You may not associate Spain with that family group of scavengers that circle the skies above a body in innumerable Western movies or deal with a cow carcass in rural India. But these days, thanks to careful conservation, finding Spanish vultures is just a matter of knowing where to look.
The History of Vultures in Spain
Two hundred years ago, four species of vulture – Griffon, Black (or Cinereous), Bearded and Egyptian – were among the most common breeding birds in southern Europe. The people of those times would have been used to seeing flocks of these magnificent animals soaring over their homesteads. They would have been welcome, performing the valuable function of rapidly consuming carcasses that would otherwise have rotted and spread disease.
Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, Andalucía – Griffon Vulture Migration & Mountains Birding Tour
However, in the earlier parts of the 20th century, vultures’ needs came into conflict with humans’ interests. The expansion of the human population in Europe led to extensive changes in land use from wilderness to agriculture and the rearing of livestock. Along with this came the inevitable deployment of poisons to control farm pests and, eventually, power lines and other hazardous structures for large birds to unwittingly collide with.
There was also a rise in logging in virgin forests and uncontrolled hunting, which removed breeding habitat and a ready supply of wild animal carcasses for the vultures to feed on. There was also an increase in nest disturbance as an accidental consequence of human activity, for instance, road building and the movement of traffic. And there was a very deliberate consequence as a result of the rise in popularity of the hobby of egg collecting.
Changes in Attitudes to Nature
All of these things combined to seriously affect the numbers of every species of raptor in Spain and vultures went into a steep decline. This continued until the 1970s, but by that point, there was an ever-growing realisation and acknowledgement of what had been done historically to the natural environment in Spain and a desire to rectify the damage.
Far greater protections and stringent rules have been implemented in many areas since then, to encourage traditional sympathetic land management, curtail human encroachment on wild spaces and rigorously prevent illegal activities that threaten nature. For example, the local government of Andalucía has created an anti-poisoning dog unit within its police force that employs the canines to sniff out anyone using the banned practice of putting out poisoned baits to control farmland predators. Measures such as these have notably borne fruit in the case of vultures.
There was a slight blip in the conservation efforts in the late 80s and early 90s with the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in Europe (known colloquially as Mad Cow Disease). Farmers were banned from leaving animal carcasses or the residue from legal hunting in the countryside and instead were required to bury or incinerate it. This removed a main food source from the vultures and they began to suffer starvation.
The situation was remedied by the creation of ‘muladares’, or middens, in environmentally important areas, where farmers and butchers can deposit the remains of dead animals as supplementary feeding for scavengers. Ecotourism has led to feeding stations being set up that assist as additional sources of nourishment.
The Rise of Griffon Vultures in Spain
The easiest of the vulture species to find in Spain are the Griffons. The country is home to 90 percent of Europe’s population of these remarkable and very useful birds. Perhaps even more surprising, in global terms Spain contains 75 percent of the world’s Griffons. So, if you have a hankering to see vultures in good numbers Spain should be your number one choice.
Photo credit: Ebro Delta Birding, Catalonia – Ebro Delta Birding Experience Tour
Griffon Vultures can be found in the rocky mountainous regions of almost every province of Spain apart from Huelva, and in almost every area their populations are of a good size and numbers are increasing.
In a survey conducted by the Spanish Ornithological Society in 1979, it was estimated that the number of breeding pairs of Griffon Vultures in the whole of Spain only amounted to 3,249. Today that number has increased to an estimated 25,000 pairs – a big conservation success story.
In just 40 years a sea change in people’s attitudes has brought Griffons back into the Spanish landscape, fulfilling their place in the ecosystem. This change in environmental approach has also benefitted other species of vultures that breed in the country.
You can get good views of Griffon Vultures catching mid-morning thermals around the citadel in Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura. If you take the short stroll uphill from the car park you can stand on the battlements and admire the birds as they glide by at eye level. As a bonus, they can often be joined by Egyptian Vultures and there are many other interesting birds such as Rock Buntings flitting around the site.
There is a vulture feeding station in Aragon, northern Spain, which is much-beloved by wildlife photographers. There you can see hundreds of Griffons at close quarters. And there are good numbers of Griffons in the western parts of the Penibética mountain ranges of southern Spain, which include the Sierra de Grazalema and the Straits of Gibraltar. These are just a few of the opportunities local wildlife guides can provide to see vultures in Spain.
In late October and early November, at the coast around Tarifa, Andalucía, you’ll find the biggest gathering of Griffon Vultures anywhere in the world! Europe’s young Griffons are migrating south to winter in Africa, across the narrow stretch of sea at The Straits of Gibraltar. Over 10,000 vultures gather in the area to make this pilgrimage, and you can witness them gathering in huge swirling groups along with hundreds of other soaring birds, including Short-toed Eagles, Booted Eagles, Black Storks, and Black Kites.
Rarer vulture species often get caught up in the throng too, and you may be lucky enough to see Cinereous, Egyptian, or Rüppell´s Vulture (a rare African visitor, now frequently sighted in the area) alongside them. This is one of Nature´s great spectacles, with as many as 2,300 vultures recorded crossing the Straits in a single hour!
Would you enjoy a specialist Griffon Vultures trip? Then have a look at the 7-day Griffon Vulture Migration & Mountains Birding Tour offered by Inglorious Bustards.
Black Vulture Conservation
Black, or Cinereous, Vultures are rarer vultures in Spain than Griffons, but they can still be found. Their conservation story has also been one of success. In 2002 an action plan to save them was launched in Andalucía when numbers had dropped as low as 190 adults in the whole region. By 2015 there were just under 400 breeding pairs there and the population was growing at the rate of 5 percent each year.
Photo credit: Birding Extremadura, Extremadura – Spring Birding Extremadura Tour, Spain
The Black Vulture has also been the subject of a successful reintroduction campaign on the Spanish island of Mallorca. In 1984 birds were released onto the island to augment the 20 or so native ones still remaining, all of which were non-breeding. In a 2017 survey of the colony in the Tramuntana Mountains 36 territorial pairs were counted and breeding had begun again.
Human disturbance is one of the greatest issues affecting Black Vultures, but this is also one of the hardest to control. Black Vultures in particular have a long breeding season, with the egg incubated for an average of 57 days and the chick staying in the nest for 110–120 days. Even after they have fledged, the young birds don’t immediately disperse, returning to the nest to roost at night for a period.
Curtailing activity such as forestry, cork harvesting, legal hunting, and road maintenance for such long periods of time requires a high degree of buy-in from local people, whose livelihoods may well be affected. However, the birds’ growth in numbers shows that in many parts of Spain there has been that support.
So successful has been the increase in Black Vultures in Spain, conservationists have felt able to donate birds to kickstart three new breeding populations across the border in France.
The mighty Bearded Vulture in Spain
This huge bird, with a wingspan of almost three metres, is one of Europe’s biggest birds of prey and also one its rarest.
The best place on the continent to see Bearded Vultures, or Lammergeier, is in the Spanish Pyrenees, in the provinces of Aragon, Navarre and Catalonia where there are some 130 breeding pairs. The mountains are within reach of Barcelona and there are photography hides set up where Bearded Vultures come down to feeding stations.
Photo credit: Photo Logistics, Catalonia – Catalan Steppes and Mountains Birding Tour, Catalonia, Spain
These magnificent vultures can also be found in the Picos de Europa National Park, which is spread between Asturias, Léon and Cantabria in northern Spain, and in the mountains of central Andalucía in the south. A reintroduction programme for Bearded Vultures was started in Andalucía in 2005, following the achievements of similar reintroductions in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps. There, chicks are being raised in captivity for release into the wild, but several pairs of previously released birds are now also breeding in their natural environment of the mountainous crags in the region.
The name Bearded Vulture comes from the long black bristles under the bird’s chin. However, in Spain Bearded Vultures are known as Quebrantahuesos, which is a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese meaning ‘which breaks bones’. Bearded Vultures have a unique diet made up exclusively of animal bones.
The Spanish name comes from the birds’ habit of smashing up larger bones into bite-sized pieces to get at the marrow and also make them easier to swallow. It does this by taking the bones up to a height and dropping them onto rocks. The particular stomach acids present in the bird’s digestive system enable it to dissolve something the size of a lamb’s leg bone in around 24 hours.
Egyptian Vultures on the Move
The final, and smallest, species of the vulture to be found in Spain are the strikingly beautiful Egyptians. The country holds the largest population of Egyptian Vultures in Europe, with around 1,500 pairs. These are distributed around some 15 Spanish provinces and islands, with Castilla y Léon, Aragón, La Mancha, and Extremadura boasting the highest numbers.
Photo credit: Menorca Walking Birds, Menorca – Vulture Birdwatching Highlights Trip, Menorca, Spain
Egyptian Vultures, in common with other birds of prey in Europe, had declined significantly by the mid-20th century, and across Europe, numbers are still worryingly small. However, populations are now stable in Spain and the birds are relatively easy to see around the country, particularly on migration across the Straits of Gibraltar.
Egyptian Vultures differ from other European vultures in several respects. They are the only European vulture species to migrate, they are known to employ tools to access their food and alongside carrion they will eat small-sized live prey, eggs, and fallen fruit.
Egyptian Vultures spend their winters in sub-Saharan Africa and return to sites in Spain and other parts of the continent to breed in the spring. If there are strong onshore winds during the autumn migration it’s not unusual to see gatherings of adult and juvenile Egyptian Vultures roosting together in trees near the Straits, waiting for their moment to cross to the African continent.
Because they are a migratory species, Egyptian Vultures are particularly vulnerable to hunting along their flyways as well as collisions with powerlines and wind turbines. Over the past few years, conservation organisations in Spain and Portugal have been attaching GPS tags to Egyptian Vultures in order to monitor their migration routes and address some of the hazards they encounter that are preventing healthy population recoveries.
Are you interested in seeing a Spanish vulture in wild?
For more information, search for the vulture name from the home page or contact a Spanish local wildlife specialist about which tours offer the chance to see a vulture in Spain.
Sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain in New York
Originally Published on: 24 Nov 2020