What’s in a name?
Once persecuted across Europe to the edge of extinction, lammergeiers have now been reborn as bearded vultures, and their fortunes have taken a turn for the better as a result.
Why going from lammergeier to bearded vulture proved a good move
If you look closely into a bearded vulture’s eyes, you’ll never forget it,” says José Tavares, director of the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF). These charismatic birds with their punk-rock hairdo, fire-red ringed eyes, and distinctive black beard are almost dragon-like in their appearance. And like dragons, these birds so nearly became creatures of myth. In the 1920s and 1930s, these majestic old-world vultures had all but disappeared from Europe. Thankfully, the only thing that has been abandoned to legend is its outdated name: lammergeier.
The name was adopted from the old German word meaning ‘lamb vulture,’ due to the belief that the bird ate live lambs. Drawings and references from the 19th and early 20th centuries depicted the bearded vulture taking lambs, which fuelled the negative perception and was one of the reasons for the disappearance of the bird. “Perhaps someone saw a bearded vulture carrying a lamb carcass and they thought it had killed it,” suggests Hans Frey, who runs the Richard Faust Bearded Vulture Breeding Centre. “But that’s not true. Bearded vultures fly to great heights with bones and then drop them to break them, which makes them easier to eat.”
As a bird of prey, the case for mistaken identity can easily be understood and, to the untrained eye, it is not so very different to the golden eagle, which does take young lambs. In order to really clarify this misconception, the VCF pushed for the species’ name to be formally changed on the IUCN Red List. “From lammergeier to bearded vulture – from a negative story of persecution and extinction, to one of the best wildlife comeback stories of our time!” José enthuses.
Growing in number
In 1978, the Bearded Vulture Reintroduction Project was set up in the Alps and, in 2019, the VCF, alongside their partners, released a record number of 22 bearded vultures across France and Spain. “We are currently involved in five reintroduction and restocking projects and, whilst all of them are going very well, it is still early days for some. But the one in the Alps and the one in Andalusia have been extraordinarily successful, in the sense that new populations have been reestablished,” explains José.
The Alps is the longest-running and oldest of the projects, with the first bearded vultures released there in 1986. Eleven years later, in 1997, the first pair bred in the wild. It takes bearded vultures approximately 10 years to start breeding, which makes sense, as they can live up to 30–40 years in the wild and over 50 years in captivity. Today, there are 57 breeding pairs in the Alps, which fledged a record number of 38 fledglings – nine more than in 2018.
Drawings depicted the bearded vulture taking lambs, which fuelled the negative perception.
In the Alps, the population has been growing exponentially, adding five new pairs (at least) each year. Because the population in the Alps has increased so much, juvenile bearded vultures have been observed reaching some unusual places, including the first recording ever in the UK.
“We are actually winding the project down in the Alps,” says José. “We have done a number of studies, which have shown that the birds we’ve released into the Alps are now insignificant and irrelevant to the population.” The number of breeding pairs in the wild is now large enough and still increasing, and so the demographics of the birds are not dependent on the birds introduced. However, the genetic variability of the population there is smaller than what they would expect in a 100 per cent natural situation, so the VCF are still releasing two to three birds a year with specifically chosen genetics.
An adult bearded vulture can survive on a diet of 80 per cent bones, thanks to its unique stomach acid.
“This is normal, because the 180 captive birds at the base of the reintroduction project came from 30–40 founding birds in the beginning of the programme, which is a relatively narrow genetic pool.”
To ensure that as diverse a population as possible can be created, all of the programme’s birds are genetically mapped. The birds are captive bred but naturally reared. Ideally, a pair of adult captive bearded vultures will raise the chick from hatching, however, in some circumstances, the chicks will be hand-reared for the first seven days.
Bearded vultures lay two eggs but only one chick survives – a phenomenon called ‘obligatory cainism’. “The first chick always kills the second chick, and so, to boost the population, we take the second egg and incubate it artificially. After six or seven days, it will then be given to an adoptive adult pair,” explains José. The programme has learnt that after 10 days a bearded vulture chick tends to imprint on humans, which means that when they are then released they will very often approach humans. Therefore, if the birds are to form wild populations on release, it is critically important that they are raised in as natural a method as possible.
The process begins in autumn, when the adult pairs come into breeding mode. The eggs are then laid around Christmas and hatch at the end of February to mid March. Bearded vultures are one of the earliest breeding birds in Europe because, though an adult bearded vulture can survive on a diet of 80 per cent bones (thanks to its unique stomach acid, which has a pH of about one), young bearded vultures in the nest need meat. Therefore, the species has evolved to time hatching with the end of the coldest temperatures, and snowiest season (the period when the most avalanches occur), so that when the snow starts to melt at the beginning of spring, animals that were killed by the avalanches are revealed, offering up plentiful meat. Consequently, the captive-bred birds are released at around the same time, approximately two weeks before fledging.
Releasing the captive-bred juveniles into their new homes is quite a logistical operation. The five bearded vulture breeding centres, and the zoos the VCF collaborate with, are spread across Europe, so the birds often have to cross country borders to get to their new homes. “We transport them by car, sometimes by plane, all within one day, to their reintroduction site,” explains José. Up the mountain, the VCF work with local partners and NGOs to get them settled into
Mistakenly believed to prey on livestock, bearded vultures are scavengers by nature – often feeding on the carcasses of animals that have fallen victim to avalanches in the Alps.
Above: the return of the bearded vulture to European skies is largely down to successful breeding and reintroduction projects.
Left: Hans Frey tends to a chick – a new addition to the gene pool. Above: a blood sample is taken to make sure chicks have a clean bill of health. Below: bearded vultures at the Richard Faust Breeding Centre. Bottom left: Hans has worked with these birds for over 30 years.
Top left: these vultures have a wingspan of up to 285cm. Right: the bird’s feathers pick up iron oxide deposits, which help it to blend into the cliffs.