This is one of the most impressive and rare birds of the Falconidae family who comes to breed in Cyprus in late autumn (in contrast to all other birds that breed in spring).
The male and female are alike in this falcon, but there are two phases: a dark and a light one. In the dark phase it is a dark slate-grey bird appearing black when it flies. In the pale phase, the upper parts are slate, the chin and throat are white with a black patch below the eye. The breast is slightly streaked with black, the lower breast and abdomen rufous, heavily streaked with slateblack. The legs are olive green and the eyes are dark black, hence it Greek name: "mavromatis" (black-eyed).
Eleonora's Falcon is a species which is especially fond of islands and is less often encountered on the mainland. In Cyprus it comes in April and stays until November. Its migrations are uncertain. It is found along the southern coast of Cyprus, in Akrotiri, Episkopi and Cape Gata. Clefts and holes in inaccessible cliffs are its choice for a nest, a number of pairs breeding in the same cliffs. The clutch is of two to three eggs, incubation lasting twenty-eight days and the fledging period about thirty-five days. The reason they breed in September in the Akrotiri region is that at that time of the year large numbers of migratory birds pass over Akrotiri and being exhausted after the long journey they are an easy prey to catch.
The way Eleonora's Falcons hunt is quite impressive: as a rule three falcons fly over the sea at a short distance from the coast, gliding at three different heights: one is hovering over the waves, a second one high up and above the coast cliffs and a third one somewhere in between leaving little chance for their prey to escape. They plummet down or shoot up catching the birds in the air. Their flight is fast and powerful, allowing them to quickly change direction.
During the Middle Ages, Eleonora's Falcons were coveted possessions, greatly sought after to be trained and used for hunting. The bird was named after Eleonora, the wife of Peter 1, the Lusignan King who reined in Cyprus from 1359 to 1369. Among the retinue of the sovereign, the falconer, who was in charge of the falconry, was held in high esteem. Medieval vessels bear witness of this custom depicting young men engaged in the sport of falconry. Among the exterior sculptures of Ayia Sophia Cathedral in Nicosia, there is the figure of a prince holding a falcon on his left hand and the hood, which was used to cover its head, in his right hand.
Over the centuries, the importance of falconry did not decline. From Seigneur de Villamont of Brittany, who visited Cyprus in 1589, we learn that it was the practice for the Turkish Pasha of Cyprus, on behalf of the Sultan and under death penalty, to take charge of all falcons caught by the peasantry on the cliffs of Cape Gata near Limasol. The villagers lured the hawks by means of pigeon decoys and captured them in net entanglements. In return for three services, the peasants lived rent and tax free. This interesting piece of information is confirmed years later by Archimandrite Kyprianos in the Chronological History of the Island of Cyprus published in 1788.
In the Cypriot folk poetry the beautiful eyes of a maiden are often compared to the black, piercing eyes of the falcon:
"po' oulla pou' sei pavw tns t' ammadkia tns m' aresav
giat' evi gerakoplouma tz' exouv agapnv mesa"
(Of all the things about her. I like her eyes best for they are black like the falcon and full of love)
"Gia mavr' ammadkia kavkoumai tzai vnstikos mnviskw
ma gia ta gerakoplouma ppeftw tzai pathaviskw"
(For black eyes I am prepared to burn and starve but for the falcon adorned eyes I can die).