White moose, a small raptor that can be observed in the South-West of France

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Photo credit: Stephen Temple

The White Elk is a beautiful bird of prey with variegated black and white plumage. Dating from the 1990s, its appearance in the South-West of France is recent. Originally from sub-Saharan Africa, the bird then colonized the Iberian Peninsula and finally crossed the Pyrenees. A shift towards the north which would be due to both global warming and landscape change. Close-up on the white elk, a bird of prey fond of small rodents.

What kind of bird is the white elk?

The white elk (Elanus caeruleus) belongs to the family Accipitridae which brings together diurnal raptors comprising 69 genera and 260 species, present on all continents, except Antarctica. Accipitrids have the following characteristics in common:

Binocular vision favoring the location of prey; A hook-shaped beak that makes it easy to tear flesh; Legs with 4 fingers with curved and sharp nails, making it easier to capture prey; Sexual dimorphism marked by a male smaller than the female. In this aspect, the white elk is an exception because the two sexes have similar measurements: 30 to 35 cm long for an average wingspan of 78 cm and a weight of around 250g. How to recognize the white moose?

This small raptor has a stocky silhouette with a fairly large head for its size and a fairly short forked tail. The adult displays a general pale blue-gray coloring on the back, wings and tail. The head and underparts are white. The shoulders and underside of the primary flight feathers are black. The beak and legs are yellow, their eyes wear a small black mask, and the irises have a bright red tint. The young are distinguished by duller plumage, wings edged with white, brownish spots on the crown and breast.

In which countries does the white moose live?

The raptor breeds in the Iberian Peninsula and France, as well as in most African countries and in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. You should know that the white moose has been nesting in Portugal since the 1960s and joined neighboring Spain a few years later. Probably arriving from Africa where it abounds, notably in Morocco, the bird could have reached south-western Europe due to both global warming and the modification of the landscapes in this geographical area. The expansion of the species in Spain coincides with the intensification of cereal crops and the land clearing that accompanied it in the 1960s-1970s. These changes would have generated a proliferation of voles favoring the establishment of the white moose. In Iberia, the species frequents the dehesa, an ecosystem where herbaceous plants and sparse trees, especially oaks, coexist.

Where can you observe the white elk in France?

The species was established in France in the early 1980s, first in the Basque Country, before gradually conquering new territories in the South-West. After an unsuccessful breeding attempt in 1983 in Aquitaine, the first nesting success occurred in 1990. Since then, the white elk seems to have settled permanently because each year is marked by the flight of dozens of young ones. The raptor now nests regularly in the south-west of France and for several years, in the Midi-Pyrénées region. We notice an occasional incursion outside this area, along the Atlantic coast for example, but also in Hauts de France and the Grand Est. In France, the population is therefore growing both geographically and numerically. In our regions, the white elk frequents open landscapes, crops, meadows and scattered groves which form habitats favorable to the presence of its prey.

What does the white moose eat?

Due to its small size, the white elk stalks small prey and feeds mainly on micromammals, such as voles, shrews and field mice. Some birds provide supplementary food, mainly outside the breeding season. These are mainly species that feed on land such as the skylark, the yellow bunting, the chaffinch and the melodious linnet. Occasionally, the white moose supplements its menu with insects, choosing mainly large orthopterans and beetles. To hunt, the predator has 2 techniques: it hovers on the spot while flying or lies in wait, usually at dusk. Posted on a perch (electrical pole, top of a tree), the white elk spots its prey, swoops down on it, catches it then eats it in flight. Larger animals are carried onto a branch or rock before being swallowed.

What is the lifestyle of the white moose?

The raptor behaves quite erratically, sometimes moving long distances, but it is not considered migratory. White Elks often live alone or in pairs during the mating season. Small, loose groups are sometimes seen in areas where food is abundant, but the White Elk is not a gregarious species like some birds are. However, in Africa, they can form large groups (especially in dormitories), numbering several hundred individuals. During the breeding season, the parents become aggressive if an intruder approaches the nest and vigorously attack birds flying over their territory. Like most raptors, the white elk are not very vocal. Although it sometimes utters high-pitched cries, the bird is usually silent.

How are pairs of white moose formed?

During courtship, the male takes off from his perch and gains altitude with dangling legs. It moves away then swoops back, its wings semi-closed, its legs still dangling and rests on a tree where it remains with its wings half-open and its tail held in a low position. At each dance, the female takes the same direction as him, and the two partners return almost together. Another choreography consists of the male leaving the tree hedge on which he is perched and flying over it from one end to the other. As it circles above each tree, the bird suddenly drops, wings raised, like a parachute. The female watches the show without moving but can change perch to follow the parade more closely. After about 1 hour of ritual, the couple meets at the top of a tree to mate.

How are the little white elk raised?

The White Elk usually nests in a low shrub or tree, often the same one as the previous year. Both adults participate in building the nest, the male providing the materials – fine twigs – and his partner building. Before the end of March, the female lays 3 to 5 eggs, at intervals of 2 to 3 days. At the end of an incubation which lasts between 23 and 28 days, the altricial chicks are born naked. They are brooded and fed by the mother, while the male brings the prey. The young take on their full plumage at around 3 weeks of age and can fly after 1 month if food is abundant. In this species, rearing 2 broods is common. While the young from a previous brood have not yet fledged, the couple is starting a new one. The nests are then only a few dozen to a hundred meters apart. Some parents sometimes attempt to raise a third, and more rarely a fourth brood. The phenomenon of multiple reproductions is often observed in Africa.

Is the white moose an endangered species?

Once adult, this bird has few predators but the young or eggs can be preyed upon by large birds of prey, carnivorous mammals (foxes, wild dogs) and sometimes snakes. Although the white elk shows an increase in its populations outside its current range, it remains rare in Europe (a few thousand individuals). Note that the number of couples continues to increase slowly in France. The species is classified as “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and does not present serious threats that compromise its sustainability. The future of the bird depends above all on the agricultural policy practiced in Spain, which remains the main supplier of individuals present in France. A modification of its habitats (cutting of trees, hedges, intensification of agriculture or abandonment of cultivated land) would in fact be harmful to the white elk. Its life expectancy is approximately 10 to 12 years in the wild.

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