the Steppe Eagle. The Steppe Eagle also nests in the habitats of these larger prey, but not in large nor high-density nesting groups, and needs a supplementary diet of prey such as the Steppe Pika (O. pusilla) in the Volga-Ural Region of Russia and Central Kazakhstan, or the Yellow Steppe Lemming (Eolagurus luteus) in the Eastern Kazakhstan or Brandt’s Vole (Microtus brandti) in Mongolia. In the Alpina Marmot’s (Marmota sp.) habitat, the Steppe Eagle can only nest where additional small prey is present, such as the above-mentioned pikas, ground squirrels, voles or large gerbils.

Гнездо степного орла на склоне степного плато. Фото И. КарякинаNests
The Steppe Eagle is flexible in its choice of a spot for nest-building. It can nest on the ground amongst the flat steppes, on cliffs, power line pylons (those supporting power lines of both average voltages and higher voltages of 500 kV), various man-made structures (including the ruin of houses and other buildings, metal buildings, engineering structures), in shrubs and trees (up to 30m in height).
Most birds in the steppe regions of the European part of Russia build their nests in on the steppe ravines. On the wide flat steppes and northern deserts, eagles build their nests on the ground amongst the grass or low shrubs. If there are any elements which stand at above ground level, such as scattered rocks, piles of any kinds of anthropological materials, burial grounds or gravestones, ruins of buildings, abandoned equipment or straw ricks, the Eagle prefers to build its nest on them or under them for protection. Гнездо степного орла на вершине лиственницы в горах Алтая. Фото Р. БекмансуроваIn low hills with rocky outcrops and in mountainous regions, practically all nests of the Steppe Eagle are found either on the bedrocks or on creeping shrubs like the juniper. Nests of the Steppe Eagle can be observed everywhere within the boundaries of its habitat. Solitary stunted trees (of the Apple, Cherry or Pine) with flat crowns and curved trunks or strong side branches on which nests can be placed the way they are in the shrubs, onto which it would be easier for the Steppe Eagles to fly from the top. However, in the mountainous regions of the Altai and in the Transbaikal, the Steppe Eagle nests too on high larches, building its nest on the strong preapical branches and on the crown of the tree.
In the Steppe Eagle nests, there is usually a thick lining which is almost always made up of suitable man-made material: cloth, paper, rope, batting, polyester etc. A very typical component of this lining is dry manure. It is often used too as a building material, as are the bones of large hoofed animals. Grass is only sparsely present, either as individual blades or tufts with dried out roots, and it never forms a separate layer (a grass cushion). The use of fresh grass will also not be observed.

View different nest arrangements of the Steppe Eagle (Karjakin, 2012: pp. 24-35) >>>

Гнездо степного орла с кладкой. Фото И. СмелянскогоThere are usually 1-4 eggs in the Steppe Eagle’s clutch. The laying of each subsequent egg takes place every 2-5 days, usually 3-4 days (rarely up to 10 days). The incubation period begins with the first egg laid. The egg is white and freckled with ochre and light-brown spots of differing colour intensity and sizes. The shell is thick and coarse-grained. The size of the eggs are 62.5 – 80.1 x 48.9 – 60.5 mm, and 73.81 x 55.85 mm on average. The eggs of the Steppe Eagle are on average slightly smaller than that of the Golden and Eastern Imperial Eagle, but there is a strong overlap between the ranges of measurements and the classification of each species should not be determined using these dimensions.
The incubation period lasts from 39 to 45 days.

Broods usually have 1–4 chicks, more often 1-2 chicks. Since the incubation period begins from the first egg, the juvenile Steppe Eagles differ in age. In large broods, the age difference between juveniles can be quite large. Выводок степного орла из 3-х разновозрастных птенцов. Фото И. КарякинаIn broods of 3-4 juveniles, one chick can be significantly yonger than the rest of the brood, due to the long interval between the laying of the penultimate and last eggs. Juveniles stay in the nests for 58-65 days, and become fully independent at the age of 75-80 days. Fledglings fly when their wing and tail feathers are not fully developed yet. These fully develop 2 weeks after their first flight.

