Saturday, July 27, 2019

Vulture Culture

“The Vulture. Of all the creatures in the jungle, he has it the easiest. The hard work of others becomes his work; their failure to survive becomes his nourishment. Keep an eye on the Vulture - while you are hard at work, he is circling above. Do not fight him, join him.” 
Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
I am blessed to live in an area of Europe where we have among the highest densities of vulture populations on the continent. Not only the continent of Europe, but also within the Iberian Peninsula which holds the main breeding populations for Griffon, Black and Egyptian Vulture, whilst it also has a healthy and increasing number of Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) Gypaetus barbatus and the presence of Rüppell’s Vulture Gyps rueppelli all year round. Andalucía is a region of Spain that is also a vulture hotspot and for any fan of these wonderful birds it is the place to visit and be swept away by their grandeur and elegance as they dominate our skyline. Since 2003 I have been studying birds, in particular Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucura, within the areas of the Serranía de Ronda and Sierra de Grazalema. During this period there has been many changes to breeding populations and in particular with the local vultures. Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus, once common, has declined, mostly due to incidences of poison baiting here and in their wintering grounds as well as on their migration routes, whereas this is of great concern the trend for Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus is the reverse. As an example, a couple of adjoining rock faces that stand above the karst strewn slopes, where I had been study Black Wheatear, I had 4 and 3 nest respectively in 2003, now there are 9 and 13 nests on these same rock faces, a very dramatic increase. The observation is repeated throughout the area and most likely this is a result of various feeding stations providing food and also the increase in livestock grazing in higher areas with its accompanying natural mortality rates among herds.
The increase in Griffon Vulture numbers has not been without some concerns and consequences, most prominently the displacement of Bonelli's Eagle Aquila fasciata as they compete for nesting places. Normally a Bonelli can hold its own and successfully defend a nesting site, but the sheer number of vultures has driven this eagle away from many sites. I am concerned for this medium sized and fiesty eagle, where conflicts arise with Griffon Vulture then normally adjoining cliff faces can provide a haven, albeit temporary if this increase continues, but we also have a welcome increase in breeding pairs of Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos, which also compete with Bonelli for nesting sites. So I worry for the future of this wonderfully aggressive and beautiful eagle. Another vulture that is increasing in the area, although somewhat less markedly as Griffon Vulture, is the Black Vulture Aegypius monachus otherwise called Cinereous Vulture, Monk Vulture or Eurasian Black Vulture. In the past it has always been a regular winter visitor and involved juveniles dispersing from their natal grounds. In recent times adult birds have now been observed at all times of the year, sometimes as many as 8 individual being seen together during the summer months. The area is vast and has many suitable forest or dehesa areas where this bird may well choose to breed, it is something we hope to discover in the future.

Whilst it is so heartening to write some positive news, more particularly when it involves vultures, I am also aware of the struggles these birds are faced with in continental Africa and Asia. Even here in Europe, particularly in Spain, these iconic and beneficial birds suffer from a range of dangers such as collisions with power cables and wind farm mills, also Spain has incredulously licensed and approved the use of the lethal veterinary drug diclofenac. Further to the positives are the local peoples here in the Serranía de Ronda and Sierra de Grazalema, they all regard the Griffon Vulture with affection and all know the bird's name 'Buitre Leonado' and will always point them out while in my company. Another positive, although sad in many ways due to its demise, is virtually every farm I have visited during the course of my studies has their own local name for Egyptian Vulture. Love the local people, love my mountains.
I love my vultures and hoping you might too!

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