Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

While the Egyptian vulture is normally a solitary bird, or is seen in pairs, large groups of vultures may congregate at feeding sites or at communal night roosts (2), usually on cliffs (4). Each day, these vultures may travel up to 80 kilometres in search of food (2), flying with strong, deep wing beats or soaring whilst surveying the ground (4). The Egyptian vulture is an opportunist and will feed on a huge range of food that it encounters. Carrion comprises the majority of its diet, including dead birds, small mammals, livestock and large wild animals (2). It will often feed just on the scraps of large carcasses after other vultures have consumed the majority of the soft flesh (2) (4). This undiscriminating bird will also scavenge on a wide range of organic waste, including rotting fruit, vegetables and even excrement (2), and will sometimes prey on small animals, particularly those weak or injured, such as rabbits, chicks, spawning or dying fish, and some insects (2). The Egyptian vulture also consumes eggs and, most remarkably, will throw stones at them to break open the shell – an incredible and rare example of tool-use in birds (6). The Egyptian vulture is largely a monogamous bird, and undertakes a courtship which includes undulating flights and mutual preening (4). The pair will construct a nest on a cliff, either in a cave or on a ledge protected by an overhang, or very occasionally in a tree. The nest is built of sticks and lined with masses of wool, hair, rags or the remains of food, and measures an impressive 1.5 metres across. Normally two eggs are laid, which are incubated for 42 days. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the chicks until they fledge at the age of 70 to 85 days. Egyptian vultures become sexually mature at four to five years of age and are known to live for up to 37 years in captivity (2).
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Description

A small vulture with a very large range, the Egyptian vulture has an unmistakable appearance. Adults have largely white to pale grey plumage, which contrasts markedly with the black flight-feathers and the bold yellow bare skin on the face (2). The long, narrow bill has a yellow base and terminates with a black tip (2) (4). The tail is short and wedge-shaped. The legs may be greyish-white, pink or pale yellow. Two subspecies of the Egyptian vulture are recognised; Neophron percnopterus ginginianus is slightly smaller than Neophron percnopterus percnopterus and has an entirely yellow bill. Juveniles have much darker plumage than the adults (2), and may be grey-brown, brown or blackish-brown (4).
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Comprehensive Description

Longueur 60-70 cm, envergure 155-180 cm, poids 1,6-2,2 kg.

Il recherche sa nourriture dans tous types de terrains ouverts dans la partie méridionale du territoire national, mais a besoin de falaises, sinon d’arbres inaccessibles, pour nicher. Ses préférences vont vers les cavités bien protégées mais qui permettent d’avoir une vue dégagée. Le Percnoptère a un régime alimentaire varié incluant notamment des charognes et de nombreux déchets organiques. Dans les curées de vautours, son bec relativement faible lui permet surtout de récupérer les restes et nettoyer les os. En recherche alimentaire, son vol persévérant le transporte parfois sur de longues distances.

L’espèce est solitaire à modérément grégaire, les groupes étant rarement nombreux même sur les sites de nourrissage les plus favorables. Il s’associe volontiers aux autres vautours sur les carcasses, mais arrive plus tardivement et prend de petits morceaux. Il recule devant les autres vautours mais est dominant sur les Corvidés ou les milans. Au contraire de nombreux autres vautours, il niche plutôt isolément et souvent de façon très dispersée. Le Percnoptère est monogame et les couples restent souvent associés au-delà de la saison de reproduction.

L’aire est un empilement d’épaisseur variable (20 à 70 cm) de branchages, tapissé de déchets divers tels que papiers, chiffons et ossements. L’emplacement est une corniche abritée ou une grotte à flanc de falaise, si possible à l’ombre pendant la majorité de la journée. La ponte de 1 à 3 œufs – normalement 2 – est déposée à partir de début avril. L’incubation dure 42 jours et l’envol se fait à l’âge de 70-90 jours.

