Interview with Richard Zink about the Bearded Vulture in the Alps

Date of the interview: 05 January 2010

In this interview Richard Zink talkes about the Bearded Vulture in the Alps.

Richard Zink

Richard Zink

Markus Jais: What is the current status of the Bearded Vulture in the Alps (number of birds, pairs and young fledged in 2009)?
Richard Zink: Currently the number of individuals is estimated (based on modelling see Schaub et al. 2009) to be about 135 birds. This year 17 couples were monitored, another one (without breeding) was known but could not be monitored as such. In 13 cases the couples laid eggs and started with incubation. Finally 9 couples succeeded to raise a chick however, only 8 chicks fledged successfully. The 9th chick had to be captured and is now living in a breeding centre in France. So in total the Productivity was 0,53, the Percentage of successful brooding pairs is 0,76 and the percentage of successful pairs is 0,69.

Markus Jais: In what countries do the birds breed at the moment?
Richard Zink: Presently we have breeding couples in France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria.

Markus Jais: In Austria there has not yet been a successful breeding attempt. Are the reasons known?
Richard Zink: In fact we have only hypothesis. It is a fact that we could observe the formation of couples several times and even nest building, copulations and breeding has been observed for years. However, in many of these cases single adult birds vanished all of a sudden. This year we have new hope because Austria hosts two potential breeding pairs for the first time.

Markus Jais: Are still birds released to support the wild population?
Richard Zink: Yes! Even though we have started to shift our intentions. Some release sites where couples have already installed have been closed whereas new releases are planned in the south-western Alps soon. Our main goal is now to set up a bridge between the Alpine and Pyreneen population. New release sites can help to fill "population gaps" with life.

Adult Beared Vulture

Adult Beared Vulture.
© Michael Knollseisen

Markus Jais: In the Alps, is there a lot of competition between Bearded Vultures and Golden Eagles?
Richard Zink: So far we observed heavy interactions mostly in cases of newly installed pairs. We have to take into consideration that the Alps are saturated with golden eagles. The consequence is interspecific competition in case a new bearded vulture pair wants to settle. The conflicts are mostly for the best nest sites. There are different strategies the two use to arrange with each other. Primarily the bearded vultures tend to breed in higher elevation compared with golden eagles. Usually interaction decreases one or two years after a bearded vulture pair has settled. After that it is possible to find occupied nest sites of both species less than 1km from each other!

Markus Jais: What threats do Bearded Vultures face in the Alps?
Richard Zink: My personal fear is that illegal use of poisoned baits to control wolves will be the highest threat in the Alps soon. Presently the wolf has started to recover the Alpine space. Some individuals have already reached the outermost northern slopes in France and Austria! Up until now lead poisoning, collision with power lines, poisoning and shooting have been the major threats. Maybe the species will also suffer from wind farms installed in windy Alpine space.

Wing markings on Bearded Vulture

Wing markings on Bearded Vulture.
© Michael Knollseisen

Markus Jais: How serious is lead poisoning and what can be done to avoid it?
Richard Zink: In the case of the Bearded vulture it seems to be a underestimated and very serious threat. This is also the case in birds kept in captivity. Almost every year birds die because the keepers occasionally use shot animals as a food source. In the fields we have found poisoned bearded vultures and also golden eagle and griffon vulture several times. An absolute lethal dose is something like 8ppm in the blood of the bearded vultures. In cases of lower lead levels the birds mostly can be rehabilitated in case of immediate treatment. In the Bearded vulture it seems that some birds accustom to feeding to sites where hunters put remains of shut animals (e.g. to hunt for foxes). Especially for those birds lead is a very high risk.

Markus Jais: Do you think that an increasing wolf population in the Alps would benefit carrion eating birds like Bearded and Griffon Vultures?
Richard Zink: If carrion remain in areas above the tree line the vultures undoubtedly will profit. However, my personal concern is the use of poison which for sure will be the consequence in case we will not be able to manage (keep it in very small numbers) the wolf in the Alps. But do not misunderstand me - I love wolves and wilderness!

