Why African bearded vultures die, new study

This video is about adult and young bearded vultures (and ravens), in the Pyrenees in Spain.

From Wildlife Extra:

Technology solves disappearance mystery of one of Africa’s famous birds

The mystery of the gradual disappearance of the Bearded Vulture, one of Africa’s most famous birds, has been solved using the technology of satellite tracking.

Once widespread throughout much of Southern Africa, the Bearded Vulture is now critically endangered, with a decline in nesting sites of nearly 50 per cent since the 1960s.

The remaining population is now restricted to the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho and South Africa. But even in these isolated mountains they continue to decline.

Satellite trackers attached to 18 Bearded Vultures have confirmed conservationists’ worst fears: humans are largely to blame with collisions with power lines and poisoning being the two major vulture hazards that killed half of the birds in the satellite tracking survey.

These are key findings contained in two new research projects published this month. The studies paint the most detailed picture to date of the challenges facing the Bearded Vulture, also known as the ‘bone breaker’ due to its habit of dropping bones from a height to feed from the marrow inside.

The first paper, published in the international ornithological journal The Condor by scientists from EKZN Wildlife and the Percy FitzPatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town, found that human-related factors were the common denominator in differences between abandoned and occupied Bearded Vulture territories.

Lead author on the study Dr Sonja Krueger says: “We explored where the biggest difference lay between abandoned and occupied territories and found that human related factors such as human settlement density and powerlines were consistently different between these sites.”

Power line density and human settlement density were more than twice as high within abandoned vulture territories compared to occupied territories, the study found.

Results also suggested that food abundance may influence the bird’s overall distribution, and that supplementary vulture feeding schemes may be beneficial.

By contrast climate change was not found to be a major contributing factor in nest abandonment.

“Though not definitive, the results strongly suggest that we humans are our own worst enemies when it comes to conserving one of Africa’s iconic birds,” Krueger says.

The study recommended a new approach to vulture conservation management: “Based on the identified threats and mechanisms of abandonment, we recommend that conservation management focus on actions that will limit increased human densities and associated developments and influence the attitudes of people living within the territories of (vulture) breeding pairs,” the study concluded.

“We recommend that mitigation of existing power lines, stricter scrutiny of development proposals, and proactive engagement with developers to influence the placement of structures is essential within the home range of a territorial pair.”

The study’s findings are backed up by a second paper published in open access journal PLOS ONE, which relied on data from satellite trackers attached to 18 Bearded Vultures.

The trackers not only showed the exact location of the tagged birds every hour, they also provided critical information on movement patterns and mortality.

Tagging enabled dead birds to be quickly recovered and their cause of death determined.

The study confirmed that, in addition to power lines, poisoning was considered the main threat to vultures across Africa and was contributing to the so-called “African Vulture Crisis”– a large decline of many vulture species across the continent.

The tracking data also provided new information about the birds’ ranging behaviour. It revealed that non-breeding birds traveled significantly further than breeding birds and were therefore more vulnerable to human impact.

Some young non-breeding birds patroled an area the size of Denmark. The average adult bird had a home range of about 286 sq km, but the range was much smaller for breeding adults at just 95 sq km.

Dr Arjun Amar from UCT said detailed knowledge about Bearded Vulture home ranges could be hugely beneficial to vulture conservation: “We knew the species was likely to have large home ranges, but our results show just how far these birds travel – and therefore how exposed they are. The more they travel, the more they risk colliding with power lines or falling prey to poisoning.”

California condor baby, unexpected discovery

This video from the USA is about California condors.

From Discovery News in the USA:

Baby California Condor Surprises Wildlife Experts

Jan 12, 2015 03:00 PM ET

Biologists with the Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS) were taken by happy surprise, with their recent discovery of a previously unknown juvenile condor alongside a known breeding pair of adults in Big Sur, Calif.

Because there are so few California condors — just 116 living in the wild in California, according to the VWS — the big vultures are closely monitored by biologists. It’s unusual, then, for a new arrival to hatch and be reared by its parents unobserved.

VWS suspects the breeding pair seen with the juvenile are indeed the proud parents. The organization thinks the amorous couple, known as #209 (or “Shadow”) and #231 (or “Wild 1″), are nesting in an area of the Ventana Wilderness that is so remote it’s inaccessible to observers.

“It’s just a sign of how well the flock is doing — that they are flying out on their own, making nests and breeding on their own,” biologist and VWS Big Sur condor project coordinator Joe Burnett told the San Francisco Chronicle.

A cursory glance at the numbers helps underscore the enthusiasm felt by the biologists.

By 1987 the California condor, the largest bird in North America, with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, had become nearly extinct in the wild. The last 27 animals were captured and cared for in captivity. Habitat loss, poaching and lead poisoning (thanks to hunters’ lead bullet fragments present in big-game waste) were among the factors that led to the condor’s dance on the edge of total extinction.

But successful captive-breeding and wild-release programs have since boosted the California condor‘s population to today’s overall count of 425, according to VWS. In addition to California, condor populations can also be found in Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

The recent surprise pairing marks just the third time since 1997 that California condors have mated without being observed, the Chronicle noted.

