Last month a bearded vulture was born for the first time in Spain of parents bred in captivity and reintroduced into the wild. The bearded vulture is the only bird in the world that feeds almost exclusively on bones. Like the Iberian lynx, it is one of the emblematic animals of the Iberian Peninsula and it is endangered, so it is subject to various conservation and reintroduction programs. In this article, we encourage you to find out more about the bearded vulture and the spanish conservation projects.
The bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is a diurnal bird of prey popularly included in what is called vultures, scavenger and ghoul birds (they feed on dead animals). However, the bearded vulture is quite different from other vultures:
- It is so highly specialized that 85% of their diet are bones (osteophague) of dead mammals such as wild ungulates (chamois) and domestic cattle (goats, sheep). It can swallow bones up to 25 cm, and if they are too large catches them, rises them to 20-40 m and crashes bones against the rocks into smaller pieces that can swallow. It also uses the same technique to break tortoise shells.
- It is very large, with a wingspan up to 2.8 meters and a weitgh up to 7 kg.
- In general it isn’t noisy: it just whistles if it is excited or during the mating season.
- It hasn’t the typical plucked vulture head. Vultures have a few or no feathers on their heads to maintain an optimum hygiene after putting their head in dead animals. Due to its peculiar diet, the bearded vulture has more feathers on head and neck, with its characteristic “beard” below the peak.
- The plumage is the same for both sexes but changes with age. The typical reddish and yellowish adults plumage is due to their habit of bathing in mud rich in iron oxides, otherwise they will had a white breast.
In this video (5 minutes, catalan) you can see bearded vultures in flight, breaking bones, engulfing them, raising a chick in the nest and bathing in mud.
Bearded vultures nests on ledges and natural rock caves in the mountainous and rugged areas where they live. They have stable partner for life from age 7 and the reproductive cycle has different stages:
- Pre-laying (September to November): nest building (covering it with branches, wool, feathers, bones …), defense of territory and sexual activity.
- Incubation (December-February): they lay one or two eggs with a time difference of 6 days. Both sexes participate in the incubation for 53 days.
- Nurturing (March-August): the largest chick kills his brother (fraticidal violence) to ensure survival. Parents provide food and when the chick leaves the nest (June-July), learn from them to find and prepare food until their emancipation.
- Emancipation (January): displacement (thousands of kilometers) and dating back to the land where it was born to breed (philopatric instinct).
Subspecies Gypaetus barbatus meridonalis is distributed by the South and East Africa, while Gypaetus barbatus barbatus by North Africa and parts of Eurasia (see map).
In the Iberian Peninsula is found naturally only in the Pyrenees (Catalonia, Aragon and Navarra). Spain is the European country with more breeding couples registered (about 130, 2014 data).
Bearded vulture populations are declining. It is ranked globally as“near threatened” in the IUCN Red List and “endangered” in the Spanish Catalogue of Endangered Species. Current threats they face are:
- Death by poisoning (illegal baits, poisoned animal consumption, consumption of remains of lead hunting ammunition –plumbism–).
- Death by electrocution or collisions with power lines and wind turbines of wind farms.
- Habitat loss and decreasing of reproductive efficiency because of the humanization of the medium (urbanisation, adventure sports …)
- Reduction of food (cattle in stables, obligation to bury the corpses …)
CONSERVATION IN SPAIN
Due to the limited distribution of populations, their low number and difficulty to colonize new territories, in 2014 thirteen autonomous communities signed a protocol for the recovery of vultures in Spain. The most prominent action of this protocol is to strengthen the National Strategy for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture in Spain (started in 2000) and the Programme Captive Breeding (2001), with actions such as the revaluation of rural areas, supplementary feeding and support for traditional farming practices. This strategy also involves the reintroduction in historic areas where the bearded vulture has been extinguished:
- Reintroduction in Picos de Europa: after 70 years extinct, in 2006 two individuals were reintroduced in the National Park, managed by the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture, which currently continues to develop projects for the recovery of vultures in Aragón.
- Reintroduction in the National Park of Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas: in this area of Jaen no breeding was registered since the 80s of last century. The Gypaetus Foundation manages the Captive Breeding Center of Cazorla and the Life Project 04NAT/ES/000056 for the reintroduction of bearded vultures in Andalucia by hacking techniques.
WHAT IS HACKING?
Hacking or rural upbringing is a technique that involves the release of captive-bred animals in an area that the bird assimilates as its birthplace. If successful, the bearded vulture returns to settle and breed. This technique did not has a conservationist origin, since it was developed by falconers in the Medieval Age. Falconry (hunting with birds of prey) are also currently used for wildlife control at airports or cities.
In falconry hacking consists in lefting in an elevated cage chicks that can feed by themselves. Falconer feeds them without being seen. After a few days they open the cage, using it as a basis for learning to fly. They are still feeding them until they learn to hunt by themselves and leave the cage. The young ones connect the cage as its birthplace so it will always return.
The center managed by the Gypaetus Foundation is based on the natural breeding, with minimal human intervention. Parents raise and feed their young from the second week of hatching. To monitor the nests a video surveillance system is used.
Since 2006, 31 bearded vultures have been released from captive breeding and each one is tracked by GPS transmitters. Currently 15 individuals are still sending signals (9 were killed and 7 stopped working). As said in the introduction, the good news is that last month was born the first chick result of released individuals (Tono and Blimunda) by hacking technique.
For more information, check out this documentary (in spanish) about the bearded vulture and its conservation (El bosque protector. Fauna amenazada, El Quebrantahuesos, 29 minutes).
- Fundación Gypaetus
- Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos
- Grup d’Estudi i Protecció del trencalòs
- Enciclopedia virtual de los vertebrados españoles (MNCN)
- Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente
- La cetrería y conservación de rapaces
- Cover image by jayhem