Conservation Biology Group

Threats and solutions

The Egyptian Vulture: a species coming back to Eastern Catalonia

Report extracted from ‘El Picot negre’, num. 24, December 2014, the news magazine of the Cadí-Moixeró Natural Park. Authors: Joan Real (Conservation Biology Group - UB), Helena Tauler (Conservation Biology Group - UB) and Jordi Baucells (Grup de Naturalistes d’Osona).

The Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), with a wingspan of 165 cm, is the smallest of the vulture species found in Europe. It is white with yellow face and legs, and it is easily identified on flight by the contrast between the white body and tail with the black flight feathers.

This is quite a generalist scavenger species, since it is able to take any resource found available. It patrols its territory searching for scraps of livestock, as well as wild medium or small size animals, being mammals, birds or reptiles.

Egyptian Vulture in flight.
: Ramon Faura Cunill

The Egyptian Vulture is a trans-Saharan migrant species, which means that it winters in Sub-Saharian Africa from September to February. Pairs breeding in Catalonia begin to arrive on March and, once the chicks fledge, they go back to Africa. They nest in cliffs and rocky areas of mid-mountains, using caves and natural platforms to take shelter and build the nest. The nest is usually located near open areas and human settlements, where they look for food. It is a territorial species, so nests of different pairs are usually separated at least 1-5 km.

This species is found from Asia to the Middle East, the Mediterranean area and some areas South of the Sahara Desert, as well as some Atlantic isles such as the Canary Islands. This species is globally considered ‘Endangered’ by scientists, due to its populations became extinct or undergone fairly general decline in most of its former distribution. The Iberian Peninsula holds one of the most numerous populations in the World, but it declined a 25% between 1987 and 2000. For this reason, it is also considered ‘Endangered’ in Spain and it is included in the Annex I of the Birds Directive.

In Catalonia, this species suffered a deep decline during the 60s and the 70s and in Eastern Catalonia (counties of Ripollès, Garrotxa and Berguedà) it became almost extinct. This trend changed during the 80s, when the Egyptian Vulture recolonized old territories, leading to an increase in the number of breeding pairs. This spread in Catalonia occurred in a context of important recent changes in human activities, such as the increase in urban and livestock waste (landfills), landscape changes (semi-extensive livestock, wildfires), and social changes (increase in consciousness about conservation issues).

Egyptian Vulture adult.
Photo: Ramon Faura Cunill

In order to study the spread of this species in Catalonia, the Conservation Biology Group of the University of Barcelona, the Grup de Naturalistes d’Osona (a naturalists’ association) and naturalists from the Berguedà county began a cooperate monitoring of the population of Egyptian Vulture in centre and Eastern Catalonia, supported by different natural parks (Sant Llorenç del Munt, Montserrat, Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa and Cadí-Moixeró). The main target of this monitoring is to know the population status in this area, its evolution and the factors affecting this increase.

Tasks conducted in this study consisted on a census of occupied territories, obtaining the reproductive rates of this population, ringing the chicks and studying their physical condition and diet. The aim of this census was to know the demographic evolution of this population and to study its long-term viability, as well as to analyse environmental and ecological factors affecting this increase. The analysis of the chicks’ physical condition and diet will allow to know the role of the human activities (livestock, landfills...) and their influence on the survival and health condition of the chicks. Finally, the chicks ringing will allow to get information on their movements and survival, as well as to know if they come back to the areas where they were born, what helps to increase this population.
Ringing an Egyptian Vulture chick.
Photo: Kiku Parés

In 2014, 23 territories were monitored, of which 19 pairs succeeded in rearing at least one fledge chick, while 4 territories did not breed or failed in their breeding attempts. 7 of these territories monitored were located within the Berguedà county and 5 chicks were fledged.

Some of the most relevant threats affecting this species are disturbances within the breeding areas, in some cases due to the presence of paragliders taking off near the nests, or in other cases due to the presence of climbers or nearby buildings. It is still not known why some pairs fail repeatedly in their breeding attempts. In the future, it is posed to continue monitoring the population in order to know its evolution and to study its dependence with some new land uses (livestock, landfills...), as well as to study factors affecting its conservation.

The monitoring of the territories, ringing of the chicks and other tasks were possible tanks to the collaboration of several naturalists, technicians and natural parks rangers, like P. Aymerich, J. Bermejo, J. Fort, P. I. Isern, G. de Jesús, J. Santandreu, J. Calaf, G. Lampreave, T. Mampel, A. Peris and J. Montserrat. We would like to thank the support received from different natural parks (Cadí-Moixeró, Montserrat, Sant Llorenç del Munt, Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa and Consorci dels Espais Naturals del Ripollès), and the collaboration of the the Cos d'Agents Rurals and particularly the Grup de Suport de Muntanya. The Biodiversity Service of the Catalan Government also gave support and authorized the research tasks. Finally, we would also like to thank the Catalan Ornithological Institute for giving support to this project. Once again, all this is an example of multipart collaboration that allows synergies to help an endangered species.