Israeli scientists help vultures spread their wings

In what is being hailed as a scientific breakthrough that could help preserve an endangered species, two Israeli Griffon vultures with crippled wings have successfully mated and hatched a fledgling. Scientists had previously believed that vultures that are unable to …

In what is being hailed as a scientific breakthrough that could help preserve an endangered species, two Israeli Griffon vultures with crippled wings have successfully mated and hatched a fledgling.

Scientists had previously believed that vultures that are unable to fly could not mate because they cannot balance properly, according to Yonit Sela, an Israeli ornithologist involved in a project to revive Israel’s dwindling Griffon vulture population. The program, Spreading Wings, works to resuscitate the vulture population and has set up 20 feeding and nesting stations around the country.

In addition, Sela and her colleagues have worked over a period of time to provide five crippled vultures optimal mating conditions. They met with success when they discovered an egg in a nest two of them had built.

To ensure the egg would hatch, it was placed in an incubator at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, and a fake plaster replacement put in the nest, Sela said.

Fifty-seven days later, the egg hatched. The ornithologists were concerned the parents would not accept their offspring because the hatching had not taken place in the nest, but were surprised; within five minutes of the young male being returned to the nest, the mother had brought him food.

“He was welcomed in exceptional way,” Sela told Israel’s Army Radio.

Griffon vultures, once a common sight in the Mideast, have nearly disappeared. In the past, the vultures were an integral part of the natural landscape of the country.

Israel’s Griffon vultures are the only large vultures that are pale colored. They live in mountainous areas, nesting on cliff ledges. With a wingspan of up to seven feet, they soar to great heights looking for food. When food is located, a large noisy group forms, and what seems like fighting, is in fact, each vulture helping the other to tear loose strips of meat.

It was estimated that in the late 1880s, Griffon vultures numbered in the thousands. In the mid-1950s, there were still approximately 1000 couples. Today there are only 70 breeding pairs in the country, a drop of 95%. In whole areas of the country, vultures have totally disappeared.

The reasons for the disappearance include the use of pesticides and toxic ecological pollution, the destruction of breeding sites or disturbances by man, a drop in the availability of food sources due to changes in agricultural markets and farming methods.

The Nature Reserves Authority, the Israel Electric Company, and the leading zoos in the country are all working return the vultures to Israel, from which they have almost disappeared. In this project all the vultures have been marked and their mates have been identified.

Breeding cages have been built, like the large predatory bird cage at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. Their genetic profile has been checked, and new methods of treating the eggs and chicks have been developed. Since 1989, over 60 chicks have been raised in Israel and 43 have been released. The Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem has been a part of this project since 1994, when a large breeding aviary was built.

Israel is not alone in the effort. Across Asia, bird-conservation groups, in cooperation with government officials, are racing to establish captive-breeding facilities in a final bid to rescue the vultures from the brink of extinction, by encouraging the birds to breed and raise young.

In India, organizations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is working in India with the Bombay Natural History are working to save various breeds of vulture by setting up such centers, which are also designed to look after sick and injured birds.

The effort is being fueled by the impact of the vulture decline, which is already being felt throughout Asia. Rotting carcasses left uneaten by vultures pose a health hazard. Such carcasses are linked to the spread of diseases such as anthrax, according to the conservationists.

Other animals, such as rats, cats, and dogs, are filling the niche once filled by vultures. Wild dog populations in particular have increased substantially, leading to an increase in the spread of rabies and physical attacks on people.

The breeding of the vultures with broken wings is not the first breakthrough that Israel has had in the world effort to save the vultures – including an exercise in same-sex housekeeping.

Five years ago, zoo keepers at the Jerusalem Biblical zoo noticed that Dashik and Yahuda, two male vultures had built a nest together and were mating. So they decided to give the couple an artificial egg to see what would happen, and the two males took to the egg, incubating it perfectly as a team. The next step was giving them a child to raise.

And indeed, the same-sex couple managed to raise a number of babies, exceeding expectations. Since that time, they have “divorced” and gone on to form male/female pairs, and both are producing eggs and chicks with their new mates on a regular basis.

There was a reason beyond mere curiosity for seeking parenting help from the pair of cohabitating male vultures. Normally, female Griffon vultures lay only one egg a year. But if the egg is taken from the mother, she will lay a second egg.

By providing suitable surrogate parents for the eggs that are taken, bird keepers can increase the number of vultures that are bred.

The enclosure at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo operates in close conjunction with all the authorities throughout the country that are participating in the Spreading Wings program to save the vultures. The Israel Raptor Breeding Center operates behind the scenes in the program, by taking the eggs of rare species such as the Griffon vultures for the purpose of incubation. Eventually, the chicks are either returned to their biological parents or deposited with adoptive parents.