The Griffon Vulture colony in the Eastern Alps is increasing and occupying new areas

Griffon Vulture flying in the Eastern Alps (c) Fulvio Genero
Griffon Vulture flying in the Eastern Alps (c) Fulvio Genero

The Griffon Vulture population is booming in the Eastern Alps with the breeding numbers reaching a new high, thanks to the conservation actions of the project 'Progetto Grifone'.

 

The comeback of Griffon Vulture in the Eastern Alps

After the disappearance of the species as a breeder from the Eastern Alps in Italy and Slovenia about a century ago, the Griffon Vulture continued to appear in the spring and summer months. At the end of the 1980s, a reintroduction project began within the Lake of Cornino Nature Reserve in northeast Italy. The project started releasing birds in 1992, with about 80 birds released in total. The first nesting attempt was recorded in 1994 and since then the colony has gradually increased as a result of both the young hatched in the area and the immigration of birds from various countries. In recent years there has been a significant increase in territorial pairs and the area occupied.

 

Record number of Griffon Vultures breeding in the Eastern Alps

In 2019, we published the positive monitoring results, with 60 Griffon Vulture pairs and 33 fledged young in the Eastern Alps. In 2020, the results were surprising with an increase in the population and the discovery of other nesting groups. In total, the monitoring eforts recorded 70 territorial pairs with 44 young ready to fledge. These results are encouraging since these are the only colonies in the Alps and the northernmost in Europe and the Western Palearctic. The birds now nest in 14 different areas with colonies numbering from 1 to 15 pairs.

The trend in the reproductive biology of Griffon Vultures in the eastern Italian Alps
The trend in the reproductive biology of Griffon Vultures in the eastern Italian Alps

They are broadly distributed in a range of pre-Alpine sectors, but in recent years new sites have been discovered in typically Alpine areas with a rather harsh climate and plenty of winter snow in the Carnic and Julian Alps. Some pairs breed in the highest sectors of the Julian Alps, in the deep, cold valleys close to the border with Slovenia at altitudes of up to 1400 m asl and 40 km from the nature reserve and the feeding point. Another surprising fact is that the birds are frequenting increasingly high Alpine environments, even in winter. This phenomenon is favoured by mild winters, but is probably also the results of the birds' greater knowledge of the area, at least those that nest at a distance, frequenting the feeding station less, and which seek food in the mountains. The nesting sites lie at altitudes between 400 and 1400 m asl, with 20% of the nests being above 1000 m. The trend in terms of reproductive success was also positive this summer with productivity values (chicks per territorial pair) of 0.65 in 2020 and reproductive success (chicks per breeding pair) of 0.81. The monitoring of the breeding pairs is not easy, considering the few financial and human resources available and the abundance of potential nesting sites in a vast area. 

Nesting environments in the Carnic and Julian Alps (NE Alps-Friuli Venezia Giulia Region)
Nesting environments in the Carnic and Julian Alps (NE Alps-Friuli Venezia Giulia Region)

Food resources

The feeding point is supplied with 55 tons of carcasses per year, in particular, with pigs and wild ungulates run over on the roads. The area is located at the northern limit of the historical breeding range of the species, with critical climatic conditions and limited food resources, particularly in the autumn and wintertime. The feeding site is, however, still of fundamental importance, even if it is not frequented on a regular basis, given the quantity of food that Griffons can find in nature. It certainly does have a very important role for the summering Griffons that arrive from Croatia, with an estimated 200-300 birds. In 2020, several marked Griffons from other countries were observed, including six from Spain, three from France, two each from Bulgaria and Greece and one from Israel. Arrivals from the other Italian colonies are rare with just two ringed birds from Abruzzo being observed.

 

The project has positive effects on the aestivation of the species in all the eastern Alps, on the dynamics of the Croatian colonies and as promoter of exchanges both between the various populations of vultures of western and eastern Europe and between the Alps and the Balkans.

 

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