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Distribution

Range Description

Neophron percnopterus occupies a large range with isolated resident populations in the Cape Verde and Canary Islands in the west, through Morocco and parts of West Africa (Ferguson-Lees et al. 2001). A small resident population persists in Angola and Namibia. The bulk of the resident population occurs in Ethiopia and East Africa, Arabia and the Indian Subcontinent,while Saharan and Sahelian parts of Africa in Algeria, Niger, northernmost Cameroon, Chad and northern Sudan also hold significant but presumably smaller populations (I. Angelov in litt. 2012). Migratory birds breed in Northernmost Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Northern Egypt), southern Europe, from Spain in the west, through the Mediterranean, Turkey, the Caucasus and central Asia to Northern Iran, Pakistan, northern India and Nepal. These birds winter within the resident range, and in addition throughout the Sahel region of Africa. Global population estimates for the species are crude, but combining figures of 3,300-5,050 pairs in Europe (Iñigo et al. 2008), <2,000 pairs in central Asia, just a few thousand pairs now in the Indian Subcontinent, perhaps 1,000 pairs in the Middle East, and perhaps 1,000-2,000 pairs in Africa (Thiollay 1989, I. Angelov in litt. 2012) gives a rough total of around 21,900-30,000 individuals. The European population has declined by over 50% in the last three generations(BirdLife International 2004). In Spain, which with at least 1,300 pairs may support as much as 40% of the European breeding population, the number of territories declined by at least 25% between 1987-2000 (i.e. equating to a decline of >50% over three generations) (Donázar 2004, Del Moral 2009), likely due to high mortality rates (Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2009). Similar declines are reported from the Middle East(S. Aspinall in litt. 2005), e.g. 50-75% in Israel, however in Oman the population appears stable(J. Eriksen in litt. 2005), although this may be more a reflection of count methods rather than genuine stability in the population. Around 1,700 birds are resident in a stable population on the island of Socotra (Porter and Suleiman in prep.). The resident populations within Africa also appear to have declined, including those in Ethiopia and Djibouti(G. Mulholland in litt. 2006), and Angola and Namibia (where just 10 pairs remain)(R. Simmons in litt. 2006). Across much of Africa residents are outnumbered by migrant European and probably Asian breeders(J. M. Thiollay in litt. 2006, I. Angelov in litt. 2012). Most critically, the species has undergone a catastrophic decline (>35% per year) since 1999 in India, where numbers detected on road transects declined by 68% between 2000 and 2003 (Cuthbert et al. 2006), while on the Balkans a decline of nearly 50% was noted between 2003-2011 (I. Angelov in litt. 2012).

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Geographic Range

Egyptian vultures inhabit southern Europe and Asia as well as northern Africa. Isolated populations inhabit the Canary and Cape Verde Islands. Although Egyptian vultures are not truly migratory they do travel between resident and breeding areas to a greater extent than do most other vultures. Breeding pairs may return to the same nesting site for many consecutive years.

Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native )

  • Campbell, B., E. Lack. 1985. A Dictionary of Birds. Vermillion, SD: Buteo Books.
  • Perrins, C., A. Middleton. 1985. The Encyclopedia of Birds. NY: Facts on File.
  • Widensaul, S. 1996. Raptors. NY: Lyons & Buford.
  • Jackson, J., W. Bock, D. Olendorf. 2003. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, 2nd ed.. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.
  • Mundy, P., D. Butchart, J. Ledger, S. Piper. 1992. The Vultures of Africa. San Diego, CA: Academic Press INC.
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Range

The Egyptian vulture has a very large range. N. p. percnopterus occurs in southern Europe, east to Central Asia and north-west India, and south through North Africa, Arabia and the Sahel zone to northern Tanzania, south-western Angola and north-western Namibia. Isolated populations also occur in the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands (2). N. p. ginginianus can be found in Nepal and India, except for the north-western parts (2). Most Egyptian vulture populations migrate for winter to the south of the Sahara, but some remain on their breeding grounds (4) (5).
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Physical Description

Morphology

Physical Description

Egyptian vultures have white colored heads and backs. Flight feathers are darker, near black in color. Individuals have a collared-look of spiked feathers around the neck and a featherless face. The face shifts from yellow to orange for breeding season The featherless face is thought to be useful for thermoregulation purposes as well as for keeping food particles from clinging to plumage.The bill is large and narrow with a curved tip to the beak, a feature that facilitates removing the last bits of tissue between bones. There is little physical difference between males and females. However, females tend to have a slightly higher body mass, on average, than do males. Sexually immature birds are uniformly brown.

