Breeding bearded vultures in captivity for reintroduction projects is a full time, 24/7 job - and requires some rather unexpected tasks. Karl Hofbauer-Höfer can certainly say so, as he had to nurse a baby bearded vulture in a flight from Barcelona to Vienna, and then across land borders.
The story starts in the specialized bearded vulture captive breeding center in Vallcalent (Catalonia, Spain), managed by the Generalitat and the VCF, where one bearded vulture chick, code-name BG854, hatched in early March – one of three chicks hatched there this year.
This chick had to be removed from the nest on the 13th of March because its mother pulled the chick out of the nest bowl and continued incubating only the remains of the egg shell. This female is a very aggressive bird, which always takes a long time to mate. Its first egg has to be always removed from the nest before she lays the second one because she normally buries it under the wool. Furthermore she reacts very nervously during the hatching process - she usually enlarges the hole with its bill where the chick has pecked the egg shell, and accelerates the whole hatching process. This may provoke hematomas and consequently the chick cannot hatch from itself. Usually humans always have to intervene, but finally she always throws its chicks out from the nest.
This breeding season her first two eggs were removed and incubated naturally by two imprinted bearded vulture males, but the third egg was left in the nest. Unfortunately she behaved like in previous years.
Due to the attention of the VCF staff at Vallcalent, the chick could be saved and was hand-reared during the first days. As soon as the chick was strong enough a second adoption was attempted with its natural parents – in the VCF captive breeding long-term hand-raising of chicks is strictly avoided. Unfortunately this adoption failed because the female reacted again aggressively against the chick.
Without any more adoption possibilities in Vallcalent, the coordinators of the breeding network looked elsewhere - the best option seemed to be the pair in Schönbrunn Zoo (Vienna). So all the necessary logistics were arranged – plane tickets bought, permits obtained. When everything was ready, the foster pair from Schönbrunn Zoo stopped to breed. Panic!
Plan B was then…Ostrava zoo, where the adult pair was still breeding. So Karl Hofbauer-Höfer, a staff member from the Haringsee bearded vulture captive breeding center (Austria), travelled from Vienna to Barcelona by plane – where it was met at the airport by Alex Llopis, the VCF bearded vulture manager and coordinator of the breeding unit at Vallcalent. There he handed over the chick, which travelled back the same day to Vienna together with Karl – chicks this age need to be fed each 3-4 hours so they need a handler nearby and cannot travel alone (see photos). The bird overnighted in Haringsee, and then the next day it was taken by car to Ostrava. The chick was finally successful adopted and is now being reared in Ostrava without problems (see film).
Adoption of chicks is one of the secrets of the bearded vulture captive breeding network
Bearded vulture chicks display aggressive behavior while they are in the nest which results in the death of the younger sibling. This behavior is “obligatory”, and normally results in the death of the second bearded vulture chick in the wild. To prevent this problem and increase the number of chicks produced and reared naturally, second nestlings in the breeding network (or rejected nestlings like the one above) have to be individually reared by a foster pair.
This is one of the most important tasks of the EEP coordinator during the breeding season: keeping a close tab on which pairs have a double fertile clutch and could need a foster pair, and which pairs failed but are still breeding and available for an adoption. Only with an accurate coordination and intense communication between the 40+zoos and centers that make the network this is made possible. The adoptions often require transfer of nestlings between partners and countries. This is only possible by receiving continuously the breeding results of each pair, so that as soon as the clutch fails the pair can receive dummy eggs so they do not interrupt their breeding behavior and may be used as a foster pair.
The final aim of the Bearded Vulture EEP is to produce chicks suitable for release, capable to survive in the wild without human help and able to reproduce when they arrive to their sexual maturity. Only natural reared chicks fulfil this aim.