BEARDED VULTURE (Gypaetus barbatus)
The Bearded Vulture is one of the rarest raptors in Europe. It inhabits
exclusively mountainous areas (500-4,000 m). It can be found usually above
the tree line, in rugged areas with steep slopes and in alpine pastures.
Its main food source is bones of dead animals (small - or middle - sized),
for which it searches alone or in pairs. The Bearded Vulture defends huge
areas (territories), in which the pair feeds and breeds. The pair rarely
tolerates the presence of other mature individuals of the species in,
The Bearded Vulture - Description The
Bearded Vulture reaches 1.10 m in size (from-head to tail), its wingspan
is around 2.8 m and it weighs between 5-7 kg. The mature birds can be easily
recognized by the long, pointed wings and the wedged tail; however, its
form rather recalls a large falcon than a vulture. Its breast and under
parts are usually coloured deep orange.
The Bearded Vulture acquires this colour by rubbing against calcareous rocks
containing iron oxides. In areas where rocks lack iron oxides, the colour of
the bird's under parts is usually "dirty white". On the head, close to the
beak, the bird has a long tuft of feathers which looks like a beard. It is
this characteristic "beard"
that gives the bird its scientific name, Gypaetus barbatus.
The Bearded Vulture - Distribution The Bearded Vulture is the rarest species of vulture
of the four found in Europe. It is found in the Pyrenees (Spain - France,
77 pairs), in the island of Corsica (8 pairs) and in the Balkans (2-3
pairs), while in the Alps, where the species has been reintroduced, there
are 50 individuals and two pairs. In Greece, few individuals can be found
in the region of Sterea Ellada, Macedonia and in Thrace, while the main
population can be found in Crete (9-10 pairs). The population in Crete
is the only viable population in Greece and the Balkans, and it
constitutes the biggest island population of the species in Europe and
The Bearded Vulture - Biology & Behaviour The Bearded Vulture inhabits areas of high
altitude (1,500-4,000 m), but during winter, when the high mountains are
snow-covered, it can be seen in areas of lower altitude (500-800 m). It
nests during the winter period between mid-December and the end of January
in small caves on rocky cliffs or in deep gorges with steep slopes. The
female lays two eggs and she incubates them for 55-57 days. However, as
with most birds of prey, only one young fledges. The young fledges in
the end of June or in the beginning of July and becomes sexually mature
after at least six years. The territory size is about 200-400 km* and
therefore die distribution of the species is rather sparse.
The young birds, in the first years of their life, cover large distances
surveying other areas, but usually return to breed in the area where they
were born. On the contrary, mature birds almost never leave their territory
to settle in neighbouring mountainous areas, even if these are close by.
Bearded Vulture is the only animal that feeds almost exclusively on bone
(70-90% of its diet). In Crete, the shepherds call it the "Bone-eater"
("kokalas") as they have watched the bird breaking bones in
a very characteristic way since the old times. The bird throws the larger
bones from a height on to rocky-slopes in order to break them, and immediately
descends after them in a characteristic spiral way. If the bone does not
break the first time, the method is repeated many times until the bone
finally breaks. The bird then eats the bone pieces starting with the bone
marrow. The smaller bones are swallowed whole, as the bird's gastric fluids
are so strong that they can digest bone easily. This dietary habit seems
odd, but once bones have been digested, they are a nutritious and easily
storable type of food; in addition, the bird faces minimal competition
for this type of food.
The Bearded Vulture - Dangers & Threats. The main threats for the species include lack
of food, illegal use of poisoned baits set for wolves, foxes, jackals
and crows, habitat destruction and in degradation, and illegal persecution.
In mainland Greece, the main reasons for the decline of the population
were lack of food due to pastoral decrease, use of poisoned baits for
the large carnivores and habitat degradation or loss because of changes
in the land use due to the creation of mines, ski centres and hotels.
On the other hand, the main threats in Crete are illegal persecution
and high-degree of disturbance, especially during the last years when
access even to the most isolated areas became easy through the establishment
of a dense network of mountain tracks.
The Bearded Vulture - Conservation Project in
the framework of LIFE - NATURE 1998 program, the Natural History Museum
of Crete and the Hellenic Ornithological Society are implementing a project
on the "Conservation of the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) in Greece".
The project started in October 1998 and will be completed by the end
of November 2001. the project is being implemented in 10 mountainous areas
of Greece that belong to the "Natura 2000" 'Network. Seven of them are
located in Crete (Mountains Selinou, Lefka Ori, Asfendou-Kallikraris,
Psiloritis, Kedros, Asterousia, Dikti) and three in mainland Greece (Parnassos,
Giona, Olympus). These areas represent the last remaining refuges for
the species in Greece.
The aim of the project is the conservation of the Bearded Vulture in
Greece. This will be achieved through the undertaking of urgent measures
for the protection of the species, the detailed monitoring of the species'
population and the protection of all the "NATURA 2000" Network sites where
the species is found. By the end of the project a permanent legal status
will be established and specific management measures will be implemented
in all these sites.
During the implementation of the project, emphasis will be given to
the following issues:
- Conservation of the Bearded Vulture and protection of its habitats
in some areas through the preparation of Management Plans and Specific
Environmental Studies (which will lead Presidential Decrees) for those
- Determination of the exact species status as well as its breeding
activity at national level.
- Investigation of the possibility of the species' recovery and/or
reintroduction, where meaningful and feasible.
- Undertaking a set of specific measures - actions, targeted on the
survival of the Bearded Vulture in Crete and mainland Greece, such as:
1. Encouragement of traditional pastoralism and promotion of
sustainable grazing systems and land use.
2. Provision of supplementary food for the Bearded vulture in
suitably selected sites.
3. Patrolling and warding of the most important sites for the
species, e.g. breeding, roosting and foraging areas.
4. Cooperation with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Associations
and Local Authorities in areas where the project is implemented,
for achieving better results on the species' conservation.
5. Inform and educate local people through the production and
distribution of information material (leaflets, video, slide series),
the organization of seminars and Lectures, and the establishment
of Information Centers in strategic places around Greece.
6. Dissemination of the results.
* this article has been republished with the kind permission of the Natural History Museum