The Pithecophaga jefferyi
Monkey-eating eagles have a varied diet.
Our new National Museum of Natural History (the former Tourism building) is drawing in visitors and raves for its scale, and the cool architectural interior that makes you feel like you’re elsewhere. While I am partial to the other museum buildings and their contents — the Anthropology Museum in the former Finance Building, and the Fine Arts in the grand former Legislative Building — I was willing to give the stones, dried plants and stuffed animals a chance to catch my interest.
While most visitors made a beeline to see the remains of Lolong, the giant crocodile, I lingered in the ground floor exhibit on the Philippine Eagle. All but one on display had a name, so I suggested, in jest, that they name it, regardless of gender, “Loren,” in gratitude for the former senator’s support for the museum.
Ferdinand Marcos renamed the graphic “monkey-eating eagle” to the dignified “Philippine eagle” we know today. In the Ateneo Grade School, the blue eagle was more than a university mascot; we saw two of them daily — a stuffed version in the Administration Building reception, and a live one in a nearby aviary. Once, coming out of the cafeteria from lunch, I was excused from class to witness the animal version of a Roman gladiator fight. A “bayawak” got inside, or was put into, the aviary, rekindling the eagle’s hunting instincts that had become dormant from being fed freshly cut meat. No commercial bird feed for this king of Philippine birds. The bayawak ended up as the eagle’s hard-earned lunch (it took half an hour to kill, another to be devoured). My takeaway from the experience was the realization that this eagle did not feed exclusively on monkeys and had, at least in captivity, a varied diet.
Philippine eagles are an endangered species, and killing one today is a crime punishable with 12 years in prison. But catching one and sending its hide back to London in the late 19th century made it known to science, which has since classified it as Pithecophaga jefferyi (Ogilvie-Grant, 1896). The scientific name came from the Greek words “pithecus” (ape) and “phagus” (to eat or feed on) because informants in Samar, where it was collected, said it fed on monkeys. “Jefferyi” does not honor the collector John Whitehead, but his father Jeffery.
In 1983, the Bangko Sentral issued a 50-centavo coin with the Philippine eagle on the reverse; it has become a much collectible “error coin” because of the misspelled “Pithecobhaga” that only the eagle-eyed would see and notice.
In 1896, John Whitehead caught sight of the eagle in Bonga, Samar, and a specimen was caught by his Filipino assistant, Juan. Detailed notes and measurements were taken before it was preserved and sent to London, where W. R. Ogilvie-Grant showed it and other specimens to an interested group of bird lovers. Ogilvie-Grant, from 1894-1898, published his classifications based on Whitehead’s notes and specimens in a 10-part series of articles called “On the Birds of the Philippine Islands” in Ibis, the international Journal of Avian Science (available online). In one of the articles, he lamented the fact that Whitehead was unable to continue collecting specimens due to the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution in August 1896.
Ogilvie-Grant had never been to the Philippines, but his classification of the Great Forest Eagle as the Monkey-Eating Eagle in the 1896 Bulletin of the British Orinthologists’ Club was drawn from Whitehead’s detailed notes, as follows: “Top of the head pale whitish buff with dark middles to the feathers, which are rather narrow and pointed, especially those on the occiput, which form a long full crest. General colour above rich brown, most of the feathers with paler margins, especially the quill-feathers and wing-coverts; tail feathers, dark brown, the two median pairs with wide dark bands; shafts of quills and tail-feathers creamy white; under parts uniform creamy white, the thighs and long flank feathers with reddish-brown shaft-stripes. Total length about 33 inches[…] Iris dull creamy brown, with an outer ring of brownish red, the two colours melting into one another and not sharply defined; face and base of dull french blue, tip of bill black; legs and feet dull yellow; claws black.”
That detailed, seemingly boring description of a stuffed bird gave us Pithecophaga jefferyi, the great Philippine Eagle.
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