“This is truly exciting to witness as it offers another example of condors surviving on their own,” said VWS Executive Director Kelly Sorenson in a statement.

Save European vultures

This video says about itself:

Spain: Deadly Danger for Europe’s Vultures

24 July 2014

Spain is home to the largest population of vultures in Europe, but their numbers are steadily declining. A new drug for cattle now threatens to wipe out the vultures altogether.

Vultures have long had a bad reputation in Spain. Time and time again, the birds are illegally poisoned, because they are said to prey on living cattle. Now the EU has authorized the administration of veterinary diclofenac to livestock in Spain and Italy – a deadly threat to the four species of vultures that live in Spain. The anti-inflammatory drug has already led to the near-extinction of the vulture population in India, Pakistan and Nepal. The birds ingest the substance when eating the carcasses of cattle treated with the drug, and die of kidney failure.

From BirdLife:

European Medicines Agency asks the European Commission to address vulture-killing drug

By Martin Fowlie, Mon, 15/12/2014 – 16:08

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has supported the arguments expressed by BirdLife regarding the risk that the veterinary use of the drug diclofenac represents to vultures. In their scientific opinion on diclofenac and vultures, EMA is asking the European Commission to act immediately and outlines a series of possible measures to avoid the poisoning of vultures.

BirdLife welcomes the scientific opinion issued by EMA, and urges the European Commission to implement the safest and most cost-effective measure available: a full ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac in Europe. The report of EMA supports this, as it recognises that the withdrawal of the marketing authorisations of diclofenac is the only measure that negates the risks completely, without affecting animal welfare since alternative drugs are available.

Iván Ramírez, Head of Conservation for Europe and Central Asia said, “The European Medicines Agency is sending the right message both to the European Commission and to FATRO, the company that currently commercialises this environmentally dangerous drug in Europe. But this is not over yet, we will remain vigilant and continue to mobilise our supporters to make sure veterinary diclofenac is out of the market. Every minute counts.”

BirdLife has led, in collaboration with many other environmental groups, an international campaign aiming to ban veterinary diclofenac. This drug was identified as the sole reason for the massive population declines that occurred in South-East Asia, where all vulture populations suffered declines over 97% in the last two decades. The drug is now banned in a range of countries, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

A recent paper in Science warned over the risks of veterinary pharmaceuticals to wildlife.

Thijs Kuiken, Professor of Comparative Pathology at the Erasmus Medical Center and lead author of that study said, “I was shocked when I first heard that diclofenac had been authorised for use in—of all places—Spain, which is a stronghold for vultures in Europe. This example shows that we need to radically change the way we deal with pharmaceuticals, both those used in human and veterinary medicine.“

Chris Bowden from BirdLife’s UK Partner, the RSPB, co-author of the article and co-ordinator of the international conservation consortium Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) said, “Three species of vultures were brought to the verge of extinction in South Asia by the then unknown effects of a veterinary drug. It is perverse that regulators in Europe have chosen to disregard this event and allow the strong possibility that diclofenac will enter the food chain of vultures and other scavenging birds there. The problem is now well-researched and I hope that the EU follows the commendably rapid response of South Asian regulators, who acted quickly to remove the drug from vultures’ food.”

Vultures play a vital role in European ecosystems, especially in Spain where more than 95% of the continent’s vultures reside. Spanish vultures remove more than 8000 tons of livestock carcasses per year, which helps control disease and pests and also serves to recycle nutrients. These ecosystem services provide an estimated economic saving of 1.5 million Euros.

The impact of diclofenac on vultures is just one example of a problem that has much wider implications. In 2004, an estimated 6051 tons of biologically active substances were included in the production of veterinary pharmaceuticals in the EU. While these drugs may benefit the health of domestic animals and the efficiency of livestock production, they can contaminate the environment indirectly. This is a threat to non-target species, including humans.

See also here.

Why vultures can eat carrion

This video is called Feeding a Vulture – Vultures: Beauty in the Beast – Natural World – BBC Two.

From Wildlife Extra:

A super-gut allows vultures to eat disgusting carcasses

Vultures are able to eat rotting carcasses covered in bacteria that could kill other creatures because their super-digestive tract is able to kill, or tolerate, dangerous bacteria like Clostridia, Fuso- and Anthrax-bacteria without ill-effects, a new study has found.

Co-author Michael Roggenbuck from University of Copenhagen explains: “Our results show there has been strong adaptation in vultures when it comes to dealing with the toxic bacteria they digest. On one hand vultures have developed an extremely tough digestive system, which simply acts to destroy the majority of the dangerous bacteria they ingest.

“On the other hand, vultures also appear to have developed a tolerance towards some of the deadly bacteria — species that would kill other animals actively seem to flourish in the vulture lower intestine.”

The scientists investigated the DNA of bacteria living on the face and gut of 50 turkey and black vultures from the USA and found the facial skin of vultures contained DNA from 528 different types of micro-organisms, whereas DNA from only 76 types of micro-organisms were found in the gut, meaning a staggering 452 have been got rid of along the way.

