Raptors of the Ariège Pyrenees

We are still fortunate enough in the Ariège to have three of the big diurnal birds of prey living in their natural state:
gypaete barbuGriffon Vulture - wingspan 2.80m, weight 7.8 kg
Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) - wingspan 2.70 m, weight 7 kg
Golden Eagle - wingspan 2.20m, weight 4 kg

How do we identify them?
All three have long, well-separated primaries (large terminal wing feathers).

vautour fauveGriffon Vulture

It has broad, bi-coloured wings, buff towards the front and black at the rear. The head is narrow and bald, and does not project far. The tail is short. The vultures are excellent gliders who often survey their territories in groups (10-15 individuals). If you see three or more identical individuals it is likely that you are in the presence of Griffon vultures.

lammergeier - bearded vultureLammergeier (The Bearded Vulture)

It has a yellow-orange body. The immature birds have black heads, the adults yellow. The wings are long, black and narrow. The tail is large and lozenge shaped. It is very rare to see more than three individuals together.

Golden Eagle

aigle2The adult colouration is black. They can sometimes be confused with buzzards. Besides being much larger, the head is more prominent and the tail longer. Immature eagles have white rondels of varying sizes on the underside of the wings and their tails are white with a dark border.

Behaviour

The Griffon vultures are exclusively carrion eaters (i.e. they eat dead animals). The search their hunting rounds in groups. As soon as a corpse is located they drop down on it in spirals. The survival of vultures on our mountains is directly related to the pastoral way of life. The size of the vulture population is related to the transhumance (migration of men and beasts) of domestic herds. Sheep, cows, and horses are present on the high pastures from June to October.

The Lammergeier is also a carrion eater. His diet is highly specialised and consists principally of bones. He is capable of ingesting bones 20 cm long and 3 cm in diameter. He has learnt to break bones which are too big and this has earned him the Spanish title of "quebrantahuesor", the bone breaker. The Lammergeier carries off bones which are too large and flies over a rocky terrain at a height of 20-150 m. He releases the bones to break them and dives down to eat the fragments.

The Golden Eagle hunts live prey, but is not averse to feeding from a carcass. At the end of the winter when the snows are melting the corpses of Izards (cf. Chamois) emerge. The flesh is often well-conserved and the eagles will feed on it. Their prey is varied: snakes, frogs, small birds, crows, small mammals, marmots and foxes.

Threatened species are intimately related to human actions

Without the big birds of prey the mountains would indeed seem empty. Nevertheless, the decline in their populations has been continuous since the 18th century. The reasons for this decline include:

- Hunting prior to the 1960 laws protecting birds of prey
- Poisoned bait but down to kill bears and wolves
- Reductions and changes in pastoral activity.

In our times the populations have become stable, but remain vulnerable. Nesting by Lammergeier and Griffon vultures in Ariège has not been confirmed. There is no doubt that the most important factor in maintaining and preserving the population of birds of prey in the mountains is the perpetuation of pastoral activity. However, thoughtless development and construction of infrastructures must be controlled to avoid disturbing the high mountain environment. It would indeed be regrettable to be working on the re-introduction of species, as is currently the case in the Alps, when maintaining the grazing practices would guarantee the continuation of the natural milieu.

—Denis NEBEL, technician with the ONF (Office National des Forêts);
translation by Nick Goldsworthy

Many thanks to these photographers

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