Ever since my dad took my sister and I to see Disney’s Jungle Book at the World Theatre in my little hometown in the late 1960s, I have had a special affinity for vultures.
Remember the friendly barbershop-quartet in the bleak petrified desert? Originally, Beatles’ manager wanted the band to record the song for the movie, but John Lennon vetoed the project, apparently suggesting that Elvis sing it instead. Those were the days. Of course I know that real vultures don’t sport Beatles mops and Manchester twang, but they are nothing to fear – unless you are dead, of course. And at that point you really don’t have to worry too much about it.
One of the most magnificent birds in Spain is the Griffon Vulture (Buitre Leonado), a common sight in the craggy mountains of Serranía de Ronda, one of its most important breeding grounds. We often notice them circling high above us as we go on mountain hikes or drive through rocky passes. They stay away from populated areas, so there was great commotion when a young Griffon vulture landed in the parking lot of our local Ronda hospital.
An anesthesiologist managed to snap some pictures between surgeries, while the general jokes in the halls where about the vulture coming to seek medical attention. It quickly became clear that the poor animal could not be left in the parking stall, so great minds came together to find a solution. Someone suggested a pet carrier, which was brought out to the hospital. However, given that the vulture is Andalucía’s largest raptor, they soon discovered that only its head would fit in the box. It is a blessing that doctors are not engineers…
There are often misconceptions about vultures. Unbeknown to many, vultures don’t kill. They are the nature’s cleaning team, devouring and getting rid of carcasses which otherwise would rot and possibly spread disease. They may be perceived as ugly (if one has not seen the Jungle book), but these large birds with their powerful beaks for ripping meat and sharp claws for clinging to rocky cliffs, have bald little heads with fuzzy baby hair that completely ruins their macho raptor image.
But vultures are far from macho. I fact they are a lot more ‘liberated’ than many Spanish males. Both vulture-parents incubate, brood, and feed the single egg they hatch each year. Females often steal sticks from other pair’s nests, while the males of the couple arrange them. Griffon vultures mate for life, which may be forty or fifty years. The couples circle together near the cliffs where they nest and live in colonies with other breeding pairs.
Seeing a flying vulture is nothing short of magnificent. The Griffon vulture is the highest-flying bird on record, spotted at over 11000 meters in the skies of Africa. They have wingspans of almost 3 meters, which allows them to soar for over 6 hours. Apart from takeoff and landing, they rarely need to flap their wings. They will fly as far as 150 km in search of food for their young and have a ‘cruising speed’ of over 35 km per hour.
The vulture population in Spain has been declining rapidly due to poisoning, hunting and habitat loss. To prevent this, the government put up authorized feeding stations. After the mad cow disease scare, EU farm rulings tried to stop the feeding stations, so now the carcasses are severely tested before they are put out. It is not easy being a vulture these days…
And what happened to our young buzzard friend? After much wing flipping, shouting, cell phoning and beak snapping, the severely confused bird was finally sent off. Thanks to the staff at the hospital, he is now launching in a coastal bird-rehab and can be visited at the Centro Recuperación de Aves Rapaces in Alhaurín de la Torre near Málaga.
To know more, check out the blog of the anesthesiologist and resident poet Dr. Emilio Perianes: http://hayquevivirla.blogspot.com.es/2013/10/el-dia-del-buitre.html