Three young Egyptian Vultures are on their way to freedom in Bulgaria

A young Egyptian Vulture donated by Jerez Zoo in Spain being transported to the Green Balkans Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre ahead of its release into the wild (c) Green Balkans
A young Egyptian Vulture donated by Jerez Zoo in Spain being transported to the Green Balkans Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre ahead of its release into the wild (c) Green Balkans

As three captive-bred Egyptian Vultures enjoy the spring sun in specially constructed aviaries in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains we will once again partner with the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds for a second year on thier Egyptian Vulture New LIFE vulture conservation project to test different methods of releasing captive-bred Egyptian Vultures into the wild. 

 

Getting used to their new home

Over March the Bulgarian wildlife organisation Green Balkans took delivery of three very special packages from Spain, Austria and the Czech Republic. Inside the packages from Zoo Vienna Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Zoo Zoobotánico Jerez in Spain and Zlín-Lešná Zoo in the Czech Republic were young Egyptian Vultures born in the 2018 breeding season and now as they reach their first birthday day are taking the final steps to freedom, being released into the wild in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria in a method known as delayed release. 

The team from Green Balkans at Schönbrunn Zoo with one of the young Egyptian Vultures ahead of being transported to Bulgaria
The team from Green Balkans at Schönbrunn Zoo with one of the young Egyptian Vultures ahead of being transported to Bulgaria

The zoos have donated the three young birds as part of the Egyptian Vulture New LIFE vulture conservation project that is working to strengthen the population of Egyptian Vultures in the Balkans by releasing captive-bred birds into the wild. 

The specially construced aviary for the captive-bred Egyptian Vultures  in the Rhodope Mountains (c) V Dobrev

The birds spent a few weeks in the Green Balkans Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue centre before being transported up to the mountains and being released in a specially constructed aviary near a supplementary feeding station. The three young birds will spend the next couple of months in the aviary acclimatising to their new home, encountering other wild birds including some of Bulgaria’s wild Egyptian Vultures. The doors to the aviary will be opened in a couple of months and the birds will be released into the wild ahead of their first migration to sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Europe’s migratory vulture

 

Egyptian Vultures, unlike the other three species of European vultures are migratory traveling over 5,000km to sub-Saharan Africa soon after fledging. The journey for young birds is often a very perilous journey that can lead to significant mortality – in a study done with wild tagged young Egyptian Vultures in Bulgaria and Greece, around 70% died during the first migration, often drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean through less conventional routes. As the population has significantly declined in the eastern population of the species, any birds released would have to do so mostly alone with a smaller pool of older experienced birds to migrate with.  

 

Testing different methods of release

2019 will be the second year of a five year experiment to test different release techniques to improve the survival of captive-bred birds. Over the next five years 10 birds will be released using three different release methods, through hacking, fostering in wild nests and delayed release. This experiment will help inform future restocking programme to reinforce and boost the recovery of the Egyptian vulture population on the Balkans.

Two of the captive-bred Egyptian Vultures released in 2018 at a feeding station in the Eastern Rhodope Moutains
Two of the captive-bred Egyptian Vultures released in 2018 at a feeding station in the Eastern Rhodope Moutains

The results of the pilot year were mixed, all the birds released using the delayed release method survived with three out of four successfully migrating to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa, the fourth is currently on the Greek island of Crete. The other two methods of hacking and fostering were less successful with three of the four birds dying, one after reaching their wintering grounds, one during a sea crossing and another whilst migrating over Turkey. The fourth bird had to be recaptured due to unusual behaviour, probably associated with imprinting. 

 

Learning the lessons from this pilot year has ensured that the second year of this experiment will hopefully improve the survival of young birds. 

Working collaboratively projects like the Egyptian Vulture New LIFE aims to reinforce the Egyptian vulture population in their Europe’s easternmost range across the Balkans. By actively managing and restocking the population by releasing captive-bred birds the project will support the small Balkan population which number between 60 and 80 pairs across the whole region. The project is working to deliver conservation measures that eliminate major known threats such as illegal poisoning and electrocution in their summer breeding grounds. Monitoring the population closely using GPS transmitters will also help the project tackle the major threats Egyptian vultures face.  The Egyptian Vulture New LIFE is a partnership of organisations, led by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds from 14 countries spanning Europe, the Middle East and Africa, to protect Egyptian vultures not only in Europe but all along their migratory flyway.

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