Francis Wharton.

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During the winter months in Andalucia one sees many of
these tawny-coloured eagles, the majority pale in hue —
" washed-out " as Griffon Vultures — (undoubtedly young
Imperials) — but there are others, less numerous, of a rich
bright chestnut, and some of these, we think, may belong
to a different species.

In April, 1883, the writer found a nest of one of these
large tawny eagles in the distant Corral de la Cita. It
was placed on the summit of a stone-pine, almost covering
the broad, bushy top, and we had an excellent view of the
old bird, as she rose from the nest about 100 yards
away : — de las cohradas, = " one of the tawny kind ! " as
my companion remarked. The place was remote, and
night too near to allow of our then awaiting her return
(though we shoidd have done so at any cost), so, after taking
the two eggs (large dusky white, quite spotless), substitut-
ing for them a couple of hard-boiled hen's eggs, and setting
a circular steel-trap in the nest, we left it. On return-
ing next morning there was no sign of the eagle at the
nest. After walking all round, shouting out, and going up
an adjacent sand-ridge which all but overlooked it, we were
satisfied she was not there, especially as the night before
she had risen rather wild. Accordingly we prepared to
ascend; but whilst throwing the rope over the lowest
branches, a great shadow suddenly gUded across the sand
beside me, and on looking up, there was the great chestnut-
coloured eagle slowly flapping from her nest within fifteen
or twenty yards overhead. Before I could drop the rope
and run to my gun, the chance was gone ; unluckily, how-
ever, the shot took some effect, and though it failed to
stop the eagle, she went away badly struck, with one leg
hanging down, and never returned. Thus, by bad luck, an
opportunity of settling a doubtful point was thrown away.

In June of the same year (1883), we obtained a tawny
eagle, which we then imagined would be a young Imperial
of the year, and being only winged, the bird was placed in
the garden at Jerez, where it lived till the autumn of 1885,
It was then (at any rate) two and a half years old, and
possibly much older, yet it had never changed colour at

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all. The whole plumage was rich tawny chestnut, rather
lighter beneath, and the new autumn feathers, which were
growing at the time of the bird's death, were also coming
bright chestnut, and without a sign of black. This eagle.


which we now have set-up, has also, to our eye, quite a
different physical type to A. adalhertiy old or young, being
heavier and more massive in build, beak, and claws —
indeed, almost vulturine {see photo above). The middle


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toe appears to have four scutellse, against six (one rudi-
mentary) in A. ctdalberti; tail above uniform dark brown.
In captivity it was much noisier, and more nonchalant, than
the Imperial.

As already mentioned, we have observed these rich-
coloured tawny eagles on many occasions during the
winter months. The forest-guards distinguish them from
the young Imperial Eagles, saying they were most
numerous in winter. Casual observation is not, of course,
of much value on fine points, and we give their opinion for
what it may be worth. The late Crown Prince Rudolph of
Austria also appears to have found a tawny eagle nesting
in Andalucia (*' Sport and Ornithology," p. 491), but did
not secure the birds.

It seems probable that a large tawny-coloured eagle —
whether the African A, rapax, or otherwise — does breed in
Southern Spain, though si)oradically both as to time and
place, the wooded districts around Cordova being the
most likely locaUty.

So far, with slight modifications, we have left this
chapter as written some little time ago ; but, since then,
we have had further eagle-experiences (in the spring of
1891), which throw some new light on the vexed ques-
tions referred to. For we have now placed beyond doubt
the fact that the Spanish Imperial Eagle does breed in —
what is considered to be — its "immature" dress; but
which would probably be more correctly expressed by say-
ing that individuals of this species never develope that
black-and-white plumage which has hitherto been regarded
as the invariable adult state.

On February 26th we heard of an eagle's nest at a spot
called the Algaida del Gato, and were assured that, while
the female-owner was black — de las negras — her male
partner was jpardo, i.e., tawny. The date, it may be noted,
is just a month earlier than we had imagined these birds
usually breed ; but on the 28th February this nest cer-
tainly contained two white eggs ; and, as certainly, the
male eagle was tawny : his partner an ordinary black-

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plumaged adult. The latter we could have killed half a
dozen times; but the male, realizing, it may be, the
interesting problem which centred itself on his person,
gave us no small trouble ere at last he fell to a long and
lucky shot on the wing. His skin now lies before us —
pale tawny chestnut in ground colour, sprinkled with
darker feathers all over, and with white shoulders.