Range mass: 1584 to 2180 g.

Average mass: 1889 g.

Range length: 58 to 70 cm.

Average length: 68 cm.

Range wingspan: 1.68 (low) m.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; female larger

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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
Typically nests on ledges or in caves on cliffs(Sarà and Di Vittorio 2003), crags and rocky outcrops, but occasionally also in large trees, buildings (mainly in India), electricity pylons (Naoroji 2006) and exceptionally on the ground (Gangoso and Palacios 2005). Forages in lowland and montane regions over open, often arid, country. Also scavenges at human settlements. Broad diet including carrion, tortoises, organic waste, insects, young vertebrates, eggs and even faeces. Usually solitary, but will congregate at feeding sites, such as rubbish tips, or vulture restaurants (i.e. supplementary feeding stations), and forms roosts of non-breeding birds (Ceballos & Donázar 1990). Performs an energetic display flight with mate. Several resident island populations show genetic isolation. Northern breeders conduct long-distance intercontinental migrations, flying over land and often utilising the narrowest part of the Strait of Gibraltar on their way to Africa (García-Ripollés et al. 2010). The species exhibits high site fidelity, particularly in males (Elorriaga et al. 2009; García-Ripollés et al. 2010).


Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
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Egyptian vultures usually nest on rock ledges. As with other Old World vultures, this species has a difficult time sustaining flapping flight and does best when it begins its soaring flight from a high location or by using thermal updrafts on a heated plain. This vulture species is also known to nest in trees or old buildings when more favorable locations are not available. Egyptian vultures prefer open country with variable elevations. They also occur near human habitation due to the food sources produced by humans.

Range elevation: 4500 (high) m.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune ; savanna or grassland ; mountains

Other Habitat Features: urban ; suburban ; agricultural

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The Egyptian vulture generally inhabits open, arid areas and can be found in steppe, desert, pastures and cereal fields, but requires rocky sites for nesting (2). It is often found near human habitations, for example, near or in towns (2), around rubbish dumps, slaughterhouses and fishing ports (4).
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Trophic Strategy

Food Habits

Egyptian vultures are carnivorous, feeding mostly on carrion, but they are also known to eat insects, small reptiles and mammals, crustaceans, snails, bird eggs, nestlings, and the dung of larger animals. The eggs and young of larger ground-laying birds are especially in danger from this species, as they are skilled at using rocks as tools to crack open eggs. The feces of larger animals, including that of humans, is thought to be a good source of nutrients for Egyptian vultures, and therefore helps to maintain the facial coloration of these birds. Nestlings are fed small animals, which provides them with calcium for bone development.

Animal Foods: birds; mammals; reptiles; eggs; carrion ; insects; mollusks; aquatic crustaceans

Other Foods: dung

Primary Diet: carnivore (Scavenger )

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Associations

Threatened Vertebrate Associates in the Hindu Kush Alpine Meadow Ecoregion

The Hindu Kush alpine meadow has an expanse of some 10,900 square miles, situated in northeastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Most of the lands lie within the Hindu Kush Mountain Range in  the altitude bracket between 3000 to 4000 meters, and correspondingly most of the precipitation is in the form of snow. This ecoregion is classified within the Montane Grasslands and Shrublands biome.

This ecoregion manifests a low rate of vertebrate endemism; however there are ten special status mammals found here, ranging from the status of Endangered to Near Threatened. The Hindu Kush alpine meadow ecoregion consists of higher elevation terrain of moderate to severe slopes. Vegetation is often sparse or almost lacking, with resulting pastoral usage of low intensity grazing of goats and sheep in some areas. Soils are largely leptosols, but many areas are covered by large expanses of rock outcrop or rocky scree. In the limited areas of arable soils, wheat is sometimes farmed, although growing of opium poppies is the only cash crop. Most of the water available for plant and animal life is supplied by snowmelt. The Helmand River, Afghanistan's largest watercourse, represents the chief catchment within the ecoregion, with headwaters rising in the Hindu Kush Range, and eventual discharge to the endorheic Sistan Basin.

