Animals that come and go at Casa Lauretana

| Barbara Kollmann |

Short-toed eagles, scops owls, hoopoes, porcupines, badgers and many more…

The Short-toed Snake-eagle (lat. circaetus gallicus)

A younger snake-eagle

Species and food

Actually, short-toed eagles are migratory birds with wintering grounds in Africa – here with us, however, our entire family of the short-toed eagles can be seen all year round!

They belong to the genus of hawks, despite their size they are very good flyers and they have excellent developed eyes.

At noon we can see the short-toed Snake-eagle hovering on the wind, above the Casa Lauretana, taking advantage of the so called „thermals“ ( columns of warmer winds ) to perform wing-beats without expending much energy. It rises up, glides down over and over stepping across the land. Once the prey is located, it flies down onto the snake with a short hover. 

In summer, their food consists of snakes of variable sizes (but up to 1,50 to 1,80 metre of length) and lizards, as in the cooler seasons, Snake-eagles also hunt for small birds and small mammals. Sometimes the snake eagle is on foot, then it is content with frogs, worms or snails.

Appearance

The ventral and thoracic areas (males and females) are of a light uniform coloration, while the white underside of the snake eagle has irregular banding. Its tail feathers are darker. The thick round dark brown head and dark neck are particularly striking. 

Other features include its yellow eyes and the powerful bill and legs common to all eagles. Because of their appearance, Snake eagles are often confused with buzzards, although buzzards are much smaller.

This is a buzzard

Biometrics

These eagles measures about 60-70 cm and it has a wingspan of 160-180 cm. As a rule, the female is larger and heavier than the male. Young birds can be recognized in flight by the fact that their underpart is lighter and much less cross-banded than can be seen at adults. Also their head is lighter.

Weight: Short-toed male eagles usually weigh between 1100 g and 2000 g, the female reaches 2300 g.

Habitat

This predator likes sunny mountain ranges, cultivated landscapes, and semi-deserts. It nests in coniferous and deciduous wooled areas. When hunting, it is seen in plains or mountains, in areas with stony surfaces, pastures and scrubs.

Courtship

The courtship of local Snake-eagles begins in January already and it can last until March. You can recognize this period as the raptors communicate by short whistles, they sound like a “jiii” or a „kio“. Also in in courtship male Snake-eagles like to deliver bridal gifts to the female.

Breeding behavior and rearing of the young bird

Still in winter, our the short-toed eagles living here in Umbria start building their nest together (with brushwood and twigs). The nest, after the female has laid a single large white egg, is constantly “renovated” and decorated with green leaves and brushwood during the 6 week breeding season. During the first weeks the female incubates the egg, later the male also helps out. While nesting (75 days), the chick is fed by the female eagle, later also by the male. Even after the young bird has left the nest, it is still fed by the parents for quite a while. It is able kill its first snake himself at the age of 2 weeks.

Enemies

Unfortunately man is the greatest enemy of the short-toed Snake-eagle. Other enemies are the peregrine falcon, the eagle owl and some more eagle species. But also corvids are to be mentioned. We actually sometimes can observe real fights between ravens and Snake-eagles, as ravens often breed in the territory of the short-toed eagle.


The Scops Owl (lat. (lat. Otus scops)

A Scops owl

Genus and appearance

These owls are very small, they have feathery ears that appear long in relation to the rest of the body. Scops owls can put their ears all the way back, in which case the head appears round.

Their plumage is dark-coloured, rusty brown to light grey, making the owl optimally camouflaged and almost impossible to spot. The iris of the eyes is lemon yellow.

Some Scops Owls fly as far as Africa in winter, others also hibernate in warmer countries such as Italy, Greece, etc.

When afraid, this owl becomes very slim, with ear-tufts erected straight.

Unfortunately the Scops Owl is threatened with extinction.

Food

This owl prefers insects such as crickets, night butterflies, cicadas, grasshoppers and beetles, but also earthworms, spiders and isopods. Frogs, small mammals and small birds are rarely on the menu. 

Size and weight

A Scops Owl usually grows to about 20 cm long and weighs around 75-95 grams (females are heavier than males), its wingspan measures about 53-63 mm.

Sound

Around Casa Lauretana, the metronome-monotonous characteristic territorial song can be heard for several months, it sounds like a strong “Tiu”. Males sometimes sing all night. During courtship, the male and female duet seems a two syllable song of higher and lower pitched notes – a lovely evening concert!

Habitat

These owls like to stay in warm and dry areas, preferring open country or semi-open landscapes with trees, but they can be found as well in rocky landscapes, parks, avenues of trees along roads, gardens with mature trees or in mountainous regions. They do not occur in dense forests. 