The distance between nests in concentrated nesting sites in low hills of the steppe ranges from 0.8-2 km with an average of 1.2 km, 2-6 km, usually 4 km in denser groups and 25km in less saturated groups.

The Steppe Eagle is a migratory bird and emigrates from its nest in winter. In recent years, there has been data about hibernating birds within the borders of the nesting sites in Kazakhstan, but this remains a random phenomenon and is not the norm.
Степной орёл. Фото А. КоваленкоWintering Steppe Eagles are dispersed across the tropical grassland ecosystems and deserts of the Old World – Africa, India, South-East Asia, to the north until the Arabian desert, Iran, Afghanistan. Pakistan and South-East China (Sichuan, Hubei). Most of the global Steppe Eagle population seem to winter in Africa (A. n. orientalis) and India (A. n. nipalensis).
Birds from the population in the Volga and Aral-Caspian regions spend winter in the Persian Gulf region and in various regions of Africa, and those from Central Kazkhstan spend theirs in the Persian Gulf. This has been established through satellite monitoring of 16 birds which were mainly caught in Saudi Arabia. In particular, in the course of winter an adult female flew from Ustiurt (Kazakhstan) to Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, while another flew from Ustiurt to Ethiopia, Chad and Sudan (Meyburg et al., 2012). The general length of migration from Kazakhstan can reach 17 000 km.
Similar data has not yet been determined for wintering Steppe Eagles of the Eastern subspecies nesting in Russia from the Altai to the Amura basin.

In the nesting sites in Russia and Kazakhstan, the first Steppe Eagles appear in mid-March. The breeding period starts in end-March in Kazakhstan and from start to mid-April in Russia. Immediately after its return, the Steppe Eagle begins courtship rituals and repairs its nest.
Clutch laying in the lower reaches of Emba (Aktobe oblast, Kazakhstan) was first noted on the 23rd March, 2006 (Karyakin et al., 2011). Mass laying of eggs occurs from the 1st up to and inclusive of the 10th of April in the desert and forest-steppe zones of Kazakhstan, from the 5th up to and including the 15th April in the steppe zones of the Volga-Ural regions (the Russian and Kazakh cross-border zones, from 10th – 15th April in the northern steppe zones in Russia, from 15th April up to and including 10th May in the steppe basins of Southern Siberia and from the 5th up to and including the 20th of May in the the Altai-Sayan mountains. Late and further clutches can be observed until the start of July. Such clutches make up 5-8% of the local population.
Самка степного орла закрывает от солнца пуховых птенцов. Фото И. КарякинаThe earliest hatching of eggs in desert and semi-desert Kazakhstan occurs in the first few days of May. The bulk of the egg hatching in Kazakhstan takes place from the 10th – 25th May inclusive, on the flat Russian steppes from 15th May to 10th July inclusive, and in the Southern Siberian mountains from 1st June to 1st July inclusive. Juveniles from later or subsequent clutches hatch until the first few days of August. Later broods make up 3% of the local population; however, it is not known how many of them survive till fledging.
The first fledging takes place in Kazakhstan from the first few days of July, most from 10th July to 1st August inclusive, and in Southern Siberia from 1st to 30th August inclusive. Fledglings from later clutches fledge from end-September to the first few days of October. Fledging is not established for certain in the first few days of October; this assumption is based on observations of fledging in Eastern Imperial Eagle populations in the Ust-Kans Basin (the Altai Republic, Russia).
The autumnal migration of the young birds begins in September, and in October the adult birds leave the nests too. Towards end-October the last Steppe Eagle leaves the nesting site in Russia, and at the beginning of November the same happens in Kazakhstan.

Paper is copyright. Suggested Citation: Karyakin I.V. The Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis). – Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network. 2015. url:

Translation by Lee Ming

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