A few days afterwards (March 4th), a second pair were
discovered breeding on a big stone-pine in a different
district. In this case the female was tawny, the male
black. We watched the pair, with the glass, at moderate
range, for half an hour, and Manuel de la Torre afterwards
told us they had passed over his head within twenty
yards, leaving no doubt as to their respective colours.
There was thus no necessity to shoot them. As it is we fear
we may be blamed, for to exterminate a species in order
to clear up some obscure fact in its biology is to* commit a
crime under the guise of science ; but we have not been
guilty in this or any other instance of needless slaughter ;
and, in Spain, be it added, eagles are " vermin " upon
whose heads a price is eet. The few shot by us
are now valuable and cherished specimens; otherwise
they might, and probably would havei been uselessly
destroyed, the beautiful birds left to rot where they fell.

In April we saw a third example in the hands of a
naturalist at Malaga — a tawny female (without sign of
white on shoulders), which we were told (and do not doubt)
was shot from her nest in that province the preceding

The veteran Manuel de la Torre, a classic name in
Spanish ornithology, and one of the keenest and most
observant men we ever met, who has spent the greater
part of his seventy years in the destruction of eagles,
foxes, wolves, and other animales daninos — noxious beasts
— laughed at our enthusiasm over this " discovery," say-
ing that he had known of the fact all his life, and had
shot " tawny " Imperials from their nests before we were
bom ! He asserted that these eagles do not ever, neces-
sarily, attain the black state ; they may live 100 years and

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yet not advance beyond the tawny, or *' piebald " stages.
Good luck and long life to this dear old man, whose
cheery face and voice and ready guitar have been the
life and soul of our camp on some wild nights in the
sierra !

SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE. (Adult Male, shot May 6th, 1883.)

This discovery leaves the position thus : — The Spanish
Imperial Eagle does breed indiscriminately, whether in the
typical adult livery of black and white, or in any of the various
stages of mottled and piebald. But we are still entitled to

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the opinion, hereinbefore expressed, that there also breeds
— though rarely — in Spain a true tawny eagle — Aq. rapax,
or otherwise. The grounds for this opinion are that the
bird we consider to be the Tawny Eagle is of different type
and build, besides being of a darker and richer colour —
always uniform, whereas the Imperial Eagles breeding in
the pale plumage are invariably spotted, or " marbled.' '

In leaving the Imperial Eagle we annex weights and
dimensions of five examples killed by us : —




Male, adult (tawny) .

.. 8flbR. .

.. 75 J in. .

.. 80 in.

„ (black) .

.. 8i „ .

.. 74J „ ..

.. 29i „


9J „

oO^ ,,

.. 84J „

>» »> »♦

.. m .. •

.. 82 „ .

.. 86 „

»» »> »f

.. m „ .

.. m .. •

.. 86 „

Of the Booted Eagle (Aquila pennata) and the Serpent-
Eagle {CircdetuB gallicus), both of which are more or less
numerous spring-migrants to Spain, we have treated else-
where, and need only add that all our specimens of the
Booted Eagle (both sexes) are of the pale variety with
shaded brown back, a broad light bar across either wing,
and white, streaked breast.

The Spotted Eagle {Aquila ncevia) we have never person-
ally met with: though Arevalo (Aves de Espana, p. 58)
describes it as not uncommon, nesting in crevices of
rocks among the wooded mountains, and frequenting the
rice-swamps of Valencia.

The White-tailed Sea-Eagle (Haliceetns albicilla) accord-
ing to Spanish authorities, is also found on passage and in
winter. Manuel de la Torre gave us its name as " Aguila
leona,'' but we have never seen it in Spain at any season.

