The Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is the smallest of the four species of vultures found in Europe. In Bulgarian it is also known as “lesser vulture” due to its wingspan of 180 cm (5.9 ft.) and its body length of 60-70 cm (2.1 ft.). The plumage of the adult bird is white with black flight feathers; it has a yellow-orange face with bare skin, with a typical crested appearance resulting from the pointed feathers on its head. In flight it can be mistaken for a White Stork; the vulture is distinguished by its short legs and neck and the wedge-shaped tail.
The Egyptian Vulture is a globally endangered species included in the IUCN Red List as endangered. The global population of the species is estimated to be between 21 000 – 67 000 individuals with a stable decreasing tendency. It is under the strict protection of both Bern and Bonn international conventions, as well as that of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In the past the Egyptian Vulture was spread throughout the territories of Bulgaria and Greece in great numbers; at present the Balkan Peninsula is home to less than 90 pairs. The species is included in the Bulgarian Red Data Book and is protected by the national Biodiversity Act.
The Egyptian Vulture lives in open hills and low mountainsides. It nests mainly on rocks and cliffs, sometimes in the vicinity of human settlements. The nest is positioned in niches, ledges and clefts and can be used for several years. The species is monogamous and in ancient Egypt it was regarded as the symbol of parental care.
The Egyptian Vulture is praised for its intelligence. Worldwide it is one of the few birds known to use tools; in Africa it has the habit of picking up stones and using them to break open abandoned ostrich eggs.
Nowadays the Egyptian Vulture faces extinction and its distribution area dwindles. In the past it was a wide-spread species across Bulgaria and it reportedly nested even on the hills within the boundaries of the city of Plovdiv. At present one of the last remaining strongholds of the species is the Eastern Rhodope Mountain. It can also be seen in Russenski Lom, the Provadiysko-Royaksko Plateau and in Eastern Balkan Mountain.
The Egyptian Vulture is a typical long-distance migrant. In September both juvenile and adult birds leave their nesting territories and start on a long journey back to their wintering grounds in Africa. The species migrates in small groups mostly above land, avoiding the open sea. The birds fly over Turkey, then follow the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and enter Africa. They concentrate in great numbers at places with plentiful food supply such as landfills and supplementary feeding sites along the migration route. In spring the Egyptian Vultures fly more than 4 000 km (2500 mi.) back to their homes over 30 – 40 days. This period is critical for the juvenile birds as they are still inexperienced flyers but have to overcome a number of threats along the way.
The long autumn migration of the Egyptian Vultures finishes in Africa. The birds spend the unfavourable winter months there, preparing for the long journey back in spring. They congregate in great numbers in their wintering grounds; one of the most famous such congregations is in Sahel, south of the Sahara Desert. Here the Egyptian Vultures are quite undisturbed by humans and can often be seen feeding within villages and towns. They spend the night in groups on cliffs and electric poles and can be seen in great numbers at places with plentiful food supply such as landfills and slaughterhouses.
The Balkan Peninsula population spends the winter in Chad. Concentrations of the species can also be found in Ethiopia and Sudan. Juvenile vultures spend their first year in Africa near the rich food resources and come back to their birth place at 2 – 3 years of age. Together with the long distances spent in migration this means that the Egyptian Vultures spend about half of their life away from their breeding grounds.
The Egyptian Vulture is among the species in most rapid decline. At present its survival has become a real challenge. Human activities change the environment and pose a lot of risks for the vultures. The reasons for the high death rate of the species can be found in its nesting territories as well as along its migration routes and in its wintering grounds. Poisoning is among the main causes of death among Egyptian Vultures. Feeding on food that has been either poisoned or treated with harmful substances can endanger the life of both adult as well as young birds. Feeding on carrion of antibiotic-treated livestock weakens their immune system making it easier for them to fall victim to dangerous diseases.
Poachers that kill the birds or steal their eggs also play a crucial role for their decline. Human presence in the vicinity of the nests could disturb the birds; they could leave their eggs or chicks unattended which can have fatal consequences for the young. Another serious risk is posed by the electric distribution network. The main threats for the Egyptian Vulture along its migration routes and in its wintering grounds are more or less identical with those faced in its nesting grounds. However, further research is needed to plan appropriate activities for the effective conservation of the species.
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