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Do animals recognise their disabilities? Some evidence from bearded vulture Kirma

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The VCF coordinates the bearded vulture captive breeding network, managed specifically for conservation purposes – birds born in the 40+ zoos, animal parks and specialized captive breeding centers participating in the programme are used in the on-going bearded vulture reintroduction projects, that have already resulted in the reestablishment of the species in the Alps – where the population continues to grow – and the first breeding in the wild in Andalusia for more than 30 years.

In this effort, our staff and volunteers work very closely with bearded vultures, and often see behaviours never observed in the wild. This time we bring you were some observations that suggest that birds can recognise their disabilities.

In the past we wrote about ”Kirma”, the wild Pyrenean female that was recovered in April 2012 with a total loss of sensitivity of its left leg, large necrosis area at the left foot, and an horrific  beak injury, first reported in March 2010 through a photograph. Kirma was completely recovered thanks to the work done in Vallcalent (Catalonia, Spain), and last year she managed to breed in captivity.

Nevertheless, last year the male became often very nervous when the chick begged for food and Kirma was not able to feed, to the point that often the male started to stalk Kirma out from the nest. In the end we decided to remove Kirma and the chick was reared with success by the male alone.

This year the situation has changed completely! Firstly Kirma laid her single clutch a month earlier than last year, showing a good relationship with her male. The male has been mostly responsible for the night incubation/chick warming and the female for the day shift. The big surprise was to see that as soon the chick begs for food Kirma immediately stands up and moves to side, giving the male space for feeding the chick. As soon the male finished, she returns to the nest and continuous with her task: to warm the chick! Only when she goes to feed herself the male relieves her during this short eating period (10-20min).

This behaviour is very interesting. Birds are genetically programed to feed chicks when they hear begging.  But in the case of Kirma, she has adapted to her physical disability! She realized she cannot prepare nor give the little pieces of meat that the chocks needs for the first few weeks.

French colleagues have also reported that in the Pyrenees a one-eyed breeding female also managed to breed successfully in spite of her injury. In this case the breeding effort was done mostly by the male, in particular incubation during the day and feeding the chick.

Photos VCF

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