For the captive and wild populations of bearded vultures the breeding season is well under way with birds already displaying breeding behaviour.
Bearded vulture breeding
High in the mountains of Europe in Spring as the mountain herbivores have the first births and to coincide with this potentially rich supply of food, (due to the complications of births and harsh conditions that cause fatalities) the bearded vultures are also raising their young. In order to get this timing right bearded vultures have already began the breeding season with many observations from the Alps to the Sierras in Andalucia and the Pyrenees reporting the signs of breeding behaviour, making them the earliest breeders in Europe.
Breeding in captivity
Just like the wild birds, the 174 captive birds that are housed in the the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network of zoos, specialised breeding centres and private collections, exhibit the same behaviours that indicate breeding season has begun. Staff will see breeding pairs play with nesting materials such as sticks and wool, build their nest and engage in mutual preening and exhibit aggression towards neighbouring pairs. Alex Llopis Dell, the coordinator of the Network first noticed this behaviour back in mid October and whilst on the field trips to the Guadalentín Specialised Breeding Centre during our recent Annual Bearded Vulture Meeting 2018, participants witnessed this first hand with the copulations of Joseph & Keno and Elías & Viola.
Nest building for bearded vultures usually begins around three months before egg laying with copulations beginning between the birds anywhere between 50 and 90 days and once the egg is laid it will be incubated for around 54 days and the young will usually leave the nest around four months from hatching.
The importance of the nest
Whilst the wild birds can rely on their natural instincts for collecting nesting materials, the birds in captivity rely on the human keepers and it’s vital that the materials are of the good quality. Around 25 per cent of the eggs are lost or break during the incubation and that is primarily due to the quality of the nest. From the forty years of experience in the captive-breeding we have come to learn how we can best support the birds to build nests, this involves offering breeding pairs material early in the season, at our Vacallent Specialised Breeding Centre for example Alex has been offering small amounts of appropriately sized branches and washed wool since September and nest construction is closely linked to weather conditions, the birds will only build on days without rain.
Pair bonding is particularly important for the success of breeding and one way we have learnt to support a good pair bonding is to support them in their nest building as through this cooperation they will have better harmony that is essential during the incubation and rearing of the chick.
Last year we recorded an early egg laying at end of November by a pair at the Richard Faust Zentrum Breeding Centre in Austria, the same pair went on to successfully produce two clutches and was a first for the Network.
The importance of the captive population
In 2018 we released 13 captive-bred birds across five different regions of Europe and the successful breeding of the birds in the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network are vital for the success of these reintroduction projects. We are currently finalising plans for the release strategy in 2019 and hope, thanks to the efforts of all those involved in caring for the captive-birds, that this breeding season will be the most successful yet!
We’ll keep you up to date when we get news from the wild and from the birds in the breeding centres.