This raptor usually starts hunting shortly after sunset, except for a 1-2 hour interruption it lasts the whole night.

The Eurasian Scops Owl is a nocturnal bird, most active from after sunset to midnight. By day it roosts in trees, normally close to the trunk, or in dense foliage, cavities in mature trees or rocks, holes in walls and similar places.

Occurrence

This owl species is widespread in the Mediterranean countries, Northwest Africa, Southeast Europe, Central Asia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan as well as in Romania, Hungary, Austria and Switzerland.

Breeding behaviour

Through the breeding season Scops Owls are monogamous with pair bonds, but for the rest of the year, they are otherwise solitary.

The female owl lays about 3-5 eggs from mid-May to mid-June, preferably in cavities of deciduous trees, but if necessary also in nest boxes or in empty bird nests. While the female incubates the eggs – which takes 24 days on average – the male owl provides it with food. When the young owls have hatched, the mama owl stays in the cave for the first two weeks and only then goes hunting again too. The parents take care of the young for about 60 days.


The Hoopoe (lat. Upupidae)

A hungry Hoopoe

Appearance

Because of its its punk-like crown (which it only raises when landing) and its colourful appearance the Hoopoe is a real eye-catcher.

Being still relatively widespread in Umbria, this bird is considered an individualist. It has a dark, 6 cm long bill, its head and neck are coloured orange-brown, and its parietal feathers are also orange-brown, but their tips are black. The back of this colourful bird as well as its broad wings are fanned in black and white, and its tail feathers are black.

With a size of about 28 cm, it is insignificantly larger than the great spotted woodpecker.

Food

Larger insects such as crickets, grubs, beetles and grasshoppers are at the top of its menu. But it also picks spiders, lizards, woodlice and small frogs out of the ground with its long beak. It always wags its head when doing so.

Behaviour

It is considered a ground-breeder and uses, among other places, cairns, low cavities in trees, woodpecker cavities, niches, crevices in walls and nesting boxes. It does not make a big fuss about its nest, sometimes it even contents itself with a simple small hollow in which the eggs are laid.

The perfect nest for the little ones

Habitat

The Upupa loves open, warm landscapes, including vineyards and olive plantations – so Casa Lauretana is just fine.

Migration

In late summer, the Hoopoe migrates to Africa not sparing any long distance. It usually flies alone, and often at night. 

At the beginning of March it returns to Italy.

Voice

The male’s mating call is a three-syllable “upupup”.

A curiosity

Parrano is an Italian village  in the province of Terni in southern Umbria, it has less than 500 inhabitants, a small (inaccessible) castle and a little spa just outside town.

The term Parranum, with the variants Poranum and Paranum, is of Roman origin and means „Hoopoe”.

If you travel to this small village, perhaps on the way to Orvieto, you will see some Hoopoes on the way when getting closer.

Unfortunately, the Hoopoe is threatened with extinction in Italy.


The porcupine (lat. Hystricidae)

A peaceful porcupine

Genus

The porcupine belongs to the rodent family.

Appearance (size and weight)

Porcupines weigh up to 27 kg, their coat is very dense and with a head-torso length of about one metre they certainly can make an impression. Especially when they erect their black and white spines, or quills, on their back and tail. They usually do not have spines on their head and front part of the back.

The approximately 25,000 rigid and semi-rigid quills are up to 40 cm long and consist of keratin (like human hair and fingernails). A distinction is made between 2 types of quills:

The so-called rattle quills are hollow inside. The porcupine uses them in emergency situations to produce a rattling sound to chase away potential predators. The non-hollow bristle quills, which are not very tight and can easily be thrown off by shaking, are used for defence. It cannot launch these quills at range though. Lost squills get soon replaced by the growth of new ones.

If the threatening posture with the erect spines does not work, porcupines start stamping on the ground with their hind feet. If this also does not help to dislodge the potential predator, it starts the attack by running backwards very fast and then ramming the spines into the attacker’s body with force. Porcupines defend themselves in a group, all together.

This porcupine has spines on its head and entire back

Food

European porcupines forage on the ground and eat mainly roots, tubers, but also fallen fruit, tree bark, crops and animal carcasses.

Occurence

In Europe porcupines can be found only in Central and Southern Italy.  Furthermore you see them in South-West Asia, Africa, North and South America.

Enemies

Here in Europe, their only enemies are foxes. In Asia and Africa they are also hunted by lions, leopards and hyenas. 

Habitat

Regarding the territories porcupines prefer forests and deserts, rocky outcrops, and hillsides. 

They live on the ground (only a rare species in Asia can climb trees), in groups (sometimes up to 13 animals) and they mark their territory with the help of scent glands.

Porcupines are generally nocturnal and start going in search of food at dusk. Then they can be heard sniffing, grunting and smacking, as they have nobody to fear. 

