Birds of a Feather

By Chandra David

To learn more about the amazing and misunderstood birds that are cared for at the Los Angeles Zoo, and our work to conserve their species, join us on Saturday, September 1, 2018 for International Vulture Awareness Day.

A passion for conservation leads a condor keeper to Europe to study another rare bird

The bearded vulture gets its rusty hue by bathing in iron oxide-rich soils. Photo by Hansruedi Weyrich.

23 years ago, the Los Angeles Zoo provided an opportunity for me to work with one of the most endangered species in the world, the California condor, and since that day I was hooked. But my passion for vulture conservation didn’t stop there—the California condor opened the door for other species to work their way into my heart. One such species is the bearded vulture.

Found in some of the most beautiful mountainous areas in Africa, Asia, and Europe (including the French Alps and the Spanish Pyrenees), the bearded vulture is currently the rarest vulture in Europe. In the Alps, the mistaken belief that these birds would hunt and kill children and livestock led to their persecution. By 1913, the species had completely disappeared from the region.

An international breeding program launched in the 1970s resulted in the reintroduction of captive-bred birds. Today, there are 20 wild breeding pairs in the Alps. The total European population is estimated at 600 to 1,000 pairs.

Like other scavengers, vultures consume the remains of dead animals. The bearded vulture specializes in eating bone, which is the main component of its diet. I was fascinated to learn that these birds will carry bones up to great heights and drop them onto rocky areas with the intent of shattering them into smaller pieces that can be swallowed whole. Its circular grip (different from other birds of prey) makes carrying bone easier.

The more I learned about bearded vultures, the more intrigued I became by the species and the efforts to save it from extinction. I had never worked with them before—indeed, this bird cannot be found anywhere in the United States—but there are many similarities between it and the California condor. Biologists working to save each species face many of the same struggles and employ some of the same strategies. I hoped that meeting with European vulture experts would give me new ideas or perspectives that I could bring back for the benefit of the California condor program.

Thanks to funding from the Ornato Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund, in November 2017, I was able to travel to Spain and France to learn more about conservation efforts aimed at protecting this endangered and incredible bird. During my trip, I visited vulture breeding centers and wild territories, and attended the 2017 Annual Bearded Vulture Meeting.

A birdwatcher's paradise: the mountains and gorges of Escuaín in northern Spain. Photo by Chandra David.

Before the meeting, I met up with two experts in Figueres, Spain. Getting there was no easy task, since Spain was in the midst of upheaval due to Catalonia’s independence effort. My train out of Barcelona was prevented from traveling north due to protesters, and I was forced to find a taxi willing to take me to Figueres. The 90-mile journey ended up being a six-hour trip as these transportation routes were also blocked.

Eventually, I met up with Dr. Alex Llopis Dell from the Vulture Conservation Foundation and Shannon Hoffman from African Bird of Prey Sanctuary. Shannon is actively working to conserve this species in South Africa. She has permission to collect eggs from wild nests in her region to increase the population, so she has an incredible task ahead of her.

The three of us drove north along the rugged coastline of Spain and France, accompanied by a young Egyptian vulture. The bird was being transferred to Parc des Oiseaux, a zoo in the Rhône area of France. When we arrived, zoo personnel were eagerly awaiting their new vulture addition. They treated us to a tour of their expansive facility that specializes in birds (Parc des Oiseaux means “park of birds”).

Next, we drove into the night to Passy Haute-Savoie, the site of the bearded vulture meeting. Organized by the Vulture Conservation Foundation, the meeting brought together 175 people, including Europe’s top vulture biologists. I was honored to be among the speakers at this year’s meeting and shared details about the conservation role the Los Angeles Zoo has played in bringing the California condor back from near extinction. The conference attendees showed great interest in and support of our program. Other speakers discussed bearded vulture breeding, reintroduction, and veterinary issues.

My favorite part of this experience was visiting the new breeding center in Passy. The landscape in this region took my breath away. This alpine meadow is set between snow-covered peaks hovering over the region. We were surrounded by green grass, autumn-colored leaves, and lots of sheep! I have a special fondness for sheep and was in absolute bliss listening to the beautiful music their bells made as they dashed across the meadows to see us.

The breeding center in Passy Haute-Savoie is set against the breathtaking backdrop of the French Alps. Photo by Chandra David.

We left Passy in the early morning after a night of snow and hoped the roads would be safe on our way down from the Alps. We arrived at night in Lleida, Spain, where I spent a week at the bearded vulture breeding center at the Centre de Fauna Vallcalent, which is run by the Catalan regional government.

The first morning at Vallcalent started with freezing temperatures. With icy fingers and toes, I sat staring through binoculars at vulture breeding pairs while Dr. Dell explained the breeding program and pair behavior. After morning observations, I was asked to assist with veterinary procedures. Due to my experience with condors, I felt right at home as I helped medicate a wild bearded vulture recovering from a swollen leg and restrained another for a bandage change. I also observed a broken wing repair on a wild griffon vulture.

Hoping to see bearded vultures in the wild, I spent a day traveling the northeastern part of Spain and into the Pyrenees with a couple of dedicated Vallcalent staff members. We stopped in Riglos, where we saw numerous Eurasian griffons. We then traveled to Escuaín, an abandoned village in the middle of the mountains, where just one or two people oversee the entire site. The mountains above and the massive gorges below make this an incredible spot to view birds. We saw a few more griffon vultures but, unfortunately, we did not spot the one bird we came for—the bearded vulture. Ultimately, when the sky grew too dark to continue our search, we headed back to Lleida.

Conservation biologists around the globe communicate with one another all the time—but being able to meet in person was a great opportunity to exchange ideas and one that will facilitate future information sharing. We were able to discuss our approaches to common issues and conservation challenges, including egg incubation, chick-rearing, reintroduction, and protocols for entering wild nests to perform health checks. I showed them how we radiograph condor eggs to monitor chick development and positioning, which allows us to intervene if a chick needs assistance in hatching. They showed me an experimental incubation technique they are trying with bearded vulture eggs, which one day may prove beneficial to condor eggs.

I am grateful to the many people who took the time to explain the details of bearded vulture conservation to me. I discovered that the people working with this species have the same heart and passion as my colleagues and I do for the California condor.

Although I was able to see so many incredible things in France and Spain, I still have yet to see the one thing I had hoped for on this trip—a bearded vulture in the wild.

I just may have to try one more time. ☐

This article originally ran in the Spring 2018 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly magazine of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. A subscription is complimentary with any level of membership. To learn more about the amazing and misunderstood birds that are cared for at the Los Angeles Zoo, and our work to conserve their species, join us on Saturday, September 1, 2018 for International Vulture Awareness Day.