On January 4th, 1888, we made the acquaintance of
another fine species, one of the largest of the feathered
race, under the following circumstances : — ^We were par-
tridge-shooting, and before our advancing line observed
soaring over the plain a pair of enormous birds, which we
took for the largest Imperial Eagles we had ever seen. B.
had always held that those I had previously shot here (as
just related) were of small size, and that there existed, on

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the Andalucian vega, eagles of twice their dimensions.
Here at last we were in presence of a pair of these stupen-
dous eagles, and my anxiety to take the offensive — how-
ever remote or impossible its chance of success — knew no
bounds. The pursuit of partridge, quail and hare — even
the approaching avero — faded into insignificance, and
these huge birds monopolized all attention. Presently
one — the larger — passed outside the line, and after almost
interminable aerial sweeps settled slowly down to the
summit of a small wild-olive. At once we called up one
of our wild-fowlers, who, with his trained cahresto pony,
was close at hand. The pony was divested of saddle and
bridle, and with only a halter and a cord to his near fore-
knee — preparations which told him distinctly enough the
nature of the business in hand — was ready for action.
Away we went, Vasquez crouching behind the shoulder,
myself behind the quarter, and holding with my
right hand by his tail. By this device we arrived, un-
noticed, to a range of forty yards — nearer we could not get
by reason of a marshy creek with steep, slimy banks. I
therefore at once despatched the charge of treble A, right
for the monster's head. The effect was unmistakable — he
rolled over to the shot, and fell to earth. But those huge
wings never ceased to work, and a second dose of slugs (on
the ground) had no visible effect. From mere spasmodic
flapping the great bird gradually recovered control, and a
few seconds later was distinctly flying — ^very low, but still
clearly on the wing and departing. For nearly a mile he
flapped along, never a yard above the scrub — then settled,
on the very edge of the water. We followed, and when I
next raised my eyes over the pony's quarter, there, within
six yards, stretched out flat on the bare mud, lay our
victim. His head lay prostrate, but his eye still brightly
watched us. Hard and impervious to shot as I well knew
these great raptores to be, I was hardly prepared to
see him rise again, and could not have believed what
followed. Not only did he rise on wing, but received two
more charges of treble A — mould-shot as big as peas — at
a range of under twenty yards, without wincing, and after

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that, flew full 200 yards before finally collapsing : then at
last he fell, stone-dead.

Our trophy was not an eagle after all ! but one of those
giant birds, the Black Vulture (Vultur monachus), measuring
a trifle under ten feet in expanse of wing, and scaling

BLACK VULTURE. (Adult Male, shot Januaiy 4th, 1888.)

roughly between two and three stones. I need hardly add
that I had at once recognized the species on rising to fire the
first time ; and though it was somewhat of a disappoint-
ment, it at least settled the question respecting these
fabulously large eagles. This bird proved a magnificent

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specimen, a male, 9 feet 9 inches across the wings : the
irides were dark, legs and feet whitish, claws black : the
cere and bare skin in front of neck bluish colour, tail
pointed.* The whole plumage was deep black-brown, the
head covered with short downy feathers, and the bird had
no offensive smell like the common vultures. This species
is, indeed, of far nobler aspect than the Griffon, showing
in life none of the repulsive bare neck of that bird, the
neck being entirely hidden in the ruff of long lanceolate


plumes which surround it, and on the wing it has a
majestic appearance.

A few days afterwards we had a similar experience with
another, which we stalked, sitting amongst some rough
hummocky ridges: it seems all but impossible to kill
these huge raptores outright. Their hard muscular
frames and sinews, tough as steel-wire, appear imper-
vious to shot, and unless a pellet chances to take the
wing-bone, they will go on, though struck in a dozen
places. One realizes this on attempting to skin one of the

* Now in the Hancock Museum at Newcastle.

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larger eagles — an operation not unlike trying to dissect a

The Black Vulture we have never found actually
breeding in Andalucia, though it does do so : and we have
observed single pairs, associated with Griffons, in the
sierras in May and July. Its chief nesting stronghold is
in the Castiles, where, in the Sierra de Gredos, we found
an eyry with young in May. This nest was on a pine.
In the south the Black Vulture is chiefly a winter bird.