During the day, they sleep in dry burrows they have usually dug themselves, in abandoned caves or rock crevices.

This non-European porcupine can climb into trees

Breeding behaviour and raising the young

Porcupine pairs remain faithful to each other throughout their lives. The gestation period is about 100 days. Normally the female porcupine gives birth to 1-2 babies. Newborn porcupines weigh about 350 g, they have teeth already, their eyes are open, and the short, still very tender spines develop only after a few months. For the first two months, the young still drink their mother’s milk, after that for about six months the parents provide food for them before they get independent.

Life expectancy

Porcupines have a high longevity and can reach the age of 15 years.


The badger (lat. meles)

Badgers belong to the marten family and are therefore predators. As there are many different types of badger, such as the honey badger, the sun badger, the pig badger, the giant badger or the American badger, the following description refers to the European badger living here in Italy.

The European badger

Appearance

Its distinguishing feature is the large black and white stripes on its wedge-shaped head, its snout is long, almost proboscis-shaped and it is white on the chin and above the lips. His ears are also edged in white. His broad body is grey in colour, with a dark wide stripe on his back. Its black legs are short, strong and stubby. 

Its body length measures about 60-90 cm, its tail is 11-18 cm short and its shoulder height of about 30 cm is similar to that of a fox, even though the badger’s waddling, clumsy gait reminds you of a small bear.

Its weigh measures between 10 and 20 kg and it can reach a running speed of 30 km/h despite its stocky, compact body.

Diet

Badgers are omnivores who prefer earthworms, but they also eat snails and insects, moles, squirrels and snakes, seeds, grains, corn on the cob, fruits and berries. On they menu you can also find roots, acorns and nuts, mice and young birds, even hedgehogs. Badgers also dine on ground-nesting birds and – thanks to their thick fur – they even break open wasps’ nests to get at honey and larvae.

Features

The badger is a nocturnal and very shy animal that, although it does not like water, is a very good swimmer.

Its sense of hearing is not very developed, it also sees very poorly and does not recognise colours at all. But its sense of smell is the best.

When danger threatens, badgers start quacking loudly, otherwise all you hear when they are on the move is a growl or hiss, some whine or sigh.

Its downward curved claws are impressive, they are twice as long on the front paws as on the hind paws. With these and with the help of its long snout, the badger is excellent at sniffing under the ground and digging tunnels.

The badger´s burrow

Before badgers start digging a burrow, they thoroughly clean each other’s fur. They dig burrows up to 5 m deep into the earth, which can be recognised mainly by their “rushing grooves” at the entrance and the typical imprints, or claw grooves, made by their long claws. The burrows can be up to 100 m long and they are often inhabited by more than one generation of badgers. The badger’s burrow is usually situated on a south-facing slope so that it is warmed by the sun. Foxes, martens and badgers often share a burrow.

The badger is a very clean animal. It does not eat inside the burrow. Also the „toilets“, consisting of small holes dug for this purpose, are located outside the underground tunnel system. The badger’s den is regularly re-padded with fresh leaves, moss and grass.

Three little ones

Habitat

Badgers live as pairs or in small groups of about 6-8 adults.

The European badger is found throughout Europe, with the exception of Iceland, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily. 

Badgers prefer grassland areas, open spaces, some woods and hedges in deciduous and mixed forests. However, they can also be found in steppes, marshes or coastal areas. 

Nowadays they even live in city parks and gardens.

They do not like larger and dense wooded areas.

Hibernation

The badgers’ hibernation lasts a few days or even several months, depending on the weather. In autumn, badgers eat a layer of fat so that they can profit from these reserves during hibernation. In spring, when they set out again to mark their territory with scent marks and look for food, their fur shivers because they have lost so much weight during the winter.

Typical appearance: ears and muzzle edged in white, and the typical stripes on the head

Enemies

Badgers are know for their aggressively and ferocity when being  threatened, which is why European badgers do not have many natural enemies. These include wolves, lynxes, brown bears, eagles and owls.

Their biggest enemy are humans, they trap them for their pelts. Badger fur is used for paintbrushes and shaving brushes, and their fat is used in cosmetics.

Breeding

Mating season is during the summer, badgers mate with different mates or just with one and the same. Usually the female gives birth in February or March to 2-3, sometimes up to 5 baby cubs. At birth they are blind, only about 12-18 cm in size and they have a sparse white coat, which, however, already shows the typical black and white stripes after one week. They are suckled by their mother for about 2 months, after which they begin their first excursions out of the den. They usually stay with their mother until autumn, but have to leave the mother’s den in spring at the latest. 

Life expectancy

The average lifespan of badgers is from 4 years old to 10 years old.