Eleonora’s falcon (Falco eleonorae)

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Eleonora's falcon in flight
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Eleonora’s falcon fact file

Eleonora’s falcon description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderFalconiformes
FamilyFalconidae
GenusFalco (1)

One of the last bird species in Europe to be discovered by science, and noted for its late breeding season and unusual feeding habits (6), Eleonora’s falcon is a fairly large and slender falcon, with long, narrow wings and a relatively long, rounded tail (3). The species occurs in two quite different colour morphs, a light and a dark form. Around 30 percent of both males and females belong to the dark form and 70 percent to the light form (7). The less common dark form is dark brown to slate black all over, often with a cream throat, and sometimes a reddish tinge on the lower underparts. Faint grey to buff bars can usually be seen on the tail when the bird is seen at a close distance. In contrast, the light form is dark only on the back, with white or cream cheeks and throat, a dark ‘moustache’ stripe on the face, and buff underparts, which become more reddish lower down, with black streaks (2) (3) (6) (8). The vent is usually plain, and the greyish tail may have reddish-brown bars, with a dark tip (3). The degree of streaking, and of shading from buff to reddish-brown on the belly, varies between individuals, and intermediates between the dark and light forms also rarely occur (2) (6). In flight, Eleonora’s falcon can be distinguished from other, similar falcon species by the dark underwing-coverts, which contrast with paler flight feathers (2) (6) (8).

Slightly larger than the male, the female Eleonora’s falcon is otherwise similar in appearance, though may be slightly browner in the dark form and have less pronounced colour contrast in the light form (3). In both forms, the female also has pale blue facial skin, rather than lemon yellow as in the male (3) (6). All juveniles have ochre feather tips, but 2 percent have an overall dark appearance like the adult form, whilst 28 percent only become dark at the first moult, when one year old. So, 98 percent of juveniles resemble the light form of the adult, but are browner and paler, with barring on the underwing, and more distinct bars on the flight feathers and tail feathers (2) (3) (6) (7) (8). The most common call of Eleonora’s falcon is a harsh keya, extended into kje-kje-kje-kjah (8).

French
Faucon d'Eléonore.
Size
Length: 36 - 42 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 84 - 105 cm (2) (3)
Male weight: 295 - 370 g (4)
Female weight: 335 - 460 g (4)
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Eleonora’s falcon biology

Eleonora’s falcon breeds later in the year than almost any other northern hemisphere bird, a behaviour that is linked to the species’ other unusual feature, its seasonal switch in diet. For most of the year, Eleonora’s falcon feeds mainly on large flying insects, such as butterflies, beetles, locusts, dragonflies, and winged ants and termites, with prey usually caught and eaten in flight. However, during the breeding season the diet switches to small migrant birds, passing on the autumn migration from Europe to Africa (2) (6) (10) (11). Breeding late in the year allows Eleonora’s falcon to raise its young on this seasonal glut of food. Birds are caught in the air, with hunting usually taking place over the sea, where a number of falcons may fly into a headwind, so remaining almost on the spot and forming a ‘barrier’ to intercept passing prey (2) (6).

Eleonora’s falcon arrives in its breeding areas in late April to May, and typically nests in colonies of around 10 to 300 breeding pairs (2) (6) (10). The nest is located in a hole or ledge on a cliff, or on the ground, under a bush or crevice (2). Between one and four eggs are laid, between July and August (2) (6) (10), and hatch after an incubation period of 28 to 30 days. The female performs most of the incubation and guards the nestlings during the first few weeks, while the male carries out most of the hunting, bringing food back to the nest (2) (6). Fledging occurs after around 37 to 40 days, the young Eleonora’s falcons leaving the colony around two weeks later (2) (10), and beginning to breed when about two to three years old. Eleonora’s falcon leaves its breeding areas from October to early November, its arrival in the winter quarters then coinciding with the rainy season, when insect prey is abundant (2).

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Eleonora’s falcon range

Eleonora’s falcon breeds on islands and rocky coasts in the Mediterranean, from the Canary Islands and northwest Morocco, east to the Greek islands and Cyprus, with Europe constituting over 95 percent of the species’ global breeding range. Eleonora’s falcon is also vagrant in parts of southern, western and central Europe, where immature non-breeders may show up far inland even during the breeding months (2) (6) (8) (9) (10). The species spends the winter mainly in Madagascar, but also in parts of East Africa and the Mascarene Islands (2) (6) (9), with recent satellite tracking of falcons from Italy and Spain confirming that the birds migrate over the Sahara to Madagascar (10).

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Eleonora’s falcon habitat

Typically inhabiting rocky islands and islets in the Mediterranean, Eleonora’s falcon prefers to breed on sea cliffs or on flat, quiet islets, usually only appearing on the mainland to hunt, or during migration. Hunting may take place above coastal marshes, lakes or woodland. In the winter range in Madagascar, Eleonora’s falcon may be found in and around wetland, forest, open woodland, paddy-fields and lakes, at elevations of up to 2,000 to 3,000 metres (2) (3) (8) (10).

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Eleonora’s falcon status

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (5).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Eleonora’s falcon threats

Eleonora’s falcon is thought to have undergone a decline in recent years (9) (11), and is classified as Rare at the European level (10). The world population of Eleonora’s falcon is concentrated in a relatively small number of colonies, meaning the loss of a single colony can have a significant impact on the global population of this falcon. The species also shows high fidelity to its natal breeding site, a fact which can mean that re-colonisation of a colony is unlikely once it has been abandoned (10).

