Grey-headed Fish Eagle (Icthyophaga ichthyaetus)

Grey-headed Fish Eagle

[order] ACCIPITRIFORMES | [family] Accipitridae | [latin] Icthyophaga ichthyaetus | [authority] Horsfield, 1821 | [UK] Grey-headed Fish Eagle | [FR] Manchot de Magellan | [DE] Graukopf-Seeadler | [ES] Pigarguillo comun | [NL] Grijskoprivierarend


Monotypic species


Members of the genus Ichthyophaga are small to medium-sized eagles with broad, blunt wings and coarse, unfeathered legs. Like the genus Haliaeetus, to which it is related, the lower surface of the roes are covered in spicules to aid gripping slippery fish. The talons are long, slender, acute and strongly curvers, also to aid catching fish. It is resident in freshwater areas around India and to the Philippines, and consists of two distinct species. The two groups are geographically separated, the northern fish-eagles and sea-eagles of Haliaeetuand the tropical fish/sea-eagles of Ichthyophaga. The corret spelling might be Icthyophaga or Ichthyophaga, there is dispute.

Physical charateristics

In the adult the head and neck are all round grey-brown. The remainder of the upper parts are dark brown, paler on the upper back and darker on the wings and on the tail coverts. The tail is white, with a broad subterminal dark brown band and a whitish tip. Wing quills are black. The breast is brown, paler than the back. The rest of the underside of the body is pure white. Under-wing coverts are dark greyish brown; the wing quills below being dark brown. The eyes yellow, the cere dark grey, the feet dirty yellowish white. In immature plumage the head, sides of face, and neck are brown, with paler streaks.The upper side is dark brown with white tips to the feathers. The tail is grey-brown, broadly tipped with dark brown. Below, it is brown, streaked white on breast becoming white on thighs and vent. The thighs ar mottled with rufous. Wing quills are brown, with white near the roots, especially on the secondaries. Under wing coverts are brown, mottled with white, the greater largely white, forming with white quill bases a large white patch at the base of the flight quills. The eyes are brown, the cere black, and the feet white. Birds from Ceylon and southern India are rather smaller, and have sometimes been considered as a separate subspecies – Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus plumbeiceps.

Listen to the sound of Grey-headed Fish Eagle

[audio: Fish Eagle.mp3]

Copyright remark: Most sounds derived from xeno-canto

wingspan min.: 155 cm wingspan max.: 170 cm
size min.: 61 cm size max.: 75 cm
incubation min.: 28 days incubation max.: 32 days
fledging min.: 65 days fledging max.: 75 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 1  
      eggs max.: 1  


Oriental Region : widespread. Icthyophagus icthyaetus occurs in India (widespread and locally frequent in the north-east, scarce and local in the peninsula, Nepal (now rare and local, mainly below 250 m), Sri Lanka (rare in the dry lowlands), Bangladesh (widely distributed but uncommon and local), Myanmar (rare to scarce resident), Philippines (formerly quite common in the north and east, now rare and apparently declining), Thailand (formerly a widespread resident, now absent from north and centre, rare and local in the south), Laos (now rare), Vietnam (scarce in south, disappearing from north), Cambodia (scarce and declining, Lake Tonle Sap holds an important population), Peninsular Malaysia (previously common, now uncommon and sparse, perhaps 40 pairs remaining), east Malaysia, Singapore (scarce), Brunei (scarce), and the Greater Sundas and Sulawesi, Indonesia (widely distributed but uncommon in Sumatra and Borneo, and now very rare in Java).


This is a bird of quiet streams, lagoons, and lakes or dams in low-lying country, seldom more than 1,000 feet above sea level; and often near the coast or estuaries. It is, however, found inland where there is sufficient water, up to 3,500 feet, for instance among paddy fields. It is always found near water and never goes far from it. It prefers the well-wooded banks of sluggish streams or enclosed waters with plenty of large trees. Its habits help to distinguish it from the Lesser Fishing Eagle in that it is rarely found on the smaller forested streams inside forests.


At the beginning of and during the breeding season, it is very noisy, calling a great deal in display. The nest is a large structure built in big trees, 25-60 feet or more from the ground. It is made of sticks up to two inches in diameter, and is three and a half to four feet wide and often up to six feet deep. It is used year after year, and may be in dense forest or in the open, but never far from the waterside. Two eggs are usually laid, sometimes three, occasionally four. They are pure white, nearly always stained, coarse and rough. Both sexes bring prey to the nest when it contains young. The clutch varies from 1 to sometimes 3 eggs which are incubated for about a month by both sexes. The young fledge after about 10 weeks.

Feeding habits

Fish, sometimes stranded or dead, taken from the surface or eaten on a sandbar or mudbank. When hunting from a low perch a few feet above the surface of the water it may hold its wings open, as if to shade the surface against reflections.
It is resident and sedentary where it occurs and is often locally common. A pair will frequent a particular large dam or lagoon, or a stretch of river three to four miles long, having their regular perching places within this territory, and usually to be found somewhere within it at all times.

Video Grey-headed Fish Eagle


copyright: Pieter de Groot Boersma


This species is thought to be undergoing a moderately rapid population reduction owing to habitat degradation, pollution and over-fishing. Although widespread, it is now only locally common and is therefore classified as Near Threatened
The most pertinent threats are the loss of undisturbed wetlands, over-fishing, siltation, pollution and persecution. The construction of dams on the Mekong River has potential negative implications for the flood regime of Lake Tonle Sap and the Fish-eagle population there.
Grey-headed Fish Eagle status Near Threatened



Distribution map

Grey-headed Fish Eagle distribution range map

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