Small Dragons

The second in the series ‘Notes from Nature’ that considers the wilder side of Vienna. This month: the bearded vulture

Columns | R S Hughes | December 2009 / January 2010

When he was around 14 years old, Richard Zink was walking in the high meadows of the Tyrol in Western Austria. There was no one else around. Suddenly, a hulking bird with a wingspan approaching three meters began circling above him, slowly coming closer. "It was within 20 to 30 meters and it really looked into my eyes," he says, still with a sense of awe. "I have never known this behaviour with any other species."

I am talking to Richard, now a wildlife biologist, in a small café behind Vienna’s Natural History Museum. He is due to deliver a lecture there in half an hour or so on the bearded vulture, the very same bird he saw all those years ago. For the past 10 years, Richard has been responsible for monitoring the progress of its successful reintroduction to Austria and across the Alps.

The bearded vulture is a colossus even among raptors, standing at over a metre in length. Its striking appearance and habit of dining on the bones of dead animals – sometimes dropping them from great heights to break them into smaller shards first – contributes to its infamy. Add to this the name by which some people know it – the lammergeier, or lamb vulture – and it’s easy to see why this bird has been so feared and persecuted in the past.

"In some valleys, if you speak with farmers, still they are anxious that these big birds will take their sheep," says Richard. "But in our breeding centre, we keep small rabbits in the facilities just to show people that they’re not interested. Their diet is almost entirely bones."

Little is known about the bird’s status in its African and Asian ranges. But before the Alpine reintroduction project was begun in the 1970s, the last known bird in the region was shot in Italy in 1913. Now though, there are an estimated 130 birds across the Alps, between 10 or 20 of which are in Austria. There have even been sightings just an hour west of Vienna.

On finishing our drinks, I accompany Richard to his lecture. In a small, brightly-lit room, somewhere in the labyrinthine basement of the museum, I sit with 20 or so others. We listen as Richard explains what is being done to prevent this extraordinary bird from going the same way as many of the species housed in the glass cases a few metres above us.

"They are somehow like small dragons," he says, reiterating his confidence in their potential to succeed.

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