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At just over thirty centimetres in length, falco vespertinus, as it's known to scientists, is not the largest falcon, though as a member of the falconinae sub-family it is considered a "true" falcon. (Shown here is a young male.) It does, as implied by its name, have red claws, these being its most distinctive feature. One easily imagines Emperor Frederick II, author of a treatise on falconry, hunting with these birds in the thireteenth century. The red-footed falcon winters in Africa but has a very long migration range covering most of Europe and western Asia.
In Sicily and elsewhere, it prefers brush and fields, often on the edge of forests. It hunts in these areas, and also in marshlands and even cultivated fields. In Sicily, its migratory route takes the red-footed falcon into the Peloritan mountains extending from Mount Etna to Sicily's northeastern point, and then across the Strait of Mesina. It is not the only bird of prey to make this voyage. The black kite, honey buzzard, booted eagle and Egyptian vulture are often reported here, too. The Amur falcon, rarely recorded elsewhere in Europe, has also been spotted in this part of Sicily.
The mature male is dark grey, sometimes almost black. Females have some reddish plumage. Few red-foots actually breed in Sicily in April. Most of the birds breed in central and eastern Europe or parts of Asia, wintering in Africa. Some even pass through India on the way to central and southern Africa. Sicily is, at best, a single stop on a very long passage. Unlike many falcons, the red-foot usually migrates in large groups (colonies) of hundreds or even thousands.
The birds have a varied diet. Red-footed falcons prefer frogs and even small birds, but in winter consume larger grasshoppers and any large insects found in swarms, especially in Africa where they are usually to be found during that season.
Except to its unfortunate prey, the red-foot is considered a "sociable" bird, at least by humans and its own species. Though avoiding inhabited areas, the fearless falcons are distinguished for their shrill call and seeming affinity for people.
The red-footed falcon's Latin name "vespertinus," means "evening" and also "western." Here in Sicily, a migratory bird's bridge between Europe and Asia, sightings are reserved for those hardy, dedicated birdwatchers with enough tenacity to climb the Peloritan peaks in search of the perfect opportunity. But even if you don't see a red-footed falcon, your view will be worth the ascent.
About the Author: Vincenzo Mormino is active in wildlife preservation throughout Sicily. He has written about the purple swamp hen, wild cat, little egret, red fox and other creatures for previous issues.