The fascinating vultures are back

With its huge wings, the griffon vulture glides effortlessly through the air and
With its huge wings, the griffon vulture glides effortlessly through the air and can cover long distances in search of carrion. photo © Marcel Burkhardt

Not so long ago, seeing a griffon vulture in Switzerland was an extraordinary sight. For the past ten years, the species has been regularly crossing our skies. Many vulture species are threatened worldwide. The return of the griffon vulture to Europe goes against this trend and is a great success for nature conservation.

Sempach. - By the 1960s, griffon vultures had almost disappeared from Western Europe, except in Spain. Thanks to a reintroduction project in France some forty years ago, their numbers have recovered. An estimated 3,000 pairs are now nesting again in France.

The individuals seen in Switzerland come from this reintroduction project, as well as from Spain and the Balkans. Today, around a hundred griffon vultures spend the summer in our mountains. Most are young birds. There are no known nesting records in Switzerland.

The griffon vulture is equipped to cover long distances: with a wingspan of over 2.5 meters, it can use thermals to glide several hundred kilometers a day. This characteristic is an adaptation to its feeding behavior. As a scavenger, it often has to travel long distances until it finds a corpse. Their exceptional eyesight also helps them in their search for food: griffon vultures can identify a 30 cm morsel from over 3.5 km away. Even so, griffon vultures by far don’t find food every day. Thanks to fat reserves, an adult griffon vulture can survive two to three weeks without food.

Vultures don’t have the best reputation: they’re said to bring death and to be dirty. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, by rapidly disposing of corpses, vultures help prevent meat from rotting and disease-causing microorganisms from spreading. In this way, they fulfil an important ecological function.

The decline in the numbers of several species of vulture in Africa and Asia, due to shooting and poisoning, is a cause for concern. All the more reason to celebrate this success for nature conservation in Europe. After the successful reintroduction of the bearded vulture in the Alps, we can now also observe griffon vultures in Switzerland.