Falcons aren’t supposed to be "nice" birds. They’re raptors, after all, and a central part of being a bird of prey is catching, killing and eating other critters. But Moroccan scientists recently reported on an unusual falcon behaviour that is leading some to call the birds "diabolical".

While doing research on Eleonora’s falcons (Falco eleonoraeon Mogador Island off the coast of Morocco, University of Rabat ornithologist Abdeljebbar Qninba and his team came across small birds trapped in rock crevices – and the birds didn’t seem simply lost.

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Is this a larder for hungry falcons? Image: Abdeljebbar Qninba

The tail feathers of the little avian prisoners looked damaged, suggesting they had been attacked by the island’s falcons. In short, the little birds' entrapment was no accident, Qninba and his colleagues propose in a paper published in the journal Alauda. 

The team suggests the small birds were deliberately stuffed into the crevices by the raptors, like snacks into a larder, to be eaten later.

These observations seemed to support something that Qninba has heard before. “The behaviour of the Eleonora’s falcon to keep alive some of its prey was known by an old fisherman who stayed for long periods in the archipelago of Essaouira,” he recalls. The fisherman said he had seen the falcons attack the songbirds that flitted amongst the cliffs and "sequester them in holes."

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An Eleonora’s falcon ponders lunch. Image: Abdeljebbar Qninba

Qninba and his team did not see these attacks for themselves (or see the falcons returning to collect their meals), but they're convinced all of this is no accident. “Our observation of [small passerine birds] whose feathers and tail feathers had been torn leaves no doubt that it could not be coincidence but a deliberate act.”

If the team is right, it would be the first time such entrapment tactics have been recorded for a bird of prey.

But without key documentation of the behaviour as it happened, other experts are sceptical. Are the falcons really using the island’s rocks as a larder for their prey, or is it more likely that the little birds are simply taking cover against further assault? “[They] may be simply escaping and finding refuge in holes in the cliffs the falcons nest in," University of Cape Town biologist Rob Simmons tells New Scientist in response to the new study.

While the idea of falcons intentionally keeping fresh food close at hand is tantalising, if chilling, we'll need more observations in order to determine why the island’s songbirds so often wind up stuck between a rock and a hard place.


Top header image: Nabok, Flickr