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.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Katie Stacey Pho­to­graphs David Pat­tyn

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.

Mov­ing out

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.

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