Interview with Gypaetus Barbatus : "I love to fly high"
We met at the Samaria Gorge.
It was just before an important snowfall, so it was quite difficult to get there. The great eagle, one of the last of his kind, was sitting on a rock, Rooted to the spot, lofty, imposing, he was proudly gazing the mountains of Crete, his home…
Q:What does Gypaetus Barbatus mean?
A:Gypaetus refers to my species; Lammergeyer. Barbatus means mustached. This name is justified by the long black hair, which starts from my beak and looks like a beard.
The first time I heard of that, it sounded funny. Well, I’ve heard more of that kind. At the old times, when our ancestors were living in Cyclades, Lefkada, Nafplion, Taygetus, Helmos and in the island of Rhodes, we were called “Halinarades” (Bridle-carriers), because our mustaches reminded them of bridles.
Q:Don’t you have any relatives at those places actually?
A:Unfortunately, there is only a few of my kind left in Greece. You can find some at Sterea Ellada, Macedonia and Thrace, whereas the majority of our population is located in Crete. We are not many here either, just thirty individuals.
Keep in mind that the population of Crete is the only viable population in Greece and the Balkans, but it is also the greatest island population in the whole of Europe and the world.
Q:How are things outside of Greece?
A:There are relatives of mine located at the mountain chain of the Pyrenean (Spain-France 77 couples), at the island of Corsica (10 couples) and in the Balkans (2-3 couples). Some of us, with human help, moved to the Alps during the last few years (about 80 individuals).
Q:Though it hasn’t always been like that…
A:No. Until the beginning of the 20th century, we were living in almost every rocky mountain, not only those that belong to the mainland but also the islands.
A:What happened… this is a sad story… they started going after us at some point. They said we destroyed their flocks; that we took away their children from inside their cradles.
They were afraid of us.
They made poisonous baits and we, being unaware of the dangers, used to eat them.
The animals that die from natural reasons out there, our natural food source, are hard to find anymore.
We used to go after small mammals as well, which also disappear.
There is not much food for us now. When humans see us, they often shoot without a second thought.
I never really understood what happened, where it all started from and why…
Q:So there was no reason for humans to be afraid of you?
A:What reason? Here in Crete they call us “Kokkalades”. Do you know what that means? We feed from bones.
Up to a 70 to 90% of our diet comes from bones of dead animals.
What danger are we talking about? Let alone that we have been cleaning the mountains from all these bones and cadavers. All the animals that look strong scare humans, it’s as simple as that. You want to be the conqueror of nature.
Q:Bones? Why do you feed yourself with bones?
A:Look, our stomach secretes very strong gastric fluids, which are able to dissipate bones. There are many nutritious ingredients in a bone, which are also easy to store. Let alone that there is not much of a competition for this kind of food. Are you aware of many who can eat bones, especially between the large animals?
Q:To be honest, no. And how do you break them up in order to eat them?
A:There is a special technique for that. Initially, since it is not possible for us to tear up the corpses of animals by ourselves, we need the help of other big vultures. Nowadays, because all other vultures are extinct too, we have a problem. Anyway, if we assume that we manage to get to a body, we swallow the smallest bones entirely. The bigger ones, well, we break them by throwing them to the ground with a special, unique technique. We knock them over from a great height and let them fall onto rocky, harsh cliffs, following them to the ground through a spiral descent, a process which we keep repeating, until they break up into small pieces and then we eat them, starting from the marrow which is the tastier and most nutritious part.
Q:Do you often meet with other individuals of your species remaining in Crete?
A:No, just scarcely. I would say that I am a lonely bird. I live with my mate and I don’t like it when the rest of the barbatus invade my territory, especially when they are adult individuals. My territory covers something like 350 square kilometers and in times of need I stand up for it vigorously against possible invaders.
When I was young I used to travel long distances, but I’ve always been feeling homesick and was coming back to the locations I was born at. Now that I’m older I’ve become a humming bird. I wouldn’t let my mountains, not even to travel to the nearest one. So I don’t meet with other eagles often.
A:Yes, I am a highlander. I usually like to fly at an altitude of 1500-4000 meters. I like reserves above woodlands, in rocky areas with harsh banks, steep cliffs and alpic-like meadows.
During winter, because of the snow, sometimes I move to semi-mountainous areas (500-800 meters). From mid December to the end of January I nest inside small caves at abrupt rocks or in deep gorges with high pitch slopes.
I guess I just love to fly high; to gaze at the ground, to keep an eye on the area and the creatures that move on it. You know, this is an exceptional sense of freedom, an exquisite moment of happiness among all those dangers and threats.
Q:Are you worried?
A:Yes, since I have a family. I have built three big nests and in one of them are two eggs, which are now under incubation. I won’t let you know in which one. This is why I have all three of them, so no one knows where my eggs are. From the time they are born till the time they are hatched it takes up to 55-75 days. I know that from my two chicks only one is going to survive. This is the way it has to be done; this is the law of my species. The one which will survive will remain in the nest for about four months and the first time it will open its wings will be by the peak of the summer. I am extremely looking forward to this moment.
Seeing your child flying for the first time… it will be magic. It will approximately need six years to become sexually mature. During that period I will be seeing much of it, but from then on… it will have its own personal life. Anyway, it’s too early to think about that now…
Q:Is there any action towards all that?
A:Thankfully the last few years, with the help of the Museum of Natural History of Crete and the Greek Ornithological Society, there was an attempt which has helped us and I hope they keep it up. However, this is not enough.
The common Cretan has to realize our worth and we have been living for centuries on those mountains. We have flown above each rock of the Cretan Mountains, we have laired in the top of each hill; we lived and died here. We are more Cretans than the Cretans themselves. Large-bodied, proud like you, black bearded like you. We fit in, in terms of character and we should live in harmony with each other.
Q:How do you feel that you are one of the most rare and large raptors of Europe?
Our discussion was over. He opened his wings wide and lifted off from the ground. He had to go back to his nest. I started to shiver while looking at his huge figure flying higher and higher, till his shadow almost covered the sun, and then he was gone…
I was writing this interview during the days of the great cold. I was thinking about him. I imagined him having moved uphill, awaiting the birth of his chick, anxious about finding food to feed it.
Flying over the Cretan skies, an imposing, primitive figure, a symbol of a disappearing Crete …
from STIGMES Magazine by Lefteris Giannakoudakis