Bearded Vulture, Gypaetus barbatus

Bearded Vulture

Bearded Vulture, Italy, © Henning Werth

Names

English: Bearded Vulture, Lammergeier
Scientific: Gypaetus barbatus
German: Bartgeier
Spanish: Quebrantahuesos
French: Gypaète barbu

Taxonomy and Subspecies

Two subspecies [GRIN 2009, Mebs & Schmidt 2006]:
  • G.b. meridionalis in south-west Arabia, east and south Africa
  • G.b. barbatus in all other countries including Europe.
The closest European relative of the Bearded vulture is the Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus [GRIN 2008]

Size

Length: 100-115 cm
Wingspan: 250-290 cm
Weight: 4,500-7,100g

Maximum Age

45 years in captivity. [Mebs & Schmidt 2006]

Habitat

Lives only in mountainous areas. Searches for food mostly above tree line. Some juveniles can leave mountains for some time.

Distribution

In Europe only in the Pyrenees, on Crete, Corsica and on the Balkan. Reintroduced population in the Alps. Also lives in Turkey. Outside Europe eastwards till China and Mongolia. In Africa it occurs in east and south Africa. Also occurs in south-west of Arabian Peninsula. [Mebs & Schmidt 2006, Forsman 1999]

Migration

Adults are sedentary and stay in their breeding territory. Juveniles can disperse over long distances. Birds from the Alps normally move within the Alps, but some individuals leave the Alps and sometimes and are seen very far away, for example in Belgium, Denmark or even Norway [Mebs & Schmidt 2006]. Birds from the Pyrenees also move around and are sometimes seen outside the Pyrenees, for example in the Picos de Europa mountains in northern Spain.

Breeding and Reproduction

Bearded Vultures first start breeding when 6-8 years old [Mebs & Schmidt 2006], which is among the highest numbers for any raptor in the world . Bearded Vultures breed very early in the year. In the Pyrenees, egg laying is between 11th of December and 12th of February. In the Alps, eggs are laid during the end of January or beginning of February [Mebs & Schmidt 2006]. This is very early, especially because temperatures at this times are normally very low and nests are usually quite high in the mountains. But with this tactic, the Bearded Vulture will find plenty of food when the chicks hatch and the snow melts as many dead mammals like Chamois or Red Deer are buried under the snow during winter.
Bearded Vultures normally lay two eggs and incubate them for 52 - 58 days. The second born chick is killed by it's older sibling. The second chick is an insurance in case the first egg doesn't hatch.
The chick spends between 103 and 133 (medium 123) days in the nest [Mebs & Schmidt 2006].

Food and hunting

Bearded Vultures feed on carrion and bones. Bearded Vultures prefer fresh carrion over animals that are already decayed.
The Bearded Vulture is the only European raptor that regularly feeds on bones and bone marrow which can make up more than 80% of it's diet. This specialisation allows them to avoid competition with other vultures and eagles.
When the bones are too large, the Bearded Vulture will drop them from a height of 50-80 meters on rocks until they break up.
In some areas, Bearded Vultures have been observed dropping tortoises (like bones) and then eating them.
Because bones are very dry, therefore Bearded Vultures drink regularly. The young in the nest eat meat. They are not yet capable of digesting the hard and dry bones.

Population

The Bearded Vultures is one of the rarest raptors in Europe with only small populations left. The reintroduced population in the Alps was estimated at about 135 birds in 2009 [Zink 2010]. In 2009, 17 pairs were monitored and 8 chicks fledged successfully in 2009. The pairs are breeding in France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. In Austria breeding attempts failed until the first chick successfully fledged in 2010.
The largest European population currently lives in the Pyrenees. In the French Pyrenees, the population rose from 17 pairs in 1994 to 29 pairs in 2008 [Razin et al. 2009].
A very small and isolatad population exist on Corsica (France). In 2009 nine pairs were found but only about half of them breed each year [Razin et al. 2009] . This small population is extremely threatened with extinction.
Similar is the situation in Greece where the species regularly only breeds on Crete. There the population declined from about 9-10 breeding pairs at the beginning of the 1990s to only 4 pairs at the end of the first decade in the 21st century. Only two of those pairs breed regularly every year [Xirouchakis 2010].
In Italy the species is gone from former areas like Sicily or Sardinia and is now only breeding in the Alps as a result of the reintroduction project in the Alps.
The population in Turkey (including the Asian part) is estimated at 50-100 pairs [Mebs & Schmidt 2006].

