For an endangered species that breeds “rarely in captivity”, this is a new feat: five young Bonelli’s eagles born on a breeding farm in Vendée will join Spain this summer to be released.
From the outside, the breeding site located in Saint-Denis-du-Payré is just an ordinary house. You have to cross the room and push open the garden door to discover the imposing sheet metal building that houses the birds of prey.
Divided into ten aviaries measuring eighteen meters by six, it accommodates five couples too old to learn to live in freedom and five young people awaiting transfer.
Since 2011, Christian Pacteau, owner of the house and responsible for the breeding, has sent 77 eagles to repopulate the Mediterranean basin.
“The number of Bonelli’s eagles has dropped dramatically since the 1980s, mainly because of electrocution on high voltage lines,” explains the breeder. “At the time, there were 80 pairs in France. In the early 2000s, more than 20. Thanks to the reintroduction, there are now about forty.”
At 72, this retired professor, “fallen into the cauldron of ornithology at a very young age”, commands the only French creation of Bonelli eagles, created on the initiative of the French Union of Wild Fauna Rescue Centers (UFCS) and financed by a European program for the protection of biodiversity, as well as by the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO).
As the associations in the south of France did not show interest, the creation of Vendée resorted to Spanish and Italian organizations, which today free eagles in the region of Madrid, Álava, Mallorca and Sardinia.
White belly, dark wings and hooked beak, Cabestany, Eus and Llupia, three chicks born in March, await departure time, perched in their aviary.
The trip was postponed for several weeks by the avian flu epidemic, which prevents any transport of birds.
“It’s irritating because the later the captors are reintroduced, the longer they take to get used to their new environment,” worries Emmanuelle Portier, one of the two guardians.
In the neighboring aviary, the other two chicks that will be on the trip are still covered in white fluff, lying on a wooden table covered in bark.
In mid-July, the coaches will install the eaglets in the back of a van that will make its way to Spain. Before being released, the birds of prey will be equipped with GPS.
“This allows you to track their journeys, document their pace of life. And rescue them if they seem to be in trouble”, specifies Philippe Pilard, project manager at LPO.
The ornithologist still remembers an eagle that, reintroduced to Italy a few years ago, finally chose to take up residence in Corsica.
– Loyalty –
Once they are laid, the breeders remove the eggs from the aviaries to allow for a second reproduction and place them in an incubator heated to 37.2°C.
They then hand-feed the chicks, being careful to hide behind a curtain so the meals are not associated with a human face.
If the reintroduction program was a “major success”, Christian Pacteau is now concerned that the “end of history” is approaching.
Of his five pairs of eagles aged between 18 and 32, three are no longer of breeding age and the other two are at their limit.
“I tried to bring together the male and the female, who are still capable, but don’t want to. Once mated, these birds never exchange company”, sighs the breeder.
His Spanish partners could send him an eagle, but there is no guarantee that the female will accept it. As for asking them for an already formed couple, “we must not dream”.
Meanwhile, the breeders will follow the cubs from a distance. Spanish caregivers never forget to send photos and health reports of the “babies”.