Vultures in the Douro Valley

Species present, conservation status & threats

written byMatt Davies Co-Founder, Mossy Earth

Matt Davies

One of the things we enjoy most about visiting our Wildfire Restoration & Rewilding project in Portugal, is the presence of Griffon vultures and black vultures circling overhead as we tree plant. Whether you call them a committee, vault or venue of vultures, these majestic raptors can be found soaring effortlessly in the thermal columns high above the Douro valley. – This is their home, breeding ground and even migration point for the spectacular Egyptian vulture that come north each summer to nest.

The Douro Valley

The tall granite cliffs that surround our reforestation area in the Douro Valley are home to the medieval looking Griffon, the migrating Egyptian vultures and endangered Black vultures. They all scavenge on a range of food from mammal faeces, to insects in dung, carrion, small animals and vegetable matter. Having a forest and ecosystem in this area again will be crucial for their survival.

Douro Valley after wildfires in 2017. Such wildfires has made it difficult for the local Griffon vultures, Black vultures and Egyptian vultures to find prey.
Douro Valley after wildfires in 2017.

The Griffon Vulture

Тhe Griffon prefers to feed on the softer parts of carcasses, such as the muscles and viscera. Its long neck, allows it to reach far into a carcass without snagging. They are very social in comparison to other vulture species. They are mostly silent but make high-pitched mewing or hissing notes at the nest and screeching noises when squabbling at a carcass.

Did you know? A group of vultures feeding is called a wake, and that the leader of the committee will always eat first with wings spread wide. It is only when it lowers its wings that the other vultures may begin to eat.

A committee of Griffon vultures feeding.
A committee of Griffon vultures feeding.

The Egyptian Vulture

The Egyptian vulture, also known as the pharaoh’s chicken, is a comparatively smaller vulture. Its contrasting underwing pattern and wedge-shaped tail make it distinctive in flight as it soars in thermals during the warmer parts of the day. Egyptian vultures feed mainly on carrion but are opportunistic and so will prey on small mammals, birds, and reptiles. They also feed on the eggs of other birds, breaking larger ones by tossing a large pebble onto them.

An Egyptian vulture soaring over the douro valley.
An Egyptian vulture soaring over the douro valley.

Black Vulture

The Black vulture is one of the two largest vultures in the world, attaining a size of up to 14 kg in weight, 1.2 metres in height and boasting a whopping 3 metre wingspan. The Black vulture is distinctly dark, with the whole body being dark brown excepting the pale head in adults, which is covered in fine blackish down. It is a bird of hilly, mountainous areas, especially favouring dry semi-open habitats such as meadows at high altitudes. They are always associated with undisturbed, remote areas with limited human disturbance. In contrast to the Griffon, they are a solitary bird, largely being found alone or in pairs.

A black vulture a top a crop of granite rocks.
A black vulture a top a crop of granite rocks.

Conservation Status & Threats

Griffon vulture is classified as Least Concern, while the Black vulture is classified as Near Threatened (NT), on the IUCN Red List.

Threats

  • Poisoning after illegal use of poison baits targeted at large carnivores (e.g. wolves, jackals) to protect livestock and game.
  • Lead poisoning by hunting ammunition
  • Reduced food availability
  • Direct persecution
  • Electrocution end collision caused by electric transfer networks
Two men and their dog out hunting. Lead poisoning from ammunition is a big problem in the Douro valley for the vultures.
Lead poisoning from ammunition is a big problem in the Douro valley for the vultures.

Rewilding Solutions

Supporting the comeback of vultures in this area of Portugal is not only good for nature itself, but great for the area’s thriving nature-based economy too. The 200km long Côa Valley Grand Route takes hikers, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts passed our plantation area, allowing them to see the vultures first hand.

Through our rewilding interventions we are looking to:

  • Build nesting platforms in the Côa Valley
  • GPS tagging to understand feeding patterns
  • Gathering camera trap footage that help track population numbers
  • Maintain feeding stations
  • Cover veterinary costs for injured vultures
  • Help maintain the valley’s pigeon lofts
  • Assist with ongoing research into their behaviour and migration patterns
A griffon vulture soaring through the sky in the Coa / Douro Valley.
A griffon vulture soars through the nearby Coa Valley.

The Eagle Has Landed – A Success Story

Not strictly vulture related, but worth sharing. – An Iberian-imperial eagle, classified as one of the most endangered birds of prey in Europe, was recently spotted in the municipality of Miranda do Douro, which means that this “rare bird” may be back in the territory of our Wildfire Restoration project. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the breeding population of the Iberian-imperial eagle disappeared completely from the North of Portugal.

There are just 17 pairs of imperial-Iberian eagles nesting in the South of Portugal, and this sighting may mean that the number is increasing because the bird sighted was juvenile. The sighting was captured by a camera trap close to our plantation area by our conservation partners Palombar researching the field of feeding necrophagous birds.

An Iberian-imperial eagle in northern Portugal
An Iberian-imperial eagle captured on a camera trap in the north of Portugal.

Sources & further reading

Peer Reviewed Research Section
  1. Vultures Galore in the Douro - Vultures Conservation FoundationExternal link
  2. Birdwatching Route – Douro Valley Valley - Douro ValleyExternal link
  3. A preliminary overview of monitoring for raptors Portugal - Monteiro, A., Pacheco, C. & Santos, N. 2009 – Journal of Animal Ecology Vol 81External linkIcon Peer Review
  4. Population dynamics and spatial distribution of Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus) in Portugal - Floris van Beest (a1), Loes van den Bremer, Willem F. de Boer, Ignas M. A. Heitkönig and Antonio E. Monteiro 2008 – Bird Conservation International Vol 18, Issue 2, Cambridge University PressExternal linkIcon Peer Review
  5. Assessment of the exposure to heavy metals in Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) from the Iberian Peninsula - Manuela Carneiroa, Bruno Colaçobc, Ricardo Brandão et al 2015 – Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety Vol 113External linkIcon Peer Review

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