The curious diversity of character displayed by the
various raptores when captured, deserve^ a word of
notice. At the end of May, aft^r six p^o^ight weeks'
eagle-hunting, we had about a cbz^n lar^ birds of prey
which were kept in a disused ,roopa-,l JJhete-was a mighty
commotion when any one' Qnt^r^d— a- couple of Serpent-
Eagles ceaselessly flapped $n(|^Qu^d, while Booted Eagles
showed fight, and Marsh-H^i^efs^ backing into convenient
corners, stood facing one wrtl| 'outstretched wings, like
snarling cats all teeth and claws,>'and shrieking defiance
in wailing tones. The Kiljes, pn th§ contrary, might all
have been dead, so limp and lifeless they lay, flat on the
floor, with gaping beak and protruding tongue. One winged
Kite we kept aUve in the gi-ounds at Jerez for years, but
though practically at liberty, he invariably feigned death
or deadly sickness when approached. Five minutes after-
wards, nevertheless, he was quite game to tackle one of
our chickens ! In the midst of the din and flutter sat
the Imperial Eagle, silent, motionless, and unconcerned ;
perched on the carcase of a Flamingo, his flat shapely
head turned slowly as the keen eye followed every move-
ment of the intruder, whose presence he otherwise
disdained. The Tawny Eagle (above mentioned) displayed
in captivity even greater insouciance and a nobler
demeanour than the Imperial, while both birds, heavy
and massive as they looked, exhibited marvellous agility
in pouncing upon the luckless rat who might presume to
trespass upon their domain and attempt to steal their

Such are some of our experiences of the eagles of the

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Spanish lowlands. The Imperial Eagle is, par excellence,
the monarch of the plain — resident throughout the year
(though the young are known, occasionally, to cross the
Pyrenees into France), and in his varied phases compara-
tively common. Next in importance comes a large tawny
eagle of, as yet, undefined specific rank, which, for the
reasons above set forth, we consider entitled to a place in
the list. Then, in spring, come the Booted and Serpent-
Eagles from Africa to nest on Spanish soil and prey on
its abundant reptile-life. But in winter two other species
descend from their mountain-homes to prey on the game
and wildfowl of the lowlands* These are the Golden Eagle
and Bonelli'g Eagle — both described more particularly in
the next chapter — of- which we have shot specimens
on the plains during the winter months. The two
Golden Eagles now in the Zoological Gardens were
both shot by us in the flat country, or camjnna, in the
neighbourhood of Jerez de la Frontera — one winged as it
flew to roost in the pinoles of Los Inglesillos, the oih&t by
a chance shot in the rough, broken country beyond


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II. — Chiefly relating to the Sierra.

On a hot May morning we lay beneath the shade of
pahns and eucalypti in the garden at Jerez, watching the
gyrations of Kestrels, Swifts, and Bee-eaters, and lazily
listening to the soft bird-chorus — an infinite, space-filling
refrain from myriad Nightingales, Serins, and Gold-
finches — to the spondee of Hoopoe and dactyl of Quail.
Presently there appeared, far overhead, some half-dozen
Griffon Vultures wheeling in immense circles, the huge
birds dwarfed by the altitude to mere specks. Then
another stratum, still higher, was detected, and afterwards
a keen eye distinguished a third, and then a fourth, beyond
the average range of human vision. How many more
tiers of soaring vultures might yet occupy the regions of
unseen space beyond, cannot be told: but the incident
serves to illustrate the system on which Nature's great
scavengers patrol the land. The lower strata we esti-
mated at 800 to 1,000 yards altitude, and these only, it is
probable, are on active service, the upper tiers merely
standing by, ready to profit by the discoveries of all the
working parties that may be in sight beneath them : for
at the enormous elevations of the uppermost birds, it is
impossible to suppose that even a vulture's .eye could
detect so small an object as, say, a dead goat on the earth.

There is something peculiarly impressive in the
appearance of these colossal birds and in the automaton-
like ease of their flight. Ponderous bodies appear sus-
pended in mid-air without visible effort or exertion — the
great square wings extended, rigid and motionless, filled

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with air like the wands of a wind-mill, enable them to
rest on space, to soar for hours, as it were, by mere
volition. How all the vultures manage to find subsistence
is a problem, for even in Spain the earth is not strewn
with carcases, as on a battle-field.

