The Eagles Return
ornithologist, Paul Géroudet, addressing an aversion which many people
feel towards predators, and particularly birds of prey, considers that
"Death is just as vital to the survival of a species as reproduction. All
natural, healthy communities are liable to predation: everywhere creatures
are destined to eat and be eaten".1
Circaète Jean le Blanc. Sometiimes called the eagle of the Maures, as he is common there. Predator of serpents.
Faucon Kobez. Falco vespertinus. The red-footed falcon. Migratory, more and more common in the last few years in the cultivated areas of the plaine des Maures (the plain of Grimaud, the plain of Roquebrune-sur-Argens). A predator of insects.
Buse variable. The common buzzard. Common everywhere in the Maures. A predator of small rodents.
Strix aluco. The tawny owl. A nocturnal predator of small rodents, common
in the forests of the Maures.
Chouette Hulotte. Strix aluco. The tawny owl. A nocturnal predator of small rodents, common in the forests of the Maures.
Birds of prey: from pest to protected
From every quarter, the attack was relentless: poisoning by
insecticides, herbicides and metals; drastic changes to their habitats;
egg-collecting and the taking of the young by falconers – these lie at the
root of the strong decline, or even the disappearance, of birds of prey.
The majority, however, were lost over a very long period by hunting – a
systematic culling of the "becs crochus" (hooked beaks) to protect game
birds and farmyard poultry. The carnage began in the seventeeth century.
An ignorance of the differences between species meant that all birds of
prey were destroyed, including the honey buzzard – Bondrée apivore (Pernis
apivorus), which attacks the nests of bees and wasps; the kestrel – faucon
crécerelle (Falco tinnunculus), which eats small rodents; even the
short-toed eagle – Circaète Jean-le-Blanc (circaetus gallicus), which
preys on serpents. In practice, the destruction of birds of prey was led,
first and foremost, by the gamekeepers and their helpers. They shot the
birds, destroyed their nests, trapped them, poisoned them with poisoned
bait. And then, in the second half of the nineteenth century the
sportsman’s gun appeared, and the destruction reached unprecedented
The eaglesin the Massif des Maures.
The golden eagle: best known of all the eagles, a symbol of power and
supremacy. In the 1990s there were only three couples in the Var, and five
others on the margins of the department (with the Bouches-du-Rhône, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence
Brief description of the golden eagle ( Aquila Chrysaetos):
Milan noir. Milvus Migrans. The black kite. A medium-sized bird of prey, which eats dead fish and sometimes carrion, especially at rubbish tips. It is common near the rivers and lakes of the Maures (the Aille, the Argens, the dam at la Verne).
Vautour fauve. Gyps fulvus. The griffon vulture. A huge bird of prey, it was re-introduced recently to the gorges de Verdon. A carrion-eater, it can be found after fires above the Maures Massif in search of dead wild boars.
Percnoptère. Neophron percnopterus. The Egyptian vulture. A carrion-eater, very rare in Provence and exceptional in the Massif des Maures.
Aigle Royal. The golden eagle. A large bird of prey which consumes hares, young foxes, weasels and hedgehogs; also young ungulates for which it lies in wait. An opportunist, on occasion a carrion-eater.
The peregrine falcon (Falco
Though much smaller than the eagles, the peregrine falcon is also a super-predator and the largest of the French falcons. It suffered a very strong decline in the 1960s and 1970s principally because of organo-chlorides in the food chain, which were responsible for the deaths of many falcons, for sterility and the deaths of foetuses in the egg. In 1975 in the Var only one couple was known – on the island of Port Cros. Since, with the implementation of protective laws and the ban on certain pesticides, their numbers have increased gradually. In 2002 they occupied mainly the coastal cliffs: the islands off Hyères with at least 10 couples; the presqu’île de Giens (commune of Hyères) with at least one couple; and the Esterels with at least two couples. In the hinterland, couples, usually isolated, are known in the limestone gorges of the Artuby at Châteaudouble, of the Argens at Châteauvert and in the Verdon in several different communes. There are indications of a re-colonisation in the cliffs of the Colle-du-Rouet (communes of le Muy and Bagnols-en-forêt). A couple were found to be nesting there in the spring of 2005. As for the Massif des Maures, fleeting observations have been made in the last few years, attributed to the erratic behaviour of juvenile birds6. No evidence of nesting exists for the Maures, which with relatively few cliffs is no doubt less attractive than the sites above. During an investigation in april 2005 a nuptial flight was observed7, suggesting the proximity of a nesting site. In the days which followed a search was made in the few sites thought to be potentially favourable … without success. The investigation was then re-directed to the vicinity in which the nuptial flight had first been observed and it was there in a very rocky valley, on the boundary of the commune of Collobrières – difficult to find ever with a map – that the couple were found.
