Even though bearded vultures are now increasing in western Europe – their population in the Pyrenees increased from 50 pairs in 1984 to 165 in 2013, the species is now fully restored in the Alps (30 pairs) and has started to breed this year in Andalucia again -, it is extremely rare to find injured bearded vultures in nature.
However, on the 8th of December 2014, staff from the Animal Aran Park (Aran Valley, in the Spanish Pyrenees) found a bearded vulture too weak to fly.
The bird was observed several days before on the ground, at the local griffon vulture feeding place. As it didn’t fly when approached by the staff of the park, it was captured and immediately transferred to the wildlife rehabilitation center Vallcalent, managed by the Generalitat de Catalunya.
The bird was a female that had been marked in 2005 (rings, wing tags and radio-transmitter) by staff from the Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (FCQ). It was already an adult then, and was named Elisabeth, but her movements showed that the female never occupied a territory.
It was not obvious what the problem with the bird was – the analysis for potential lead poisoning proved negative. In Vallcalent she started immediately to eat, even though she was still weak (5.3Kg). The bird was transferred soon to the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Unit, where the housing conditions are more appropriate for the species and visual contact with conspecifics offered. This helped her to adapt to its new situation. In the first three weeks there her intake of food was double than the average. Three weeks later she started to climb up to the perches and by then she had won 2 Kg (7.2Kg).
Last week, on the 17th of March, after removing the wing-tags and substituting the GPS transmitter (the old one was not working any longer), and after bleaching several feathers for identification in the field, Elisabeth could again be released in the Aran Valley.
This is the third wild injured bearded vulture rehabilitated at Vallcalent. All three survived and two of them (a male and Elisabeth) could be released back to the wild. Only one was declared as not releasable and was included in the captive breeding stock - the famous Kirma, a female with a horrible injury in its mandible, which is now reproducing with success in captivity – see http://www.4vultures.org/2015/02/12/on-kirma-and-commitment-to-a-cause-how-intensive-care-and-a-lot-of-expertise-rehabilitated-a-severely-injured-bearded-vulture-back-into-breeding/.
Bearded Vultures are very sensitive. Inadequate handling can provoke stress and increase the possibility to get an aspergillus infection, one of the biggest problems which this species faces in captivity (26 captive bearded vultures within the captive breeding network died because of this infection). In Vallcalent, as soon the bird was stabilized, it was immediately transferred to the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Unit. These positive results are only a result of the good coordination and expertise between the wildlife rehabilitation unit, managed by Forestal Catalana, and the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Unit, managed by the Vulture Conservation Foundation.