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.

Take action now

Do you want to have a direct impact on climate change? Sir David Attenborough said the best thing we can do is to rewild the planet. So we run reforestation and rewilding programs across the globe to restore wild ecosystems and capture carbon.

Get involved

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

In the summer of 2019, our members funded the GPS tagging of griffon vultures in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Since then we have been supporting this vulture conservation intervention in collaboration with our partners at Rewilding Portugal. The detailed behavioural data acquired through this project is already providing answers to questions that before were only a matter of speculation.

Although the griffon vulture population in the Douro Valley has been monitored in the past, we could only guess where the vultures were foraging and what they were feeding on. This is where our vulture conservation project comes in by sponsoring the GPS devices required to track the movement patterns of griffon vultures.

These solar powered devices transmit precise geographical information without the need to recapture the individuals and have built in accelerometers that provide additional information about the way in which the vulture is moving at a given moment in time. This data can be used to determine when the vulture is resting, flying or foraging.

Moreover, this data can be used to identify the time and location of likely feeding events. By going to the field and looking for signs of feeding (such as carcass remains and vulture feathers), these feeding events can be confirmed and we can obtain information about what the vultures were feeding on, which in turn aids future vulture conservation efforts.

Vulture tagging in the Douro Valley
A griffon vulture being GPS tagged

Glossary of terms

Anthropogenic: This pertains to a human influence, mostly in relation to pollution or environmental damage. We will often hear of the natural world being influenced by anthropogenic factors which are as a direct result of human activity.

Breeding Population: Although the actual population of a species might be greater, the breeding population refers specifically to the members who are able to interbreed amongst themselves. For many animals this might take several years to reach this stage. It is used by conservationists to establish population trends in a species.

IUCN Red List: The International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are a global monitoring body, comprised of governmental, and non-governmental members. They are tasked with monitoring the state of wildlife and conducts environmental research worldwide.

Thermals: Rising air currents which are harnessed by, in this case vultures but indeed any bird to gain height. They are caused from slight rises in temperature from the earth and form these rising columns of warm air pushing upwards.

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

Continue reading about Rewilding Knowledge

see All Rewilding Articles