Princess Eleonora's falcons leave for Africa
Two recent studies have revealed new information on the migration routes of Eleonora’s Falcon Falco eleonorae, tracking the birds 9,500 km from their European breeding colonies to their main non-breeding grounds in Madagascar.
Eleonora’s Falcon is a patchily distributed breeding visitor to rocky coasts and islands in the Mediterranean. It is unusual among birds of prey in having a reproductive cycle adapted to match the southward migration of passerine birds, which it eats. This means it breeds much later than many other species, with the young hatching in late August. The species was named after Giudicessa Eleonora de Arborea (1350-1404), a Sardinian princess who fought for Sardinia's independence from the Kingdom of Aragon, and who drafted the first laws in Europe protecting birds of prey.
Until recently, it was believed the species migrated east through the Mediterranean, then south via the Red Sea and the east coast of Africa to Madagascar, where 70% of the global population is estimated to converge in the winter. However, the new studies used satellite transmitters to show that these birds reach their destination by flying right across the centre of the African continent. Other secrets uncovered include the finding that they migrate by both day and night, crossing huge barriers such as the Sahara Desert. Some of the birds took two months to complete their mammoth journeys, including a stopover in West Africa.
Their return route to European breeding grounds in spring also crossed the heart of the African continent, but involved a longer crossing (1,500 km) of the Indian Ocean than in the autumn. Adult birds returned directly to the Mediterranean, whereas immature falcons spent their first summer in the tropical Africa.
"Every time a migratory bird manages to cross a continent, it tells us an extraordinary story of courage" —Ania Sharwood Smith, European coordinator of the Born to Travel Campaign
These studies provide valuable new insights into the migration routes of this raptor, and also underline its vulnerability to threats it may face en route, such as hunting, collisions, habitat loss and desertification.
BirdLife International is working to try and save migratory birds on their amazing journeys. Earlier this year, we launched the Born to Travel Campaign to protect migratory birds along the African-Eurasian flyway.
“Every time a migratory bird manages to cross a continent, it tells us an extraordinary story of courage and successfully overcoming the many obstacles along the way”, said Ania Sharwood Smith, European coordinator of the Born to Travel Campaign. “To follow migratory birds satellite tracking is a fantastic technology that greatly improves our understanding of where the main dangers may lie”.
Gschweng M., Kalko E.K.V., Querner U., Fiedler W., Berthold P. (2008) All across Africa: highly individual migration routes of Eleonora’s Falcon (Falco eleonorae). Proc Soc Lond B 275 (1653): 2887-2896.
Lopez-Lopez P, Liminana R, Urios V. (2009) Autumn migration of Eleonora’s falcon Falco eleonorae tracked by satellite telemetry. Zoological Studies 48 (4): 485-491.
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Credits: BirdLife International