Sunday, November 4, 2012

Queen of the raptors

The Eleonora's falcon

Of all the birds of prey that migrate over the Maltese islands only one, the Eleonora’s falcon, deserves to be called the queen of raptors. This magnificent falcon can be migrating in Malta in both spring and autumn.

The Eleonora’s falcon is an unusual bird in more ways than one. It breeds in colonies mostly on small or uninhabited islands in the Mediterranean. Two thirds of the world population, which does not number more than 12,000 pairs, live in Greek territory. Most of the rest are found on islands off the coasts of Spain, Italy, Croatia, Corsica, Morocco and Algeria. 

Throughout most of the year, the food of the Eleonora’s consists mostly of large insects such as dragonflies but in late summer and autumn it switches to migrating small birds which it hunts as they approach the island on which it breeds. 

The Eleonora’s starts breeding very late in the season so that the hatching of the eggs coincides with the start of the autumn migration. This ensures that the young birds are most hungry during the peak migration thus ensuring a plentiful supply of food.

The Eleonora’s falcon, which in Maltese is known as bies tar-reġina, is named after Eleonora of Arborea, a Sardinian judge with a keen interest in birds. She was born in 1347 and after becoming a judge she passed legislation to protect the falcon which later was named after her.

Eleonora’s falcons also have an interesting migration. Most of the world’s population winters in Madagascar. Until recently it was believed that the migratory route was totally coastal, with birds flying south along the Suez Canal. Birds that breed in the western parts of the Mediterranean were thought to reach the Suez by flying along the North African coast. 

Recently studies involving the use of satellites to track birds on which transmitters had been attached showed that these birds actually cross through the Sahara Desert and equatorial rainforests until they reach Kenya and Mozambique a distance of 9,000km. 

This article was published in The Times on 26.09.2012

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