Black vultures are alive and well in parts of Europe

I’m just back from a brief holiday in Spain, spent in the mountains of Andalucia, inland from Malaga.

It was great for wildlife watching. Much of the botany was puzzling because it was so different, as were the butterflies which were on the wing in January. I saw several roe deer, visited a conservation project where I met Iberian wolves at close quarters, and had great bird-watching.

The first night I went out to a restaurant in a pine forest and was having a glass of wine before dinner on the terrace. At this time of year dusk comes later in southern Spain than in Ireland. As it got dark the owl chorus started. Tawny owls, the ones that make the classic ‘too-wit-to-woo’ sound, aren’t found in Ireland. In Spain they seem to start the evening by declaiming their territory. One bird would call and, a few seconds later, another would respond from a different direction and at a different distance. Sometimes four or five birds would get involved. The business of establishing who was where seemed to take an hour or so, after which the birds became much quieter, with only the odd hoot. I imagine that, having sorted out territory matters, they went off to hunt mice and voles.

The next day found me in the village of El Chorro. It’s in a gorge with cliffs and a hydro-electric dam. There’s a rail station, a few cafes, and a lot of young German-speaking hikers and rock-climbers. There were also a lot of griffon vultures; I spent my time with my neck craned back watching them soaring on the up-currents around the cliffs.

Then, suddenly, two extraordinary birds appeared. They were enormous and dark coloured with short, wedge-shaped tails, pale heads, and massive wings with parallel sides ending in distinct ‘fingers’ of primary feathers. They had to be black vultures. I could hardly believe it because I thought they were virtually extinct in western Europe.

The black vulture is the world’s largest bird of prey. Females are slightly larger than males. They can have a wing-span of over 3m and weigh up to 14kg. Some South American condors have a slightly longer wing span but don’t weigh as much — modern taxonomy doesn’t regard the condor as a true raptor.

I call them black vultures but this is a slightly confusing name because it’s also used for a smaller, and completely unrelated, North American species. An alternative name is cinereous vulture, but I don’t like this either because the adjective ‘cinereous’ means ash-grey in colour and these vultures are very dark brown to black.

Thirty years ago they were close to extinction in western Europe but, thanks to conservation measures and a feeding programme in Spain, they have increased in numbers and range, and spread into Portugal, with a reintroduction programme in southern France.


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