A Traveller’s Guide to Feathers, Article 90 – Bearded Vultures are Rebounding

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Large animals face big challenges in the modern world. Their need for abundant resources, often spread thinly, may require undisturbed habitat over a vast area. These requirements can put large creatures in conflict with the activities of humans. It may be much easier to conserve populations of shrews than of whales; of geckos than of crocodiles.

Even though Bearded Vultures have a comparatively wide range across Europe, Africa and Asia, breeding populations are often quite small, and with a spotty distribution. This large vulture is not considered to be endangered, but the IUCN does consider it to be near-threated, and with a declining population.

In the late 19th century, these birds were exterminated in the Alps of Europe. Almost a century later, efforts to reintroduce Bearded Vulture to the Alps proved successful. These efforts began in 1986, and thirty-seven individuals were released between 1991 and 2008. The first successful breeding was seen in 1997, and the population began to grow.

It is crucial to document the whys and wherefores of reintroduction efforts, whether successful or not, because these can help direct future efforts of a similar kind. We need to build on our successes, and avoid making the same mistakes twice. To that end, David Jenny of the Swiss Ornithological Institute and his Swiss and Italian coworkers set out to record the demographics of the reintroduced population of Bearded Vultures in the Central Alps. The study area comprised 6000 km2 of mountains and valleys, 500 and 4000 metres above sea level. The team sought vulture territories, and document breeding between 1997 and 2015. Hundreds of volunteers contributed observations made on formal surveys.

By 2015, nine breeding pairs of Bearded Vultures were known from France, along with ten pairs in Italy, twelve pairs in Switzerland, and three pairs in Austria. These breeding pairs, nesting on cliffs, had a clumped distribution that seemed to radiate outward from the original release sites. Even though young vultures, born in the wild, may travel very long distances on exploratory trips, they tend to return to the region of their birth when they are old enough to breed. Many new pairs establish territories further and further from the original release sites, and so the increase in population number also means an increase in the species’ range in the Alps.

Although emigration from the study site to distant sites appears to be low, and the population may face inbreeding problems in the future, reintroduction of the Bearded Vulture in Alps must surely be considered a success worthy of celebration. So many vultures occupied the Alps by 2008 that authorities were able to stop introducing new birds from captivity. Jenny et al. wrote: “Overall, the nucleus in the Central Alps contributes substantially to the resettled and growing Alpine population of the Bearded Vulture.” Well done.

Jenny, D., M. Kéry, P. Trotti and E. Bassi. 2018. Philopatry in a reintroduced population of Bearded Vultures Gypaetus barbatus in the Alps. Journal of Ornithology 159:507-515.

Photo credits: Bearded Vultures, photograph and stamp – www.pinterest.com