The Eagles Return

 


Faucon Crécerelle. The Kestrel. Nests in cliffs and rocks of the Maures where it is common. A predator of small rodents and large insects.


 

The great 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
    
At every level of the living world predators pursue their prey in complex food chains, which in many cases we still do not fully understand. From sunlight, atmospheric gases and soluble minerals, plants developed, and animals followed – the herbivores, then the carnivores.
     The pyramid of life, with herbivores below and carnivores above, gives rise to a complementary idea: the biomass. At the lower levels of the pyramid, species are numerous in quantity and variety, and the biomass is so much the greater. In the higher levels the species are few in quantity and variety, and the biomass is lower.
     At the top of this pyramid are the super-predators and, among them the birds of prey, the eagles: the golden eagle ( aquila chrysaetos), Bonellis Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus) and the booted eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus), for example, the peregrine falcon (falco peregrinus) and the eagle owl ( Bubo bubo) – the largest of the owls. These super-predators are commonly called ‘grands rapace’ in French by reason of their large size (though a few are also modest in size) and also because they impress us with a sense of strength and power – qualities which we find remarkable.
     Human activities, among many different phenomena, threaten the delicate balance of this pyramid: species judged harmful or undesirable have been eradicated; others are the victims of pollution (an accumulation of pesticides which cause sterility); species put at a disadvantage by human activity (rock-climbing, hang-gliding or intensive agriculture). And therefore a number of super-predators have simply disappeared in certain places – their place at the top of the food chain left vacant. The example of the golden eagle, which is commonly, though wrongly, associated with mountains, is revealing. They were once common also in the plains, from the north of France to the south. Systematic hunting and modern farming practices have forced them from their old habitats, and pushed them back to the mountains.

 


Hibou Moyen Duc. Asia otus. The long-eared owl. It should be common in the Maures but little information is available. A great predator of small rodents.


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.

 



 

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 species.

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 levels.
     At the start of the twentieth century a distinction was made between birds of prey which were thought to be pests and those which were considered less of a nuisance (for example, the kestrels and short-toed eagles). To understand the state of mind at that time, one must remember that even associations which had been established to protect birds paid a premium for the killing of pests such as the sparrow hawk – Epervier d’Europe (Accipter nisus) or the goshawk – l’Autour des Palombes (Accipter gentiles). However, there were scientists who attempted to rehabilitate the birds of prey - Paul Madon, for example, born in Brignoles in 1852, whose study of rejected pellets2 demonstrated the eating habits of different species, their usefulness as a control on the number of small rodents and, for the first time, their value for agriculture.
     For the birds of prey the two world wars were periods of respite. Men had other preoccupations than the hunt and the preservation of game. In the 1950s and 1960s in many European countries, including France, "ecological" ideas emerged which were incompatible with the hunting lobby. Laws to protect birds of prey followed: the decree of 24th January 1972 protected every bird of prey, as well as forbidding their hunting. In practice, however, these laws were seldom enforced and things improved only slowly with a change of generation, and a gradual change of thinking. The populations of birds of prey rose appreciably from the 1980s The larger birds of prey, notably the eagles which reproduce less quickly3, and are most sensitive to environmental conditions, are now, indeed since the 1990s, in a position to repopulate territories which they once held. For the vultures, principally the Griffon vulture – Vautour Fauve (Gyps fulvus), completely eradicated in France, a carefully-planned re-introduction has been necessary - in the Pyrenees, the Barronnies (Drôme) and in the Verdon (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence).

 

The eagles in 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 and Alpes-Maritimes).
     For several years more and more observations of the species in the Maures led us to assume that they might be nesting here. In 2002 this was confirmed with the discovery of a nesting couple in the central-eastern part of the Massif. Despite the terrible fires of 2003, one of which directly affected the nesting site, they remained in situ.
     At the same time, many eagles were seen in the Plaine des Maures, in the communes of les Mayons, Le Luc and le Cannet-des-Maures 4 an area frequently studied by ornithologists. The eagles were observed hunting, and the presence of a couple in the west of the massif, which is more favourable for nesting, was predicted. All this followed a programme of research targeted at the larger birds of prey, particulary in relation to the perimeter of an area proposed by the O.N.F.5 as a natural reserve. No proof of nesting had been established, but the observation of several different individuals and the sighting of two individuals flying together in 2005 strongly suggested the presence of a couple in the west of the massif des Maures.

Brief description of the golden eagle ( Aquila Chrysaetos):
80-93 cm long with a wingspan of between 180 and 225 cm. From afar the adults are recognisable by their entirely dark plumage, though the young and immature bear white patches on the wing and the tail. In the south of France couples are sedentary and generally nest in cliffs. They range over an area of between 50 and 160 km². The prey, mainly mammals, larger birds and carrion, varies according to the availability of food.

 


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.

 


Gypaete Barbu. Gypaetus barbatus. Lammergeier. A very large bird of prey and specialist carrion-eater of the bone marrow of ungulates. It had completely disappeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, but was re-introduced in 1972.

The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus).

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.

 

 

In conclusion

The massif 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.
     The return of the larger birds of prey has begun. Nevertheless, there are dangers, which may set back their progress. The members of these species are as a rule very few in number and the death of one or several individuals is sufficient to check their progress. They are vulnerable, and hunters are responsible for many of the deaths. By way of example, between 1984 and 2000, 136 birds of prey from the Var and Bouches-du-Rhône, treated by Dr. Dhermain, a veterinary surgeon at Marseille, were found to be wounded by lead shot (-and this was confirmed by X-Ray). Among these, a Bonelli’s eagle (Hieratus Fasciatus), a species threatened with extinction in France, an Egyptian vulture (Neophon percnopterus), a very rare vulture in Provence, and two Peregrine falcons.


Faucon pelerin. Falco peregrinus. The peregrine falcon. Its strength and energy enable it to hunt pigeons, starlings, coots and moorhens, and seagulls.

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.
Certain communes, aware of the need to protect birds of prey, have tried to restrain their activities, indeed some have dismantled the climbing routes. The O.N.F. is discussing the use of its forests with certain groups but for the moment without satisfactory results. In the Vallon Sourn at Châteauvert and in its other sites, the Conseil general is "sitting on the fence".
      The societies for the protection of birds9are foremost in the campaign to heighten public awareness of the problem and to protect the most sensitive environments, especially the cliff sites. To this day, however, the results have been modest while a new threat has emerged with the proposed via ferrata in the department.

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