Overview of Bearded Vulture conservation in 2020

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Releasing Bearded Vultures in the Swiss Alps (c) Hansruedi Weyrich

2020 was a challenging year for all of us, but our work never stopped, and we continued to protect and conserve Europe vulture species despite the extra difficulties.

In today’s blog post, we are taking a closer look into the conservation achievements of the Bearded Vulture, Europe’s rarest vulture species.

Captive-breeding

The Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network, coordinated by the Vulture Conservation Foundation on behalf of EAZA‘s EEP, faced the biggest crisis since the creation of this programme in 1978 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, thanks to the incredible efforts of different centres and zoos of the network, it was possible to implement the emergency protocols developed by the VCF and save the Bearded Vulture chicks that hatched during the 2019/20 breeding season!

There were two protocols established for different circumstances. 

  1. The first protocol requires building a box inside the nest when adoption by biological parents is not possible because the parents stopped incubating or adoption failed. This allows chicks to have direct visual contact with their parents, but no physical contact, as this can prove to be fatal – sometimes parents injure or kill their offspring if they stop breeding for one reason or the other.
  2. The second protocol entails a double adoption and occurs when there is a double-clutch. Bearded Vulture nestlings cannot be in the same nest due to an evolutionary behaviour called ‘cainism’ where the chicks fight aggressively, leading to the death of the youngest sibling. To solve this, the facilities build two nests with a wooden plank separating the chicks.

Thanks to these protocols and the diligence of partners, in 2020, 41 Bearded Vulture breeding pairs laid 71 eggs, of which 38 hatched and 25 survived, which often involved transporting chicks across closed borders, or adapting the captive-breeding operations to face the restrictions imposed by the global pandemic.

Techniques and protocols for breeding Bearded Vultures in captivity have evolved and are being used for conservation – see here for a great movie about the ins and outs of a captive breeding centre, and here for the importance of pair bonding and you can download the annual report hereEven if we do this every year, the magic of seeing a Bearded Vulture hatch is still epical. But the occurrence of a West Nile Virus outbreak raised some alarm too.

Reintroduction projects

The final release of Bearded Vultures in Andalusia for 2020 (c) Junta de Andalucía

The release season kicked-off in Andalusia and finished in Andalusia again. In total, eight were released in Andalusia, nine within the LIFE GypConnect project (two in Vercors, two in Baronnies and five French massif Central/Grands Causses), two in the Maestrazgo massif (Spain) and two in the Swiss Alps. All these birds are doing well, except for one bird in Maestrazgo, which was killed by a Golden eagle and another one named Dolomie that was illegally shot and killed in France. that was You can read the annual report of the alpine reintroduction project here.

Breeding of wild population

In the wild, pairs were also breeding well this year. This year a new record was broken in the Alps, with 58 territorial pairs in the wild fledgling a record number of 36 young. In some of the nests there are live cams, so you can watch the antics live – like this one in the Italian Alps. Incidentally, this report of the highest ever nest of Bearded Vulture ever found may be interesting. In some places where the density of nests is high, some trios appear, like this one in Écrins, France. Some wild individuals are sometimes found wounded, and are then nursed back to health and re-released, this is the story of such a case in the French Pyrenees.

Monitoring movements

Bearded Vulture “Vigo” © Ashley James

Some famous birds continue to enchant. Adonis, a Bearded Vulture that became well-known through two extended trips throughout Europe, is back in southern France, while some birds move across mountain ranges – like this one from the Grands Causses to the Pyrenees. Others wandered to unusual parts of Europe, including northern France (a wild birds from the Alps)Portugal, and the second ever in the UK, where the bird attracted national attention. While in early October the International Observation Day for the Bearded Vulture took place, which gives us a great estimate of the absolute number of Bearded Vultures in several European regions, and now the preliminary results of the 2020 census have been published.

New breeding season underway    

Second egg of M. Antoinette (female) and Joseph (male) (c) VCF

The new Bearded Vulture breeding season is now fully underway, both in the European mountains and in the VCF-coordinated captive breeding network. This time, the breeding season kicked-off very early on in captivity, with the first copulations occurring in late September, while the egg laying period started in late November. We hope for another successful breeding season both in the wild and in captivity, with a lot of chicks will hatching and fledging this year! To stay tuned with the breeding season, you can track #BeardedVultureBreedingSeason on Facebook and Twitter.

To learn more about Bearded Vulture conservation and research work in Europe and beyond, you can watch the Bearded Vulture Technical Webinar on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7-Xv_jv5zo

If you want to help vultures during this holiday season, here are three things you can do:

  1. Sign up to our newsletter to stay updated, and for offering to help vultures when such need arises
  2. Please donate to the VCF and help us continue our work protecting vultures
  3. Spread the word on social media and pledge to discuss vultures and their importance to three other people this holiday season 

Thank you for your support — we hope you are safe and healthy, and have a very happy new year!

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