Special status mammals found in the Hindu Kush alpine meadow are: the Near Threatened argali (Ovis ammon), the Vulnerable Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), the Near Threatened European otter (Lutra lutra), the Near Threatened leopard (Panthera pardus), the Endangered markhor (Capra falconeri), the Near Threatened mountain weasel (Mustela altaica), the Near Threatened Schreiber's long-fingered bat (Miniopteris schreibersi), the Endangered snow leopard (Uncia uncia), the Near Threatened striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and the Endangered Moschus leucogaster. Special status birds in the Hindu Kush alpine meadow are represented by the Endangered Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopteris).

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Ecosystem Roles

Egyptian vultures consume carcasses, trash, and feces and therefore play important roles in the removal and recycling of organic waste. They are direct predators of small animals as well as of eggs of other birds. As a result, they may influence population sizes of these prey animals. Egyptian vultures and other carnivores may benefit each other by signaling one another about the location of food.

Ecosystem Impact: biodegradation

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Predation

Egyptian vultures do not have natural predators as adults, however persecution by humans is a major problem for this species. These birds may experience direct habitat destruction from humans or may be indirectly poisoned when feeding on the carcasses of animals killed by lead bullets or when feeding on cattle that have been raised on unnatural diets, especially those containing anti-inflammatory medicines.

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Communication and Perception

Egyptian vultures are purely visual hunters and do not use smell to locate food. They seek food mostly in open areas where carcasses can be discovered from a soaring height. Rather than sighting prey themselves, individuals will often notice other vultures, of their own or other species, circling lower in the sky over a detected meal. The group may then perch, and wait above the intended meal if trees are available nearby, before proceeding to feed.

Communication Channels: visual

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Life Expectancy

Lifespan/Longevity

The longest recorded lifespan in captivity for an Egyptian vulture is 37 years. The lifespan of individuals in the wild is hard to determine because the birds do not always return to the same location between seasons.

Range lifespan

Status: captivity:
37 (high) years.

Average lifespan

Status: captivity:
37.0 years.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 37 years (captivity)
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Reproduction

Egyptian vultures are monogamous and migrate between breeding seasons with their mate. They construct a large nest and constantly refurnish it throughout the breeding season. The nest may include pieces of old rags, hair, or fur. During the breeding season the male performs swooping displays toward his mate and the pair engages in talon grappling during courtship.

Mating System: monogamous

Eqyptian vultures breed once per year. The timing of the breeding season varies slightly between populations in different regions, but egg laying usually occurs between March and May. Female Egyptian vultures have been observed to incubate the eggs alone for several days before duties are shared by both parents. A typical clutch consists of two eggs which take 39 to 45 days to hatch. Because there may be a significant lapse of time between the laying and hatching of eggs, one nestling will often be considerably more developed and coordinated than the other. Nestlings take 71 to 85 days to fledge and are able to hunt for themselves about a month after fledging. Nestlings have grayish-white down and the skin covering the face may be a dark green color.

Breeding interval: Egyptian vultures breed once yearly.

Breeding season: Egyptian vultures lay their eggs between March and May, depending on the region.

Range eggs per season: 1 to 3.

Average eggs per season: 1.9.

Range time to hatching: 39 to 45 days.

Range fledging age: 71 to 85 days.

Average fledging age: 82 days.

Average time to independence: 4 months.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 6 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 6 years.

Key Reproductive Features: seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate)

Each clutch constitutes about 9 % of the mother’s body weight, which is high for a vulture species. After laying, the female will incubate the eggs on her own for several days before both parents share this duty. Both parents also work to defend the territory and to bring food to nestlings. Food can be carried in the beak of a parent or regurgitated on return to the nest. Smaller nestlings may require that a parent pull pieces of food apart before consuming them. After the young have fledged they can be seen flying within the home range alongside parents as part of family groups. Parents may continue to feed fledged birds that arrive at the nest and teach them to find food and feed for themselves. Fledged birds separate from their parents at the onset of migration away from the breeding grounds.