Towards a certain point of the evergreen plain of pal-
metto, there is a visible concentration of soaring forms :
thither a string of creaking carros has conveyed to their last
resting-place some dead horses, the victims of Sunday's bull-
fight. Thither flock the vultures to hold high carnival : and
a striking sight it is to watch perhaps forty or fifty, as they
soar and wheel in as many opposing, concentric circles,
gradually focussing themselves over the point of attraction.
But as they fold their wings and gather in a seething mass
around the carrion, all that was majestic and imposing disap-
pears — as they tear open the flanks and, with spluttering
growls and gurgles, and flapping of huge wings, dive their
great bare necks into the innermost penetralia, the
spectacle changes to the repulsive. Yet, as the only
existing system of scavengers, they are performing a useful
office. Quickly swells the crowd : from every quarter
come more and more — the heavens seem alive with hurry-
ing forms sweeping. down to the banquet. As the earUer
arrivals become satiated, they withdraw a few yards from
the revels to enjoy the state of rare repletion, perched
on a neighbouring tree or hillock, where they sit with
distended crop, fluffed-out feathers and half-closed wings,
gorged to the last mouthful, but making room for fresh
comers, hungry as they had been before. Thus within a
few hours the luckless horses have found a tomb, and
when the Griffons have left nothing but bare bones, then
another feathered scavenger appears, the Neophron, or in
Spanish QiKibrantu-huesos, i.e., the bone-smasher, who sets
diligently to work to loosen the ligaments and tear the
skeleton asunder. Then, one by one, the bones are carried
off and broken, by being dropped from a height upon the
rocks^ whe^ the fragments are devoured : thus the earth is
cleansed of corrupting matter.

Vultures, though found all over Spain — whether in

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mountain, marsh, or plain — breed only in the sierras
We have observed them in every province from Guipuzcoa
to Galicia, and from Asturias to Mediterranean; but
nowhere do they so greatly abound as in Andalucia, and
especially in that wild mountain-region which forms the
southernmost apex of Europe. Here they may fairly be
said to swarm, and in our many campaigns in these
sierras we have had abundant opportunities of observing
them " at home." Here the Griflfon Vultures build their
broad flat nests on shelves and ledges of the crags, or in
caves in the face of sheer walls of rock, many of which exceed
2,000 feet in vertical altitude. The little town of Graza-
lema is perched on the verge of one of these stupendous
tajos ; from the window of the posada one can drop a
pebble to invisible depths, midway down which a colony of
Buitres have had their eyries from time immemorial. The
hill-villages of Arcos, El Bosque, Villa Martin, and Bornos,
all present similar instances — man seeking the highest
apex, the vultures its middle heights, beyond reach of
bullet from above or below. Eonda, too, has its tajo, but
we do not recollect seeing any vultures breeding actually
beneath the town.

The Griffons commence repairing their nests as early as
January — we have watched them carrying claw-fulls of
grass and cut branches from places where charcoal-burners
had been lopping the trees, on January 21st; a single large
white egg is laid in February, incubation lasts forty days,
and a naked, blue-skinned chick is hatched early in April.
The young vultures are of extremely slow growth, spend-
ing full three months in the nest. By mid-May they are
as big as Guinea-fowls : ungainly-looking creatures, all crop
and maw, with feathers beginning to show through the
thick white down.

Once at that period (May) we were imprisoned in the
Sierra de Ubrique, both our animals having fallen lame
through loss of shoes, and it was with no small diflSculty
we eventually extricated ourselves from the heart of those
rugged, pathless mountains. During four days and nights
we were encamped in the wild pass of the Puerta de

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Palomas^ whose crags were tenanted by numerous Griflfons,
and the strange growls made by them on returning to


their eyries was often the first sound heard on awakening

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at daybreak, in our roofless bedroom among the boulders,
mingled with the awakening notes of the Blue-thrush
and Alpine chough. These nests proved to be quite


the easiest of access wq ever saw — the cliflfs being
rather a chaotic jumble of big rocks and monoliths than

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crags proper ; and by clambering over these we reached
sixteen nests — many very slight affairs, with bare rock
projecting through the scanty structure — of which only
two held more than a single poult. The nests of the
Griffon — albeit malodorous — are always cleanly. These
vultures feed their young exclusively on half-digested food

Online LibraryFrancis WhartonWharton and Stillé's medical jurisprudence .. → online text (page 16 of 36)