There are some creatures that are typical of our deciduous forests all over the country, and one of these is the Crested Serpent Eagle-in one species or another, it is found wherever there are forests in India.
Unlike the majority of raptorial birds, it is easily recognised, once known. It is a somewhat heavily built eagle of medium size, with the feet and talons not so well developed as in most eagles, and the yellow tarsi clean of feathers; the beak is long and hooked, very much the beak of a bird of prey, with conspicuously yellow cere and lores.
The crest, which is snort and broad, is right at the back of the head (a nuchal crest) and folded flat against the nape, so that it is not seen, only when the bird is excited is the crest erect and prominent. The bird is a dark borwn above, with a gloss of purple, and the basal white part of the feathers on the neck and lower back show through in a few light speckles-there is also some dark mottling on the plumage; the breast and abdomen are a lighter shade of the same brown, with a number of brown-rimmed whitish ocelli which are so small that they are not seen unless one is very close to the bird.
In flight, the wings and tail (seen from below) are boldly banded and barred-even when the bird is soaring so high that these bars are not visible, the broad, rounded, hawk-like silhouette of the wings, and the broad, long tail, and powerful flight are distinctive.When flying, the unmistakable axle-creak call of the bird is freely heard.
Whistler says that this bird is not at all shy of men, and will allow a close approach-but in the forests of many parts of India, where I have seen it, I have found it distinctly shy. Which only shows that both of us are right, and that birds, too, can behave very differently at different places and times. Undoubtedly serpents form an important part of this eagle’s diet. I have on many occasions seen it eating snakes which it had killed, once a medium-sized cobra.
It does almost all its hunting on the ground, and also takes lizards, amphibians, and perhaps even large insects. It does not hunt birds in the air though it is a powerful flier and much given to soaring on high. I believe it sometimes comes down to ground even when not hunting. Recently I saw two adult serpent eagles on the forest floor, indulging in what seemed to be a zestful game of leaping around in a circle, with loud screams.
One of the birds was noticeably larger than the other, and I took this to be the female, and the game to be some strange courtship display, hitherto not recorded, but it could well be that both were male, and that they were going through the ritual of a formal intra-specific combat.
I was very keen on watching this curious spectacle and stayed well hidden behind a tree, but the birds were put to flight by a gaur cow which seemed as much intrigued by their behaviour as I, and which came up to investigate.
(This was published on 6 June 1966)