Threats to Eleonora’s falcon come mainly in the form of human disturbance at its breeding sites. Modern transport and the development of infrastructure for tourism mean that these previously inaccessible sites are now within easy reach of tourist resorts, and human disturbance near colonies is thought to cause the falcons to abandon their eggs, or to move to more remote sites (2) (10) (11) (12). Introduction of other species to the breeding islands is also a threat, with introduced cats and rats feeding on eggs as well as young and adult birds (10) (11), and introduced livestock disturbing the birds from their nests (10). Game species have also been introduced to some islands, and undisciplined hunting dogs sometimes kill nestlings (10). Some direct persecution of Eleonora’s falcon does occur, in the form of shooting of the adult birds and collection of eggs and nestlings, but this traditional practice has declined in the Mediterranean in recent decades (2) (10). However, hunting may occur in the winter range in Madagascar, and habitat loss and degradation here is a further problem (10). The species may also suffer from inadvertent poisoning through poisoned water offered illegally to other animals which are considered as pests, as well as from secondary poisoning through agricultural pesticides (11) (13).

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Eleonora’s falcon conservation

A number of conservation measures are in place for Eleonora’s falcon. In addition to restrictions on international trade in the species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (5), Eleonora’s falcon is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention), which aims to conserve migratory species throughout their range (14), and is also covered under a range of European legislation (15) (16). In 1999, an Action Plan was drawn up by BirdLife International, with the aim of evaluating and addressing the threats to Eleonora’s falcon. Conservation measures proposed included promoting appropriate policies on tourism and coastal management, as well as increasing protection of colonies, avoiding introductions of predators onto islands, increasing public awareness, and ensuring habitat protection in the winter quarters and along the migration route. The need for further research into Eleonora’s falcon numbers, breeding success and migration habits was also highlighted (10).

Over 80 percent of the global population of Eleonora’s falcon breeds in Greece, and in 2003 the Life-Nature Project was set up. This aimed to promote conservation of the species in Greece and throughout Europe, as well as to perform further research into its ecology and behaviour, and to put into place many of the actions described in the species Action Plan (11). The project has so far met with much success, performing the first ever global population census of Eleonora’s falcon, undertaking many public awareness campaigns, and reducing nest predation through rat eradication programmes (11) (17) (18). Simple measures to reduce human presence around colonies have also been shown to have positive effects (12), and could be further used to protect this unique bird of prey.

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View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

To find out more about Eleonora’s falcon and its conservation, see:

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Authentication

Authenticated (19/10/09) by Dr Dietrich Ristow, Eleonora’s falcon researcher for over forty years.

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Glossary

Coverts
Small feathers concealing the bases of larger flight feathers, usually on the wings or tail.
Flight feathers
The feathers at the end of the wing, involved in flight.
Incubation
The act of incubating eggs, that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
Morph
One of two or more distinct types of a given species, often distinct colour forms, which occur in the same population at the same time (that is, are not geographical or seasonal variations).
Natal
Site of birth.
Vagrant
Found occasionally outside normal range
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World. Helm Identification Guides, A & C Black Publishers, London.
  4. Wink, M., Wink, C. and Ristow, D. (1982) Biologie des Eleonorenfalken (Falco eleonorae) 12. Biometrie des Sexualdimorphismus adulter und flügger Falken. Die Vogelwelt, 103: 225 - 229.
  5. CITES (March, 2009)
    http://www.cites.org
  6. Walter, H. (1979) Eleonora’s Falcon: Adaptations to Prey and Habitat in a Social Raptor. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Ristow, D., Wink, C., Wink, M. and Scharlau, W. (1998) Colour polymorphism in Eleonora’s falcon Falco eleonorae. Sandgrouse, 20(1): 56 - 64.
  8. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  9. BirdLife International (March, 2009)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=3605&m=0
  10. Ristow, D. (1999) International Species Action Plan: Eleonora’s Falcon, Falco eleonorae. BirdLife International, Cambridge. Available at:
    http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/wildbirds/action_plans/docs/falco_eleonorae.pdf
  11. Project Life - Nature 2003: Conservation Measures for Falco eleonorae in Greece (March, 2009)
    http://www.ornithologiki.gr/life/falcoel/en/program/index.htm
  12. Martínez-Abrain, A., Oro, D., Ferrís, V. and Belenguer, R. (2002) Is growing tourist activity affecting the distribution or number of breeding pairs in a small colony of Eleonora’s falcon?. Animal Biodiversity and Conservation, 25(2): 47 - 51.
  13. Tsatsakis, A., Christakis-Hampsas, M., Xirouchakis, S., Baum, F. and Ristow, D. (2001) Whodunnit? The case of the disappearing Eleonora’s falcons. World Birdwatch, 23(1): 25 - 27.
  14. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (March, 2009)
    http://www.cms.int
  15. Council of Europe: Bern Convention (March, 2009)
    http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/Treaties/Html/104.htm
  16. EC Birds Directive (March, 2009)
    http://www.jncc.gov.uk/page-1373
  17. BirdLife International: Islet inhabitants benefit from rat removal (March, 2009)
    http://www.birdlife.org/news/news/2007/01/rat_removal.html
  18. Dimalexis, A., Xirouchakis, S., Portolou, D., Latsoudis, P., Karris, G., Fric, J., Georgiakakis, P., Barboutis, C., Bourdakis, S., Ivovič, M., Kominos, T. and Kakalis, E. (2008) The status of Eleonora’s falcon (Falco eleonorae) in Greece. Journal of Ornithology, 149: 23 - 30.
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Eleonora's falcon in flight  
Eleonora's falcon in flight

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