Eleonora’s falcons are polymorphic. That is to say they have two different plumage patterns and colours which are apparent within the single species. They are also monotypic indicating that there are no sub-species.
A medium sized bird of prey similar in shape to a peregrine falcon with a long tail and pointed wings. The two varieties of colour and patternation within adults are quite distinct from each other, one being very dark overall and the other with white and rufous markings. The dark form is the less common variant and appears as a very dark brown to black colour with paler flight feathers and prominent deep black underwing coverts. The bill is grey and in males the cere (fleshy covering at the base of the bill on the upper mandible) is yellow as is the eye ring (orbital ring) which is the area of bare skin immediately surrounding the eye itself. The eye colour is dark brown. Females with the dark form are almost identical to the male although slightly larger in size with a blue cere and eye ring. Both sexes have yellow feet. The pale variant of the bird displays a whitish throat, cheeks and side of the neck. There is a black bar extending down from the area of the ceres to the base of the side of the throat, bisecting the white of the cheeks and the throat like a droopy moustache. The breast and belly are a rufous or cream shade with short black streaks. In the lighter variant the colour differences between the sexes on the ceres and orbital rings are as those on the dark form. Juveniles mimic either adult variant although they are generally more brown and have a pale fringe to the feathers on their backs.
Eleonora’s Falcon in flight
The Eleonora’s falcon was named after Eleonora of Arborea (1347 – 1404) who in 1383 became the principal judge of one of four independent judicial regions of Sardinia, following in the footsteps of her late father and brother. A keen falconer, in 1392 she passed a law protecting birds’ nests against illegal hunters. This legislation is believed to have been the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
Eleonora’s falcons vocalise using an often repeated nasal chattering sound with an alarm call similar to many other falcons of ‘kek- kek- kek’.
Eleonora’s Falcon call
Lars Lachmann, XC329984. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/329984.
Close up portrait of a male Eleonora’s Falcon
Larger insects such as dragonflies, butterflies, moths, locusts and flying beetles are caught mid-flight and eaten by the falcons on the wing. The preferred diet of small birds including swifts, shrikes and warblers and other fledglings and the occasional bat, may be stored in a larder and eaten later or shared with its young at the nest.
Eleonora’s Falcon in flight
For some time it has been known that adult birds often store dead prey in ‘larders’ but following a study at a breeding site on an island off the coast of Morocco in 2014, scientists discovered that Eleonora’s falcons were catching small birds and keeping them alive to ensure a supply of fresh food. The unfortunate prey were plucked of their wing and tail feathers to prevent escape and kept in small cracks and holes in the rocks at nesting sites. This is the only bird currently known to carry out this practice.
Eleonora’s Falcon perched
The Eleonora’s falcon is found in the main on the Canaries and distributed around Mediterranean islands including Mallorca, Ibiza, Crete, Sardinia, Cyprus and many Greek islands in the Aegean Sea forming part of the Dodecanese group. They also inhabit regions of north Africa including Morocco and Algeria. The birds over winter in Madagascar and occasionally Mauritius, Reunion and the Seychelles.
Eleonora’s Falcon perched in a tree
Within its breeding territories, predominantly along the Mediterranean the bird can be spotted from late April/early May until it ventures south for the winter in late October, early November. It prefers to nest on small, quiet, often sparsely populated islands located on the migration routes of small birds, its preferred prey. Eleonora’s falcons frequently nest in colonies and will also hunt in pairs. Occasionally it can be seen hunting on mainland areas but seldom nests away from the coast. Eighty per cent of the total population of Eleonora’s falcons breed within the region of the Greek islands.
Eleonora’s Falcon flying
Nesting on the ground, in small caves or on cliff ledges often in close proximity to other Eleonora’s nests, one brood averaging two or three pinky white eggs, with brown spotting, is laid between July and August. The female alone incubates the eggs which hatch up to thirty three days after laying. Fledging takes place between four and five weeks later and whilst in the nest the young are fed solely by the male. The reason for the late breeding season is to coincide with the migration of smaller birds thus ensuring a constant supply of food for both adult and young falcons alike.
Female Eleonora’s Falcon
The lifespan of the Eleonora’s falcon averages ten years.
Frequently known as simply a peregrine, this magnificent bird, whilst not the fastest in level flight, can achieve incredible speeds in excess of 300 kilometres an hour when diving on to its prey, making it the fastest of any bird or animal in the world.
The merlin is a predominantly ground nesting falcon and the UK’s smallest bird of prey. Preferring upland and moorland areas for breeding the bird may venture in to lowland regions during the winter when it is joined by migrating merlins from Iceland.