Griffon vultures are highly colonial birds; some colonies in the world consist of up to 150 pairs.
They are long-lived and can live up to 40 years in captivity (less in the wild). Griffon vultures feed exclusively on the carcasses of large and mid-sized mammals, and never eat live prey. For this reason, it can be said that they play a ‘hygienic’ role in the ecosystem, as they prevent the possible spread of certain infectious diseases. The griffon vulture (lat. Gyps fulvus) is one of the largest bird species in the world and the largest one in Croatia, with a wingspan of 240 to 280 cm, a height of up to 110 cm, and a weight of 7 to 12 kg in adult birds.
The last Croatian population of griffon vultures in Kvarner
At the beginning of the 20th century, griffon vultures were widespread all over Croatia – from Mount Učka, the Primorje region, Kvarner islands and Mount Velebit to the canyons of certain Dalmatian rivers, the island of Brač, Mount Biokovo and part of the Dubrovnik Littoral. Today, griffon vultures in Croatia only nest on the Kvarner islands of Cres, Krk, Prvić and Plavnik, which is why this population is often called the Kvarner population, which counts around one hundred pairs. The vultures on the Kvarner islands mostly feed on carcasses of the sheep that graze freely on the island pastures.
Even though griffon vultures live in other parts of the world (e.g. in Europe, there are griffon vultures in Spain, France, Italy, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria), the Kvarner population is unique in the world because these birds nest right above the sea, while in other regions they nest mostly in mountain areas.
After their first flight, young griffon vultures stay only briefly in Kvarner. They start their migration across Europe, or even Africa, and return to Kvarner cliffs when they are 4 or 5 years old and have reached sexual maturity in order to find a partner and to build a nest. Their nests are from 60 cm to 1 metre wide, and are built by both parents on the cliffs. In the period from December to January, the female lays one egg that is about 10 centimetres in diameter, and which both parents take care of. Griffon vultures, like certain other bird species, remain with their partner for life.
Watching griffon vultures in flight is always a special experience. Flying mostly in groups and barely flapping their wings, griffon vultures spend hours searching the terrain for food, which is very interesting to observe, not only to bird watchers, but to all visitors to the island. They fly great distances with ease, and their appearance in the air or on one of the island’s cliffs can truly be breathtaking.
Today, vultures are faced with many threats, ranging from lack of food (due to the decrease in extensive sheep farming and livestock breeding on the islands) to accidents (electrocution, collisions with wind turbines, or consumption of poisoned meat). This is why it is important to preserve every single bird for the population to survive.
Poisoned baits intended for wolves, jackals, foxes and other predators also threaten griffon vultures. The last major case of unintentional poisoning of griffon vultures in Croatia occurred in 2004 on the island of Rab, when as many as 21 griffon vultures were killed by a bait poisoned with carbofuran and intended for jackals.
Vultures are charismatic birds. Although they may not be attractive at first glance, they have shared their living space with humans for a very long time and have thus entered into folk stories and legends, playing an important ecological and cultural role on the island. Their charisma is attested to by the fact that they are considered to be a symbol of the island of Cres. Everyone who visits Cres and the other Kvarner islands should look up into the sky in search of the magnificent silhouette of the griffon vulture in flight.