Threats

Persecution has dramatically reduced and almost completely extirpated the Bearded Vulture in Europe. Today illegal shooting is rare but it has occurred recently, for example in the Alps. Today illegal poisoning directed either at raptors or at carnivores like Red Foxes or Wolves are a serious threat to the Bearded Vulture and make reintroduction programs difficult, for example in Andalusia (Spain), where a reintroduction project by the Fundación Gypaetus is currently going on and where several released birds died from poisoning.
Wolves can be a problem for Bearded Vultures. In a world without humans, Wolves would be great for vultures as a provider of carrion. But the current comeback of Wolves in many parts of Europe, including the Alps, has also lead to an increase in illegal poisoning. [Zink 2010] fears "that illegal use of poisoned baits to control wolves will be the highest threat in the Alps soon".
Lead poisoning is also a very serious threat to Bearded Vultures when the birds eat remains of lead ammunition from shot ungulates like deer. In the Alps, several Bearded Vultures (and other birds like Golden Eagles) have been found dead as a result of lead poisoning [Zink 2010].
Collision with power lines, disturbance by hunting activities, road construction or forestry are other threats [Mebs & Schmidt 2006].

Conservation

The use of illegal poison to kill raptors or mammals like Red Foxes or Wolves must be stopped. During the positive recovery of the Wolves in the Alps and other parts of Europe, illegal poisoning must be kept in mind and controlled where ever possible. Wolves as apex predators are an important part of a healthy ecosystem can can provide carrion and bones for the Bearded Vultures and other scavengers like the other European vulture species, eagles or Ravens. It would be very sad if the increase of Wolf populations will result in a decline in vulture populations.
Disturbance during the breeding season must be reduced where it is a problem.
The reintroduction project in the Alps has been very successful and it's results are encouraging for other reintroduction projects like in Andalusia done by the Fundación Gypaetus.
For more information on conservation projects, see the interviews and websites listed below.

Status IUCN/BirdLife

Least Concern (LC)

Status Global Raptor Information Network

Lower risk

Interviews about the Bearded Vulture

Interview with Fulvio Genero about vultures in Italy

Interview with Richard Zink about the Bearded Vulture in the Alps

Interview with Stavros Xirouchakis about Vultures on Crete

References

[Bauer et al. 2005] Bauer, H.-G., Bezzel, E. & Fiedler, W. 2005. Das Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas. Aula-Verlag

[Donázar et al. 2009] Donázar, José Antonio & Margalida, Antoni & Campión (2009).
Buitres, muladares y legislación sanitaria: perspectivas de un conflicto y sus consecuencias desde la Biología de la Conservación.
Vultures, feeding stations and sanitary legislation: a conflict and its consequences from the perspective of conservation biology.
Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi.

[Forsman 1999] Forsman, Dick (1999). The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East A Handbook of Field Identification. Poyser

[GRIN 2008] Global Raptor Information Network. 2008. Species account: Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 8 Jun. 2008

[Mebs & Schmidt 2006] Mebs, Theodor & Schmidt, Daniel (2006). Die Greifvögel Europas, Nordafrikas und Vorderasiens. Kosmos Verlag.

[Razin et al. 2009]: Razin, Martin & Eliotout, Bertrand & Orabi, Pascal & Terrasse, Michel (2009). Distribution, population, breeding and conservation of the vulture population in France. (published in [Donázar et al. 2009]).

[Xirouchakis 2010] Xirouchakis, Stavros (2010). Interview on europeanraptors.org: Interview with Stavros Xirouchakis about Vultures on Crete

[Zink 2010] Zink, Richard (2010). Interview on europeanraptors.org: Interview with Richard Zink about the Bearded Vulture in the Alps

Books

Donázar, José Antonio & Margalida, Antoni & Campión (2009).
Buitres, muladares y legislación sanitaria: perspectivas de un conflicto y sus consecuencias desde la Biología de la Conservación.
Vultures, feeding stations and sanitary legislation: a conflict and its consequences from the perspective of conservation biology.
Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi.

Forsman, Dick (1999). The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East A Handbook of Field Identification. Poyser

Mebs, Theodor & Schmidt, Daniel (2006). Die Greifvögel Europas, Nordafrikas und Vorderasiens. Kosmos Verlag.

Websites

BirdLife Species Factsheet for the Bearded Vulture

GRIN species account for the Bearded Vulture

International Bearded Vulture Monitoring

Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos /Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded vulture

Bartgeier Wiederansiedlung in den Alpen / Bearded Vulture Reintroduction into the Alps

Stifung Pro Bartgeier

Balkan Vulture Action Plan

Green Balkans - Vultures in Bulgaria

Fundación Gypaetus (incl. Reintroduction of Bearded Vultures in Andalusia)

Le Gypaète barbu