Some weeks ago, Quercus, a Portuguese NGO, set up a trap to catch adult and young vultures in the vulture feeding station at the Tejo International Nature Park, as part of their scientific work. The aim was to identify, ring and extract biological samples to study the birds’ condition. Among a flock of Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus), they were far from guessing that a Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) would also fall into the trap… And what a Cinereous Vulture it was! Today, we bring you an extraordinary story about vultures, zeal and great determination.
40 years after extinction, Cinereous Vultures recolonised Portugal in 2010
At the beginning of the 20th century, Cinereous Vultures were a common sight across the Iberian Peninsula. However, in the 1970s, direct persecution, habitat degradation and poisoning events plummeted the population and led to the extinction of Cinereous Vultures as a breeding species in Portugal. A decade later, understanding the dire situation the species was facing, conservation measures started being implemented in Spain, helping the population to slowly recover.
As the population grew in Spain, some individuals started venturing into Portugal. Finally, in 2010, the first two breeding attempts were recorded at the Tejo Internacional Nature Park, a cross-border protected area and a haven for several raptor species. Two pairs settled in for the first time in 40 years! Both pairs successfully hatched one chick each; however, as their nest-building skills were still rudimental, the two nests collapsed when the chicks were still too young to fly.
How “zeal and great determination” can change the course of a species
Carlos Pacheco, a conservation biologist who has been helping us ring Cinereous Vulture chicks in the nest in Portugal within the LIFE Aegypius Return Project, told us all about the two chicks that were born in 2010. Back then, he was on the team that was following the chicks’ development, and he was the one who sounded the alarm: one of the chicks had fallen from the nest!
Despite the best efforts, searches to find the chick on the ground were unsuccessful and it was thought that it was probably already dead. But Carlos did not lose hope. With zeal and a great determination, he returned one week later…and found the chick!
Tejo, the Cinereous Vulture chick that survived one week on the ground
Once a chick falls from the nest, its fate is often doomed: parents cannot bring the chick up, and the chick cannot withstand it alone. Carlos needed help to place Tejo (the name chosen for this survivor vulture) up in the nest as fast as possible – luckily, its parents were able to feed the chick on the ground during one week, as the area was open enough, but Tejo was exposed to predators.
Carlos reached out to Paulo Monteiro (currently also working in the LIFE Aegypius Return project, at SPEA) and Armando Carvalho (by then the regional director of the Protected Areas Department at the Institute for Nature Conservation, ICNB), and gathered a group of about 10 people from various collaborating institutions, including Herdade da Cubeira, ICNB, Quercus/CERAS. Altogether, they rolled up their sleeves and built an artificial nesting platform, very basic but safe enough to hold the birds’ weight. After ringing the chick, they placed it on the platform… and the parents immediately started feeding Tejo again!
The team that rescued Cinereous Vulture Tejo and help building a new nesting platform, at Tejo International Nature Park, 2010 © Paulo Monteiro
Aravil, the second chick who also fell from the nest in 2010
On the day Carlos and the team returned Tejo to the new nesting platform, they found the chick of the second pair – it was also on the ground. The chick was in very bad shape and was taken to the rehabilitation centre CERAS, run by Quercus. Under the team’s attentive care, led by Samuel Infante, the chick – named Aravil after the local river – regained its fitness and was ready to be returned. It was ringed with metal and PVC rings and was fitted a VHF transmitter, thanks to the support of GREFA.
Carlos and the team tore down the collapsed nest and built a new one again. They were, however, advised not to put the chick back, as its parents would probably reject it after so long away from the nest. But the team was stubborn: they placed the chick back, and for a long week, they visited the nest daily (with a ladder) to feed the chick. Its parents, suspicious about the happening, were always seen in the chick’s surroundings. Finally, one week later, they started feeding it again. Aravil eventually fledged and was followed for some time, while the VHS transmitter was active. Another happy ending!
Cinereous Vulture Aravil being tagged and placed back in the new nesting platform in 2010, after rehabilitation at CERAS wildlife rescue center managed by Quercus – PNTI © Samuel Infante
Aravil was recaptured this year in Tejo Internacional Nature Park
Thirteen years later, this very same Cinereous Vulture was caught in Tejo International, in December this year. Thanks to the ornithological ring, the Quercus team could identify the bird. With the support of the LIFE Aegypius Return, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and ENDESA, Aravil was now fitted with a GPS transmitter. We will now be able to follow his movements!
Capturing an adult Cinereous Vulture is always memorable, but this particular encounter was unique. It means that the chick survived thanks to the intervention of the stubborn team, and that he probably makes up one of the 44-46 pairs currently breeding in Tejo International Nature Park!
What would have happened to the species in Portugal without these interventions?
Cinereous Vultures are philopatric, like many other raptor species, meaning they tend to return to where they’ve fledged once they reach sexual maturity. If it were not for the “zeal and determination” of the team back then, the 2010 breeding season would have been unsuccessful and probably delayed the return of the species to Portugal.
There are currently 78-81 Cinereous Vulture pairs breeding in Portugal, which has doubled since the last known data from 2022. Thanks to the collective monitoring efforts of all LIFE Aegypius Return partners and collaborators, we now know the population is growing in all four Portuguese colonies.
The project LIFE Aegypius Return has tried to capture adult Cinereous Vultures in Douro and Malcata but were unsuccessful. A trap will also be set in Alentejo, and Samuel Infante from Quercus / CERAS will also keep trapping and tagging adult birds,
“it is essential we continue tagging adult birds with transmitters. This year, for instance, we had a poisoning case close the colony, where Cinereous Vultures forage”.Samuel Infante, Quercus – CERAS
Tagging and monitoring adult birds can help us identify these incidents much faster and act effectively to prevent mortality.
Follow the work for Cinereous Vulture within the LIFE Aegypius Return project page!
The LIFE Aegypius Return project aims to consolidate and accelerate the return of the Cinereous Vulture in Portugal and western Spain by improving habitat and food availability and minimising the main threats. The project team will implement specific conservation actions in ten Natura 2000 areas along almost the entire border between Portugal and Spain. It is a 3.7 million project, co-financed by the European Union’s LIFE Programme, whose success relies on the involvement of all relevant stakeholders and the extensive collaboration of the leading project partner, the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF), with all local partners: Palombar – Conservação da Natureza e do Património Rural, Herdade da Contenda, Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA), Liga para a Protecção da Natureza (LPN), Associação Transumância e Natureza (ATN), Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre (FNHY), Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR) and Associação Nacional de Proprietários Rurais Gestão Cinegética e Biodiversidade (APNC).