“Apparently something radical happens to the bacteria ingested during passage through their digestive system,” says fellow co-author Lars Hestbjerg Hansen from Aarhus University in Denmark.

Gary Graves of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History observed: “The avian microbiome is terra incognita but it is not unreasonable to suppose that the relationship between birds and their microbes has been as important in avian evolution as the development of powered flight and song.”

See also here.

Egyptian vultures, other birds counted in Turkey

This video says about itself:

Jackal vs. Ostrich Eggs vs. [Egyptian] Vulture

A three pound ostrich egg is a tough meal to crack – unless you’re a tool-using vulture with just the right technique.

From BirdLife:

First full migration census in southern Turkey of Egyptian Vulture and other raptors

By Alessia Calderalo, Fri, 14/11/2014 – 12:10

With its yellow beak and its beautiful white plumage, the Egyptian Vulture was revered in Ancient Egypt as a symbol of parental care. Sadly, this majestic bird is one of those many endangered species that year after year face several threats causing their decline.

Turkey is one of the few countries in the world that has a large breeding population of Egyptian Vultures, estimated at 1,000 – 3,000 pairs. Doğa Derneği, BirdLife Partner in the country, is aware of its responsibility in the protection of the species and has initiated research to assess its conservation status in Turkey. Because monitoring population size of Egyptian Vultures in Turkey is very difficult as the breeding range is large and finding all the occupied territories is labour intensive, a team led by Doğa Derneği and BirdLife British Partner RSPB implemented an alternative approach and conducted the first full migration census in southern Turkey.

From 16th August to 16th October 2014, the team was located at a migratory bottleneck near the Gulf of Iskenderun to count migrating Egyptian Vultures and other migrating raptors. The project, partly funded by the Ornithological Society of the Middle East (OSME), showed that 130.347 raptors migrated over the area, including 47.594 Lesser Spotted Eagles, which is more than 95% of the currently assumed world population.

The study conducted this year is a huge step forward for Turkey’s ornithologists and bird lovers, since it has provided valuable baseline data that can be compared in the future to infer population changes of Egyptian Vultures and other raptors. However, for this study to be truly effective in the future, the migration monitoring needs to be carried out for at least ten years. If implemented annually, the census will provide robust information to understand the trends of many species and thus serve to design effective conservation measures based on scientific evidence.

For more information, please contact Engin Yilmaz, General Manager at Doğa Derneği.

Griffon and bearded vultures in Spain

This video is about Manuel’s vulture restaurant in Santa Cilia, Spain.

After 3 November, 4 November 2014 in Aragon in Spain.

We went to the Sierra de Guara, the mountains south of the highest Pyrenees summits. It is a beautiful area; flowers like edelweiss grow there.

Sierra de Guara sign, 4 November 2014

All photos on this blog post are cellphone photos.

We went to see a vulture restaurant on a mountain above Santa Cilia village which has been going for decades.

On our way to Santa Cilia, we passed a hunting estate. We could see red deer, fallow deer and mouflons.

Santa Cilia village, 4 November 2014

In Santa Cilia there are beautiful old houses.

The vulture restaurant above the village has been organized for thirty years by Manuel; from the Amigos del buitre, friends of the vultures, organisation. A young woman, responsible for the organisation’s museum in Santa Cilia, helps him today.

The organisation has started a restaurant for vultures in Gambia as well.

As the sun begins to shine, griffon vultures spread their wings to dry them. It had been raining all night, making their wings wet.

Griffon vultures, 4 November 2014

A small trailer brings 100kg of slaughterhouse offal to the mountain. About 20 kg of this is meat for the griffon vultures; much is bones. Today, there are about eighty vultures. So, on average, each vulture gets about 225g meat. So, the vulture restaurants help the vultures; but they still have to find more food elsewhere.

This video is about the vulture restaurant on 4 November 2014.

Manuel tells that the griffon vultures, coming closest to him, eating out of his hand, are birds which he used to care for when they were ill.

While the griffon vultures are feeding, one bearded vulture, later two, circles above them. They don’t like to join the griffon vulture crowds. If they wait till the griffon vultures have stripped the meat from the bones, they can pick up the bones. Then, they will drop the bones from the air on rocks, breaking them. This way, they can get their favourite food: bone marrow. It takes young bearded vultures a long time to learn how to drop the bones in the right way.

Two ravens, and two golden eagles flying. Sometimes, these species join the griffon vultures for feeding. Today, they don’t seem to be hungry.

Griffon vultures mate for life, Manuel says. If one bird’s partner dies, then that vulture will not breed for some years. They also usually await their turn during feeding. Sometimes they quarrel. Maybe in wildlife films, quarrels among vultures while feeding are over-emphasized, as they look more spectacular in the film.

Sierra de Guara view, 4 November 2014

From the vulture restaurant, a beautiful view of the surroundings.

Later that day, we go to a reservoir. Two little grebes swimming.

A female siskin along the road.

A bit further, we have the privilege to see a wallcreeper again. It cleans its feathers.

In a park, we hear a great spotted woodpecker. Goldfinches in a tree.

Adults of Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) observed in the Theniet El Had National Park (northern Algeria) in springs of 2012 and 2014: here.