Parental Investment: pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female)

  • Campbell, B., E. Lack. 1985. A Dictionary of Birds. Vermillion, SD: Buteo Books.
  • Perrins, C., A. Middleton. 1985. The Encyclopedia of Birds. NY: Facts on File.
  • Widensaul, S. 1996. Raptors. NY: Lyons & Buford.
  • Jackson, J., W. Bock, D. Olendorf. 2003. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, 2nd ed.. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.
  • Mundy, P., D. Butchart, J. Ledger, S. Piper. 1992. The Vultures of Africa. San Diego, CA: Academic Press INC.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage: Neophron percnopterus

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
EN
Endangered

Red List Criteria
A2bcde+3bcde+4bcde

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s
Abdusalyamov, I., Angelov, I., Aspinall, S., Atienza, J., Baral, H., Barlow, C., Barov, B., Belyalova, L., Bowden, C., Brunner, A., Buketov, M., Bukreev, S., Bustamov, E., Camina, A., Cortes, J., Cuthbert, R., Efimenko, N., Eriksen, J., Fundukchiev, S., Galushin, V., Grande, J., Grubac, B., Hatzofe, O., Isfendiyaroglu, S., Kashkarov, R., Katzner, T., Keuzberg-Makhina, E., Khan, A., Khrokov, V., Kolbintzev, V., Koshkin, A., Kovshar, A., Lanovenko, E., Madroño, A., Matekova, G., Mischenko, A., Mitropolskyi, M., Mitropolskyi, O., Monteiro, A., Mulholland, G., Petkov, N., Pomeroy, D., Porter, R., Simmons, R., Sklyarenko, S., Soldatova, N., Stoynov, E., Subramanya, S., Tewes, E., Thiollay, J., Velevski, M., Wolstencroft, J., Cortés-Avizanda, A. & Rahmani, A.

Justification
This long-lived species qualifies as Endangered owing to a recent and extremely rapid population decline in India (presumably resulting from poisoning by the veterinary drug Diclofenac) combined with severe long-term declines in Europe (>50% over the last three generations [42 years]) and West Africa, plus ongoing declines through much of the rest of its African range.

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The world population of Egyptian vultures is thought to be between 10,000 and 100,000 individuals and is declining. Conservation status has been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources beginning in 1988. Most currently, populations were considered “least concern” by the IUCN.

US Migratory Bird Act: no special status

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: no special status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: endangered

  • International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. 2006. "IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Neophron Percnopterus" (On-line). Accessed November 09, 2006 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/.
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Status in Egypt

Resident breeder, regular passage visitor and winter visitor.

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Status

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).
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Population

Population
In Europe, the breeding population is estimated to number 3,300-5,050 breeding pairs, equating to 9,900-15,150 individuals. Europe forms 25-49% of the global range, so a very preliminary estimate of the global population size is 20,000-61,000 individuals, roughly equivalent to 13,000-41,000 mature individuals, although further validation of this estimate is needed.

Population Trend
Decreasing
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Threats

