Keep them circling: a hymn to vulture beauty
Big, bald and ugly, consumers of rotting flesh and bone, it’s not surprising that vultures have long been misunderstood creatures. Persecution and poisoning have pretty much wiped them out across most of Europe and elsewhere. But the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) and its partners are doing everything possible to make sure they keep circling high above us.
Vultures cast a dark shadow while flying in seemingly never-ending circles. Even if you don’t know much about birds, you probably know it’s a vulture. There are four species in Europe, Griffon, Bearded, Cinereous and Egyptian Vultures. The Egyptian is a globally threatened species, while Bearded and Cinereous Vultures are Near Threatened. Even though they may come across as creepy birds, they do an important and dirty job for us. They eat dead animals which helps stop the spread of some terrible diseases like rabies, which kills thousands of people in some parts of the world each year.
Over the last decades, the Vulture Conservation Foundation has been helping bring these threatened European vultures back to their historical distribution. Probably the most exciting part of their work has been reintroduction efforts where birds raised in captivity are released in strategic locations. Bearded Vulture reintroduction has been especially important because it’s the rarest vulture species in Europe (regionally Vulnerable in Europe according to the European Red List of Birds). It can live up to 40 years and were once found across Europe’s southern mountain ranges, from western Spain to the Balkans, but in many of these places they were exterminated. In the Spanish mountains for example, Alpine people were once so afraid that it killed lambs and small children that a price was put on its head and there was a massacre. The last known naturally occurring Bearded Vulture was shot in the Alps in 1913.
Spanish people called this species the 'bonebreaker' (Quebrantahuesos) because it doesn't tend to eat meat. Instead, almost their entire diet is made up of bleached carcass bones. Yes, that’s right, bones. Like all vultures, the Bearded Vulture has a remarkable digestive system with gastric acids that are so corrosive they are able to digest rotting meat as well as bones. It can swallow and digest bones the size of a sheep’s vertebrae. And just to show off how smart they are for a bird, if the bones are too large, they fly and then drop them onto rocks below so that they shatter into smaller more manageable pieces. Another odd thing is that while they have black facial markings and black wings, the rest of the head, neck and body are a rich rusty orange. But this color isn’t natural, the feathers are white. For some mysterious reason they rub themselves with ferric oxides, and so give their feathers a different color.
In 1986, VCF released the first Bearded Vulture in Hohe Tauern National Park in Austria, and then began releases in France, Italy and Switzerland. In 1997, the first breeding pair raised a chick in the wild, and since then over 125 wild born vultures have fledged from parents that were raised in captivity. Because these vultures have responded so well, recent efforts have focused on bringing the species back to Spain in Andalucia. Just this year, they’ve released about a dozen Bearded Vultures: in Cazorla/Andalucia, the Grands Causses, the Austrian Alps and the Swiss Alps, and the latest four in the Italian Alps and Andalucia.
Because of the efforts of VCF, it's partners and volunteers, more than 140 vultures soar again in the Alpine skies. Today, the total European population is about 580 to 790 breeding pairs; in the Pyrenees, Corsica, Crete, the Alps, Turkey and the Caucasus. But probably the greatest reward for the people that worked so hard to bring back this species back to Andalucía, and other places in Europe where it had vanished, is seeing released Bearded Vulture taking care of their first baby chicks in the wild.
Find out more about what’s going on in the vulture world here
This article appears in our July 2015 newsletter. Sign up here to read more stories like this.