The Griffon vulture is a rare type of vulture eagle, with impressive size and up to a 3m wingspan, and is Europe’s second-largest bird. It is an Old World vulture and a member of the bird of prey family of Accipitridae. It can be seen majestically soaring on thermal currents searching for food in the warmer, rugged parts of countries that surround the Mediterranean. It has a distinguishing creamy-white ruff, matching the color of its head and neck. Its body and upper wings are pale brown, which contrasts beautifully with its other dark flight feathers and tail, the contrast being most noticeable in young birds, as their upper-wing feathers are particularly pale.
This species has a very large range, across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, from India to Portugal and Spain, most commonly found in countries that border the Mediterranean. The biggest population is in Spain, being more than three-quarters of the European population. These birds are mostly resident but juveniles and immature individuals may migrate far or embark on long-distance movements. Griffon vultures live in areas of mountains, plateaus, shrubland, grassland, and semi-desert, usually in warm climates, but also in harsher conditions of cold, rain, mist, and snow to secure particularly favorable breeding or foraging conditions. They tend to avoid forests, lakes, wetlands, and marine waters. Requiring high cliffs for roosting, they are found in a range of elevations.
Griffon vultures are a diurnal species and co-operate when foraging by circling a particular area, keeping in sight of another vulture until the food is sighted, at which moment a large number of the birds may alight to feed on the dead animal. This may involve impressive threat displays and fights, as each bird works to maintain its place. Griffon vultures are fairly vocal and produce a variety of calls when communicating with others of their species. A drawn-out hissing is made by dominant birds during feeding, and when another bird comes too close, a wooden-sounding chattering is produced.
This species is monogamous, and pair bonds are often lifelong. Beautiful courtship flights take place around the nesting cliffs. Griffon vultures breed in colonies, generally containing 15 to 20 pairs, but sometimes up to 150 pairs. They build their nest on a cliff-face in a rock cavity or on a protected ledge, where a human would have difficulty reaching, using sticks 1-2 cm in diameter, finer twigs, and grasses. Breeding usually begins early in the year, before the end of January. One egg is laid and is incubated by both parents for 52-60 days. The chick is very weak when it hatches, with little down, weighing about 170 grams. Its feathers appear when it is about 60 days old, after which it very quickly becomes similar to the adults. After four months the young vulture is able to fly freely but is still not completely independent, the parents still feeding it by regurgitation.
Due to its vast breeding range and large population, the Griffon vulture is not seen as globally threatened. It does, however, face several threats, such as from farmers placing poisoned carcasses in order to control predator populations. Further major threats include better hygiene for farming and veterinary care, meaning fewer domestic animals die and there are fewer opportunities for the griffon. They also suffer from illegal shooting, disturbance, and electrocution on power lines.
The IUCN Red List records the total population size of the Griffon vulture as 648,000-688,000 mature individuals, being in the band of 500,000-999,999 mature individuals. In Europe the population is estimated as 32,400-34,400 pairs, equating to 64,800-68,800 mature individuals. Overall, currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) and its numbers today are increasing.
The Griffon vulture plays a unique role in the food chain, which makes it irreplaceable. It specializes in eating dead animals and so prevents the spread of disease and assists with a sort of “natural recycling”.