Gruesome but amazing falcon behaviour

JAC: In lieu of our usual dollop of living creatures in “Readers’ wildlife photographs,” I’ll post this contribution by Matthew.

by Matthew Cobb

Eleonora’s falcon (Falco eleonorae) is a kind of hobby with a wingspan of about 1 meter which breeds on Mediterranean islands and overwinters in Madagascar. It’s a rather fine-looking bird, as this photo by Jürgen Dietrich from Wikipedia shows:


Outside of the breeding season, Eleonora’s falcon mainly eats insects, but when there are babies about they will take larger prey, including other birds. A short paper has just been published in Alauda, the journal of the Société d’Etudes Ornithologiques de France, which reveals that in one population of this species, predation can take on quite a gruesome aspect.

As reported on Morrocanbirds and another of other sites (I haven’t been able to read the original article), the discovery is part of a long-term study of a population of this falcon off the Moroccan Atlantic coast by Moroccan scientists. According to the article, the birds will sometimes catch their prey and then, rather than feeding it to their chicks straight away, they store them, alive, sometimes having removed the flight feathers of the poor victim.

The Morrocanbirds piece includes two grim photos by Abdeljebbar Qninba of doomed birds, the first of a chiffchaff sans tail and wing feathers, the second of a common whitethroat peering from its prison:

Many birds in temperate regions will stash the bodies of their prey for later consumption. In the case of the shrike or butcher bird, this can become quite macabre, with bodies impaled on spikes. Eleanor’s falcon appears to have taken the process a step further – in the heat the Moroccan coast, any stashed body would rapidly dry out. By disabling and imprisoning the prey for a while (it is not clear what is the maximum duration – at least a matter of days), their food will stay fresh for longer…

Here’s a picture of an adult brooding a pair of eggs, from here. It looks pretty cross.

Of course, this is no different from the behaviour of many hymenoptera, which paralyse their prey (generally caterpillars, but in some cases spiders), lay eggs inside them or next to them and then wall them up in a hole or a pot, where the victim is slowly eaten alive by the maggots…

To paraphrase Miranda from The Tempest, and with only a touch of irony:

Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous nature is!

O brave new world that has such creatures in ‘t!

Reference: Qninba, A., Benhoussa, A. Radi, M., El Idrissi, A., Bousadik, H., Badaoui B. & El Agbani, M.A. 2015. Mode de prédation très particulier du Faucon d’Éléonore Falco eleonorae sur l’Archipel d’Essaouira (Maroc Atlantique). Alauda 83(2): 149-150.


  1. Posted August 28, 2015 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Just beautiful. :))

  2. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Yikes. But to paraphrase: at bottom, nature has no design, no purpose, no evil, no good,
    and is nothing but blind, pitiless, and indifferent.

  3. George
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    If this behavior is gruesome, what would you say about cattle, pig, chicken, etc farming?

    • rickflick
      Posted August 28, 2015 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      Slightly different. We humans feed our imprisoned dinner until its fat and tender.

  4. Posted August 28, 2015 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Truly, nature declares god’s glory!

    His eye is on the sparrow, and it looks delicious!

  5. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Nature obeys Murphy’s law, if it can happen it will or already has.

    Two questions:

    – How did this evolve?
    – Are there other vertebrate species that “hamstring” prey to keep them “fresh”?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 28, 2015 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Humans clip the wings of chickens to keep them from flying away.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted August 29, 2015 at 4:33 am | Permalink

        As I recall, at least one New Guinean tribe would hamstring captives so that they couldn’t escape, and eventually let them be stoned to death by the young boys of the tribe before feasting on them. And, according to Lawrence Keeley in ‘War before Civilization’, some Maori tribes would hamstring women captives so that they could be used as sex-slaves at will. Norman Lewis has a few horrific pages in his extraordinary autobiography of how Soviet prisoners of the Germans (who eventually fought for the Germans and were captured in Italy) confessed – with a kind of relief, he said – to cannibalism in the camps: they had been greeted on their arrival by a mild-mannered German with spectacles and a megaphone who told them that the Germans had food only for 1,000 prisoners whereas there 10,000 of them – ‘You must draw your own conclusions,’ he said. No, we are not very nice, either.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted August 29, 2015 at 7:38 am | Permalink

          there WERE 10,000…

  6. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Eleanora’s falcon nests on a number of Mediterranean Islands and has a late breeding season that allows it to exploit the migration of songbirds returning to Africa on completion of their own breeding season in Europe as a resource on which to feed its chicks.
    A fascinating and beautiful bird. The behaviour described by this study – if rather sad for the victims – is really amazing.

  7. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Wot? got to comment # 7 without someone mentioning a Devil’s Chaplain?
    (Letter 49. TO J.D. HOOKER. July 13th, 1856.)

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Bureaucrats on both sides of our border speak in a common tongue. When I hear one say something like “values which should permeate the school,” I wonder if he’s referring to some new type of fire-retardant — and whether it will prove any safer than asbestos.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 28, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, wrong post.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    … the birds will sometimes catch their prey and then, rather than feeding it to their chicks straight away, they store them, alive, sometimes having removed the flight feathers of the poor victim.

    Not sure if the falcon can yet hear the falconer, but we now know the rough beast slouching, if not towards Bethlehem, then the western Mediterranean.

  10. Heather Hastie
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating! It’s cruel if we add our own values, but actually just an excellent adaption for survival. I wonder if sometime in the future, they’ll feed their captives to make them last longer?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 28, 2015 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      All else being equal, it seems like the falcon would be better off feeding any gathered food directly to its own chicks than to some captive bird it will later feed to its chicks. The only way feeding the captive could pay off is if the captive can eat food that (a) the falcon chicks can’t eat, and (b) is easier to gather than falcon food. That seems a tall order, since falcons are highly specialized for gathering falcon food and not songbird food.

  11. Posted August 28, 2015 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I remember watching these falcons in Cyprus when I was working at the airbase at Akrotiri. They are wonderfully graceful and aerobatic. Some are pure black too.

  12. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    “O brave new world that has such creatures in ‘t!”

    So that’s where Aldous Huxley got his title from!


    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted August 29, 2015 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      Having just seen Hamlet I can confirm that ALL novel titles come from Shakespeare.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted August 29, 2015 at 4:35 am | Permalink

        Except for ‘Eyeless in Gaza’.

%d bloggers like this: