Hunting for Corpses: Vultures Lured Back to Germany

By Philip Bethge

Photo Gallery: Scavengers of the Sky Photos
Markus P. Stähli/ wildphoto.ch

Vultures are slowly returning to Germany, driven out long ago by an unwelcoming populace. At the behest of conservationists, loosened "carcass regulations" in Europe have made the search for food less daunting -- but some still wonder if the birds will be able to survive.

Griffon vulture number 259 is no longer able to fly. A bullet from a small-caliber rifle wielded by an unknown shooter shattered the ulna and radius of the bird's wing in June. Veterinarians tried to rehabilitate the vulture, using physical therapy to strengthen its wing muscles and even applying leeches to improve circulation, but nothing worked.

"It's over for him," says Wolfgang Rades, director of Herborn, a bird park in the central German state of Hesse. Rades casts a concerned glance toward the vulture, where it crouches on a pile of stones in a corner of its enclosure, looking a sad sight on this cold, damp morning. Yet for Rades, the bird is also a sign of hope. "He's an ambassador for others of his kind living in the wild," the biologist says. "Many more vultures will follow him, if we humans allow them to."

Griffon vulture 259 is among the vanguard of a new avian presence in Germany. Vultures are returning to the country, slipping stealthily into German airspace and often flying at heights of over 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). Ornithologists, glider pilots and hang gliders have all spotted these carrion-feeders above cities such as Hanover and Freiburg and regions such as the Black Forest and the Swabian Jura (see map).

"At least 50 to 60 vultures have been sighted in Germany this year," says Dieter Haas from the Vulture Conservation Initiative (GESI) based in Albstadt, southwestern Germany. "And many more are sure to follow."

Ornithologist counted 26 griffon vultures just in mid-June in the area outside the town of Tessin in northeastern Germany. And from April to August, a bearded vulture named Bernd delighted bird lovers by flying all the way from the Alps to the Baltic Sea. Even cinereous vultures, a rare species with a wingspan of nearly three meters, have been spotted in German skies.

Others may revile these species as supposed harbingers of death, but bird lovers are thrilled. "Vultures provide the best disposal service nature has to offer. They perform an important ecological function," says Haas, who has observed vultures feeding numerous times. They plunge from the sky "like stones" when they spot a carcass on the ground, he says of such spectacles, and set to work on their find. "They gobble everything up and then they're gone again." Haas considers these birds "a gift from the skies."

EU Takes Away Food Source

All four European vulture species -- the bearded, cinereous, griffon and Egyptian vultures -- were once native to Germany, but humans were no fans of the birds.

A century ago, when vultures still lived here, people in the Alps believed bearded vultures stole lambs, goats and even small children. They called the birds "bone crushers," for the way they dropped their prey from great heights onto rocks, smashing the bones to get at the marrow, their favorite food. Local lords offered a bounty for hunting the birds. In 1913, a hail of birdshot tore apart what is presumed to have been the Alps' last bearded vulture, in the Aosta Valley, Italy.

Many griffon vultures, meanwhile, perished from poison bait that was meant for wolves and foxes. Pesticides, too, are harmful to vultures, since they accumulate in the bodies of the animals on which vultures feed.

More than anything, though, vultures disappeared because their once plentiful source of food ran dry -- and remains so to this day. A 2002 EU hygiene regulation, also called the "carcass regulation" by conservationists, stipulates that germs from animal carcasses must be prevented from making contact with drinking water, to keep animal-borne diseases in check. The law was primarily introduced to stem the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, but it also applies when a sheep gets its skull split open by lightning or a deer meets its end at the bumper of a car. No dead livestock may be left lying in the open, and hunters must either take the carcasses with them or quickly bury them.

The new regulation kept European woods tidy -- but there was nothing left for vultures to eat.

Farmers in Spain, for example, had to close down their "muladares," traditional spots where for centuries they had tossed carcasses for vultures to feed on, a hygienic method of disposing of dead animals.

'Vulture Alert' in Germany

With their food source now gone, hungry vultures began attacking even living livestock. And in 2006, Germany experienced its first influx of vultures, as the emaciated birds flocked in to look for food. Coming as it did in the middle of the summer news slump, the arrival of birds such as a griffon vulture nicknamed "Gonzo" made headlines. German mass-circulation daily Bild reported a "vulture alert in the north."

Three years later, lawmakers eased the "carcass regulation" in response to pressure from conservationists. Spain's muladares are back and the country's vulture population has grown again, to around 25,000 pairs. Biologists have succeeded in reintroducing vultures into the French Alps as well. "It's fantastic, they've seen griffon vultures and steinbock on the same crags out there," Haas says enthusiastically.

It's no surprise, then, that the carrion-feeders have struck out for Germany as well. Young vultures are true distance travelers, undertaking wide-ranging exploratory flights before they start to breed between four and six years of age.

Such was the case with one early adopter, the bearded vulture Bernd -- so nicknamed, although the bird later turned out to be female. In 2012, Bernd was fitted with a radio transmitter and released into the wild in Switzerland. This year, on May 17, Bernd began a journey northward.

Bernd flew first over Bavaria and the Czech Republic, then as far as Poland's Baltic Sea coast, before turning west. She continued on past the cities of Stade and Bremen, then headed south once again. But then, near the city of Bayreuth, Bernd's radio signal suddenly cut out. Bird lovers feared the vulture had suffered a violent death, but those fears were soon allayed. "The female bearded vulture appears to have managed to get rid of her radio tag," conservationists announced online on June 13. Then on June 19 came the news: "Bernd is alive!" The bird was found, weakened, in the German state of Saxony. She was rehabilitated and returned to the wild in the Alps.

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1. This is great news!
harry.haddad 11/01/2013
This is such great news! Hopefully more species will be restored and will flourish not only in Germany but also the entirety of Europe and the world as well!
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