Brief description of the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus):
38 to 45 cm long with a wingspan of between 89 to 113 cm. The difference between these figures is due to the strong sexual dimorphism of the species: the male is much smaller than the female. The head of the adult is something like the head of the Egyptian god Horus. The species nests in cliffs and the couples are sedentary. It is a hunter of birds, which are caught in flight, often by swooping down from a great height, which has given it the reputation as the world’s fastest bird.
Le Grand duc. Buba buba. The eagle owl. The largest nocturnal in the south of the department of the Var, its prey includes rabbits and hedgehogs and, when the opportunity arises, moorhens and seagulls.
des Maures is largely covered by mature forest but contains, with all
that, a great variety of milieux (low maquis, high maquis, grasslands,
rocks, cultivated areas), and a varied and abundant foodsupply. These
elements, combined with a relatively low population density, (even though
large settlements have developed in certain areas), have helped the
predatory species to return – above all, the larger birds of prey which
had disappeared. For the birds, this is already an established fact. The
Golden eagle, probably indigenous to the Massif in past times has
reappeared in the last few years.8 The peregrine falcon, for
which we have no past records, will certainly be found here in the future.
The eagle owl (Bubo bubo), although the subject of specific
investigations, has not been found to this day. There are many potentially
favourable sites for this secret and nocturnal species, and some
ornithologists think that it may have passed unnoticed till the present
moment. Other species might be added to the list in the future – if they
have not already joined it. Though there are relatively few ornithologists
in the Massif des Maures, the renewed interest that the O.N.F has brought
to the natural history of their forests has ignited the enthusiasm of
every sort of specialist. Every extra "eye" in an environment often
difficult to explore could bring about new discoveries.
A new problem has appeared with the growth of outdoor
sports, and notably rock-climbing. Many cliffs today provide amenities for
the sport, previously restricted to a few individuals but increasingly
popular and a cause of serious disturbance for all the larger rock-living
species, for example the golden eagle and the peregrine falcon. These
activities are unsupervised, the climbing itineraries are developed by
single individuals or small groups, and are soon communicated to others
over the Internet or "publication de topo". The phenomenon has grown to
the point that there are simply no major cliffs in the Var, which are not
"equipped" for climbers.
The birds of prey have returned, and returned successfully even though certain doubts remain. It is quite possible that the mammals will also return. The genet and the lynx, for example, are found today in the Haut Var. It would not be at all surprising to find them eventually in the Maures. Nothing has been proved to this day, but there are rumours and the rumours are steadily growing.
1 Paul Géroudet, Les rapaces
diurnes et nocturnes d’Europe, éd. Delachaux et Niestlé, 1978.
2 The rejected pellets consist of hair and feathers, and bone regurgitated through the beak. These are parts of the prey which, having been devoured, cannot be digested by the bird. The dissected pellet can be analysed by specialists to identify the bones of prey species.
3 The characteristics of the eagle include late sexual maturity, a low rate of reproduction (1 to 2 eggs per season), and a low rate of survival among the young (it is normal for the stronger of the eaglets to eat the weaker).
4 Studies of the birds of prey organised by CEEP/Conservatoire Etudes des Ecosystèmes de Provence et Alpes du Sud in the area: Natura 2000 en plaine des Maures. Année 2004.
5 Office National des forêts. The O.N.F. have agreed to establish three nature reserves (RBI) of at least 2000 ha of forest; that is, one RBI for each major biogeographical zone, and the Mediterranean.
6 "Erraticism"(in French, Erratisme) : erratic movements of a species or an individual without apparent motive. These may be the result of metereological conditions, of the age of the birds, or the search for a new territory.
7 Mating behaviour: for the larger birds, which are coupled usually for life, the rituals include particular body movements and aerial acrobatics. The courtship rituals initiate the female’s egg laying.
8 The massif is defined here in its restricted sense. Of course the islands off Hyères, where the Peregrine falcon has always been present, should also be considered as part of the Maures