A few weeks ago, the couple of Grand Dukes nesting on the abbey of Wissembourg gave birth to three babies. Extremely rare event in town, not to say exceptional. Today there are only two left, in great shape, in full learning before taking their final flight in the fall.
It is the largest nocturnal bird of prey in Europe: the Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo Bubo for scholars), recognizable among a thousand by its size and its aristocratic profile. Since 2018, a couple has been living on the cornices of the abbey church of Wissembourg. Decidedly we do not blow our elbows at the Grand Dukes.
This year, the couple gave birth to three little ones, an extremely rare occurrence in town, underlines Frédérique Merck of the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO).
Frédérique Merck, amateur ornithologist, has often had her eyes in the sky for the past few weeks. Observing almost daily these balls of feathers which are already not so small as that. She watches over them, monitors them. These little ones are rare but are also protected. By law as by Frederique.
In France, while all nocturnal birds of prey have been protected since 1902 as birds useful for agriculture, only the Eurasian Eagle-owl was excluded from this protection. These super predators, carnivores, being able to eat from beetle to heron, were scary in the cottages.
He could not benefit from a prohibition of hunt than in 1964. The damage was done. The Grand Duke had almost disappeared from Alsace in the 1940s. We had to wait for a voluntarist policy from our German neighbors and regular releases for the latter to show the tips of his wings there.
Today, they would be 1500 pairs in France, only fifty in Alsace. The Eagle Owl generally prefers cliffs, its natural habitat. The species thus occupies the main mountain ranges and the edges of adjoining plains (Pyrenees, Massif Central, Alps, Vosges, Jura). Rarely the city. Except in Wissembourg. “Yes, it’s quite exceptional, you can sometimes find it in disused industrial sites, but there on a church, to my knowledge, they are the only ones. Perhaps because Wissembourg enjoys a diversity of environments that they like: fields, forests, vineyards.”
Here then, in 2018, is a couple of Grand Dukes who take up residence on the ledges of the old abbey, more accustomed to innocent pigeons than to major predators.
Impossible to go unnoticed. As we have said, the Grand Duke is the largest nocturnal raptor in Europe. “About two kilos, 1m80 with wings spread for the female slightly larger than the males.” Perched on the cross, which he particularly likes, the raptor sits majestically. And the ululations rub shoulders with the bells. Funny bird. And it’s here to stay. Grand Dukes are faithful in love and in home and can live for at least twenty years.
Connoisseurs have been waiting for births for a long time. The Grand Duke does not reproduce every year and hopes have so far been in vain. “We have had so far for various reasons, only clear eggs. This time, in an area inaccessible to humans, it was the right one.”
The cubs, three in number, were born seven or eight weeks ago “the hard way. Among the Great Owls minimal comfort. No nest. The female lays on the ground without a branch without anything, three or four eggs per litter.”
The small not so small as that are recognizable by their down and the absence of egret on their head. “We can see them very easily, they are very curious. They approach the edge of the cornice, they lean, they spy on us.”
The high-flying learning phase is dangerous for little ones. It is the harsh law of nature. But all were able to count on guardian angels, the faithful of the Church. “Each time a little one found himself on the ground, the faithful called us. We came to check the state of health of the little one and we brought him up there. They are clumsy, they fall regularly, it’s normal.”
A baby won’t survive it. The fractured hip, he will be euthanized at the Gorna (Wild Animal Care Center). “He must have been blown away during the storm last Friday. We found him like that, too late I think, we couldn’t do anything for him, it’s sad.”
Frédérique is confident for the future. “The two little ones are flying well, they are training, it is already more convincing.” In a week or two, the little ones will know how to fly perfectly. No more cold sweats. They will be ready to leave the nest or more exactly their parents this fall. “Unlike the Moyens-Ducs who have, let’s say, collective dormitories in winter, the Grand-Duke does not live with his family.