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Bearded Vulture

Gypaetus Barbatus

The Lammergeier, Lammergeyer or bearded vulture (scient. Gypaetus barbatus) is the rarest species of vulture out of the four that exist in Europe, which’s population has declined dramatically in Greece and it’s in imminent danger of extinction. During the last decades the species was widespread throughout Greece, but today is limited only to the island of Crete. Although previously there were 25 couples of vultures in Greece, in 1995 there were only 4 couples, all in Crete.

The name barbatus means bearded and is taken after the small beard of black hairs that is below its beak. It has long pointed wings and a large rhombic tail. It can perform dynamic and fast-flying maneuvers and, despite the big weight (5-7kg) and the long wingspan, which reaches 2,80m in adults. The young birds are gray, while the adults have yellowish head and orange body. The wings and tail are gray-black at the top and brown-black at the bottom side. The orange color of the chest is a result of the "makeup" of feathers with rust, after rubbing its body in ferrous rocks, while the natural color is whitish.

The vultures maintain large territories of 350 square kilometers, where they remain throughout their live in pairs. If a bird dies, then the other vulture remains lonely in its territory, so it will not reproduce its species. In order a territory to regain a pair, one bird should be born in an adjacent territory. It is estimated that today in Crete, where there are 13 territories, there are 4-6 pairs of vultures (2004) and the remaining territories have solitary vultures. Thus, the total birds in Crete are about 30, with about 10 of them being young and only 8-12 being able to reproduce (as pairs). The vast majority of birds born each year (2-3 vultures) come from two territories: that west of Crete and the territory of the National Park of White Mountains.

The vulture can be met in valleys in the winter and at higher altitudes (>2000m) on summer. It is usually seen near cliffs or steep slopes, both in inland and coastal areas. In each territory the pair builds 1-2 nests in small caves (up to 7 have been seen) which are used interchangeably. In Crete, scientists have recorded the lowest active nest (altitude 300m) and the earlier nesting (10 October) in the world. The bearded vulture lays 1-2 eggs from mid November to late January, of which only one chick survives. The young vulture leave the nest after 120-130 days and remains in the parental territory for 3-5 more months.

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In Crete, the bearded vulture is also called kokkalas (i.e. bone feeding) because it feeds mostly on bones from corpses, which they identify with the help of other scavengers. Observing a vulture while eating bones is an amazing experience, since it raises the big bones at high altitudes and leaves them fall into rocky and steep slopes till they break, while following the bone with a characteristic spiral descent. The smaller bones are swallowed whole and are digested easily because of the powerful gastric juices in its stomach. This dietary habit seems odd, but the bones are a nutritious and easily storable food, while the vulture also has very few competitors. The bearded vulture in Crete depends entirely on pastoralism, as small groups of sheep living in semi-wild conditions in all the mountains of the island are an important source of food.

The main threats for this endangered species of Crete are poaching and the use of drugs towards exterminating dogs and crows. Other threats include disturbance near nesting sites, which is increasing due to the constant construction of rural roads that reach the most inaccessible places. Moreover, food shortages during the period of incubation, when the chick can not be fed by bones, are the most critical stage of the reproductive cycle.

The bearded vultures of Crete today are protected and closely monitored by scientists. There are 7 open feeders in special places, where scientists put corpses of large animals such as donkeys and goats. Moreover, an attempt is made to inform Cretans about the endangered bird. In recent years another potential risk has occurred for all birds of prey, in general. This is the wind turbines have been installed in many mountain peaks. Indeed, many birds of prey are confused by the windmills and have been fatally hit, as evidenced by the attached video, where a griffon has been hit by a wind turbine in the area of Lendas.

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