Life, vultures and COVID19 – we live in a brand-new world

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“Life-threatening”, “a global challenge”, an “acute and massive threat”. We often use these same words when describing the conservation status or the threats impacting on Europe’s vultures. We never thought that we would be writing them about something that is happening to us – humans. And while we are not in imminent risk of extinction – as some of the vulture species in the world are, it is true that our species is facing possibly one of the greatest challenges and threats in our recent history – COVID19.

The COVID19, and the self-isolation that it requires, marks an unprecedented time in our modern history. It obviously has had an impact in our work and our outputs – but we have prepared and adapted, and are making the best for vultures – and for our own species.

Since the beginning of the crisis, we have started to prepare and adopt contingency plans, always focussed on the protection of the health of our staff, and of our partners.

Without any offices, and with most staff normally working from their home offices, it was relatively easy for us to adapt, and to implement the main recommendation from all the authorities. We have cancelled several meetings and workshops, to #stayhome and increase your #socialdistancing. Our work with captive-breeding of vultures though required some fine tuning – see below for some more detail.

In this difficult period for all of us, we keep working. You can count on us to bring you the latest on what is happening with vulture conservation and brighten your day – daily news bulletins can be scary!

We believe that with the help of all – and here we would like to thank the efforts of all the people working in the health sectors, but also the security forces, and all those that keep us fed, we will overcome this challenge. So that you can keep worrying only about the challenges that the vultures face.

We can save vultures! We can fight COVID19!

Please stay home, stay tuned to the VCF, and keep healthy.

The VCF team

How COVID-19 is affecting the captive Bearded Vulture breeding season and what we are doing in response

This phenomenon gravely impacts our work breeding Bearded Vultures in captivity. But we are continually monitoring the situation and taking emergency actions to adapt and ensure the best outcome for the birds and their conservation.

Our captive breeding centres

The Bearded Vultures in captivity still need to be fed and taken care of on a daily basis. The VCF coordinates the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network (EEP) and also manages two specialised breeding centres in Spain – Vallcalent Specialised Breeding Centre and Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Centre of Guadalentín. Vallcalent hosts the most challenging pairs and artificially incubates the clutches, which was something thought to be impossible a few years ago. This is because with the facilities and the expertise of Alex Llopis there, who is our Captive Breeding Manager and Bearded Vulture EEP Coordinator, vultures get a higher chance of breeding successfully. The VCF also recently assumed the management of Guadalentín, which is the most important breeding centre as it breeds the most chicks every season and specialises in fostering and adoptions. 

With the current situation, we developed contingency plans for the captive breeding facilities we manage to make sure that the essential work goes on. Furthermore, our teams took the appropriate measures to secure their safety and the health and safety of others while taking care of the chicks and other captive birds.

Bearded Vulture EEP – transports and releases

Apart from the daily tasks required at centres, as coordinators of the Bearded Vulture EEP, Alex Llopis developed emergency plans. These plans address the consequences and solutions to the transportation limitations, which will impact natural rearing and perhaps releases if this outbreak and its restrictions continue after May. 

Emergency Protocols for rearing chicks       

Travelling in different countries or areas is restricted or prohibited, which means that transfers of chicks are impossible. Some chicks need to transfer once they hatched because not all centres and zoos have the capacity for the chicks to be raised by Bearded Vultures. If birds are hand-reared, they will become imprinted to humans and will not be able to reproduce with their conspecifics and also will not be able to be released in the wild. The main purpose of these plans is to ensure that each hatchling can reproduce when it reaches sexual maturity.

1. In general, as soon a chick hatches and we are not sure if its parents could adopt the chick, immediately a GENERAL CITES should be requested without a destination. This will give us the possibility to adapt and change the destination depending on which borders are still open and the travelling possibilities.

2. If the chick cannot be transferred – for various reasons- we have different options:

a. By a single clutch (or only one chick hatched by double clutch), and adult birds didn’t accept the adoption, it will be necessary to build a BOX inside the nest for keeping the chick with visual contact with their parents (see below the protocol how to proceed; 1st protocol).

b. By a double clutch, where the first is already in the nest and the second hatch in the incubator, as soon the second chick is over 7 days old, they are exchanged daily, until the first chick is 3-4 weeks old, time for a double adoption (see below 2nd protocol).

PROTOCOL 1: Building a BOX inside the nest 

Parco Natural Viva already installed the box and are ready for the adoption following the first protocol

The box should be covered with a welded wire mesh with a hole size not bigger than 2.5cm. Adults mustn’t have the possibility to contact the chick: the mesh has to be installed in both sites. We have lost two chicks in the past, because the holes were too big and there was not a double mesh. Only the back should be closed and with a small door from which the chick can be fed without visual contact. Inside the box, a nest full with wool has to be installed (very important, it keeps the chick warm).

  • The first 7-10 days (depending on outside temperatures) you keep the chick indoor and it has to be fed without human contact.
  • Afterwards the chick has to be put in the box during the day and feed it from behind. At the beginning during the hottest hours, and as the chick grows, the hours outside get longer. With 3 weeks, if outside temperatures are not under 0, the chick can stay 24h outside. You can always cover the chick with wool to keep it warm enough.
  • The number of feedings has to be reduced as much as possible. This implies that the feedings must be bigger in quantity. Within three weeks, 2-3 feedings per day should be enough. You will need to calculate each day the food needed on a theoretical basis. As soon as the chick is outside, we should avoid weight controls as much as possible to reduce human contact. That’s why it will be very important to calculate the needed food following our growth table. During the period where the chick will spend the night indoors, you will have the opportunity to follow its growth.

PROTOCOL 2: Double adoption.

Bearded Vulture platform with two nests

Chick from the first egg is already in the nest and it is necessary to adopt the second chick with the same pair.

For that you need a second/supplementary nest (see picture above). With a big nest, you can divide it in two with a wooden trunk.

  • The first 7-10 days (depending on outside temperatures) you keep the second chick indoor and it has to be fed without human contact.
  • As soon the second chick is already 7 days old, you have to exchange the chicks daily always keeping one in the nest and the other indoor alternatively.
  • As soon the first chick is 3-4 weeks old (depending on outside temperatures), the first chick has to be moved to the supplementary nest and the 2nd chick in the main nest.
  • It’s very important to monitor that adults are feeding both chicks enough. In several cases, as soon the first chick is around 40-50 days old, you can add chopped food. At that age, they are able to start eating alone.
  • It is very important to install a wooden plank between both nests as soon as nestlings start to move (between 40-50 days old) to avoid fighting between them. Remember “cainism” lasts for the entire duration of the stay in the nest

Captive-breeding Bearded Vultures

The Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) coordinates the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network (EEP) of zoos, specialised breeding centres, recovery centres and private collections on behalf of EAZA. This involves closely working with our colleagues across Europe to ensure the best breeding results from the 178 birds within the Network. The Bearded Vulture breeding season is underway with chicks hatching. We first reported on the breeding season kicking-off in early October, the egg laying period starting in December and the first chick hatching in January!

To follow the news of the breeding season, follow #BeardedVultureBreedingSeason on Facebook and Twitter.

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