Markus Jais: You are involved in the Bearded Vulture Monitoring project. What is this all about? What did you learn so far?
Richard Zink: The so called IBM (International Bearded Vulture Monitoring) was created to follow the released birds across country border lines. In many cases the birds use the border line (high mountains) as a habitat. The core of the IBM is a huge data base hosting more than 40.000 observation data collected all over the Alpine arc. The IBM framework offers a tool to follow the observed bearded vultures on their journeys throughout the Alps. Find more here www.gyp-monitoring.com.

Meanwhile the focus of the IBM has slightly changed. Nowadays the follow up of reproducing couples and the reproduction as such have been realized to be the key for tracing the population development. Under the lead of the Hohe Tauern National Parc and scientifically supervised by ALPARC and the VCF (Vulture conservation Foundation) the IBM is carried out by different members (VCF, Nature Parc Alpi Marittime, Foundation Pro Bartgeier, ASTERS, Stelvio National Parc, Region of Aosta and by the French national parcs Les Ecrins, Le Mercantour and La Vanoise). The know-how I gained is that trans-national cooperation even across the barrier of different languages is the key elemet to succeed in the protection of such far ranging species.

Bearded Vulture tour 2008

Bearded Vulture tour 2008

Markus Jais: Are birds also tracked via satellite transmitters and if yes, what are your experiences?
Richard Zink: Since a few years some of our birds have been equipped with satellite radio transmitters. Wheras our experiences with the ARGOS system have been good in other areas such as southern Spain, in central Europe an interference signal has cause considerable problems. Due to the telemetry we where able to get some new experiences. However, most of the information was already known through the conventional monitoring system based on >40.000 observations. Nevertheless satellite tracking as well as genetic monitoring has become a valuable amendment for our monitoring strategies. Find more information about satellite tracking at: http://www.wild.uzh.ch/bg/sat/s_frame.php?bi=0&bg=0&ya=0&la=e&th=sat&st=1&su=0.

Markus Jais: What should people look for when they see a Bearded Vulture in the wild (for example wing markings)? Where should they send the information?
Richard Zink: The characteristics of the bearded vulture are undoubtedly its size and its tail. However from its juvenile plumage until it reaches its adult look the species can be observed in various moulting patterns. There is a identification guide we have agreed upon on the international level. Please download this identification guide in different languages at: www.gyp-monitoring.com in the download section. Presently the best place where to send observation data is online at http://www.wild.uzh.ch/bg/frame.php?bi=0&bg=0&ya=0&la=e&th=proj&st=4. In this case the information is automatically forwarded to the local monitoring responsible.

Markus Jais: How do you see the future of the Bearded Vulture in the Alps?
Richard Zink: In a recent publication (Schaub et al.) we could show that the population is already on the save side. Even with a 60% increase of mortality cases the population should remain stable. In this context it is important to verify how high the loss of birds can be. Since mortality rate is very very low in the bearded vulture the loss of 4 more birds per year would already turn the enjoyable population trend into a negative. Thus the Alpine population remains highly fragile and the protection of the species of outermost importance.

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with Bearded Vultures?
Richard Zink: For sure this is the curiosity of the birds. Those of you who had the chance to see a bearded vulture from close distance know that the species behalves really cool. The flight distance is very low and in winter the birds often come very close to the Alpine villages. Once I was orbited by an adult bird in close distance several times. I would have been anxious if I would not have known the species. For me the bird is something like a flying dragon; its colouring behaviour, its habit to swallow bones, its size and finally the remote and inaccessible areas where it forages.

Markus Jais: Richard, thank you very much for the interview.

Further Information

International Bearded Vulture Monitoring

References

Michael Schaub, Richard Zink, Helmut Beissmann, François Sarrazin, Raphaël Arlettaz. When to end releases in reintroduction programmes: demographic rates and population viability analysis of bearded vultures in the Alps. Journal of Applied Ecology 2009, 46, 92-100