Major Threats
This species faces a number of threats across its range. Disturbance, lead poisoning (from gun shot), direct poisoning, electrocution (by powerlines), collisions with wind turbines, reduced food availability and habitat change are currently impacting upon European populations (Donázar et al. 2002; N. Petkov in litt. 2005; Kurtev et al. 2008; Angelov et al. in prep. 2011; Zuberogoitia et al. 2008; Carrete et al. 2009; Sara et al. 2009; Dzhamirzoev and Bukreev 2009). Illegal poisoning against carnivores seems to be the main threat operating on the breeding grounds in Spain (Hernandez and Margalida 2009) and the Balkans (I. Angelov in. litt. 2012). Declines in parts of Africa are likely to have been driven by loss of wild ungulate populations and, in some areas, overgrazing by livestock(Mundy et al. 1992). Within the European Union, regulations introduced in 2002, controlling the disposal of animal carcasses, greatly reduced food availability, notably through the closure of traditional "muladares" in Spain and Portugal (Donázar 2004; Lemus et al. 2008; J. C. Atienza in litt. 2007, Donázar et al. 2009, Donázar et al. 2010a, Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2010,Cortés-Avizanda 2011); however, recently passed regulations will permit the operation of feeding stations for scavengers(A. Brunner in litt. 2010). Poisoning is a threat to the species, often through the use of poison baits targeted at terrestrial predators (Carrete et al. 2007, Carrete et al. 2009, Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2009), and through the consumption of inappropriately disposed poisoned animals. Recent analyses from many countries such as Spain (Lemus et al. 2008) and Bulgaria (Angelov 2009) have highlighted high levels of contamination of Egyptian Vultures leading to increased mortality. Antiobiotic residues present in the carcasses of intensively-farmed livestock may increase the susceptibility of nestlings to disease (Lemus et al. 2008) (e.g. avian pox has been reported as a cause of mortality in Bulgaria[Kurtev et al. 2008]). It appears that Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) often used for livestock, and which is fatal to Gyps spp. when ingested at livestock carcasses (BirdLife International news [www.birdlife.org/news] 2007), is driving the recent rapid declines in India(Cuthbert et al. 2006, A. Rahmani in litt. 2012). NSAIDs are reportedly toxic to raptors, storks, cranes and owls, suggesting that vultures of other genera could be susceptible to its effects(BirdLife International news [www.birdlife.org/news] 2007). It seems plausible that this species previously had less exposure to the toxin owing to competitive exclusion from carcasses by Gyps spp. vultures(Cuthbert et al. 2006). In 2007, Diclofenac was found to be on sale at a veterinary practice in Tanzania(BirdLife International news [www.birdlife.org/news] 2007). In addition, it was reported that in Tanzania, a Brazilian manufacturer has been aggressively marketing the drug for veterinary purposes(C. Bowden in litt. 2007) and exporting it to 15 African countries(BirdLife International news [www.birdlife.org/news] 2007). Mortality at power lines has been found to be particularly common on the Canary Islands (Donazar et al. 2002, Donazar et al. 2007a) and potentially risky in other regions of Spain (Donazar et al. 2007b, 2010b) and in Africa (Nikolaus 1984, 2006), with 17 individuals found killed by electrocution in Port Sudan, over 10 days in 2010 (I. Angelov in litt. 2010), indicating a potentially serious problem that has persisted for decades and will continue to contribute to Egyptian Vulture population declines. In Morocco at least, the species is taken for use in traditional medicine. Competition for suitable nest sites with Griffon Vulture may reduce breeding successin the short-term (Kurtev et al. 2008).

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Numerous threats are pushing this Endangered bird towards extinction. In Africa, declines have been caused by the loss of wild ungulate populations and, in some areas, overgrazing by livestock (5). In Europe, the Egyptian vulture has been suffering severe, long-term declines; the result of disturbance, lead poisoning from gun shot, direct poisoning and electrocution by powerlines, as well as regulations introduced within the European Union to control the disposal of animal carcasses, which have greatly reduced food availability for this scavenger. In addition, Avian pox has been cited as the cause of Egyptian vulture deaths in Bulgaria (5). In India, diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug often used for livestock, is likely to be the source of recent and extremely rapid declines in Egyptian vulture populations (5) (7). This drug, which is also responsible for devastating declines in other vulture species, poisons vultures when they feed on the flesh of treated livestock (8).
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Management

Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
Conservation Actions Underway
Occurs within a number of protected areas across its range. Monitoring programmes, supplementary feeding (Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2010) and campaigns against illegal use of poisons, including awareness-raising, are in place for a number of national populations. The veterinary drug Diclofenac has now been banned by the Indian government. In 2007, a survey began to establish the extent of Diclofenac use for veterinary purposes in Tanzania(BirdLife International news [www.birdlife.org/news] 2007). An International species action plan for the species was published in 2008 (Iñigo et al. 2008). National species action plans are in place in France, Bulgaria and Italy, and the species is included in the Balkan Vulture Action Plan (BVAP). Efforts are being taken to release captive-bred individuals in parts of Italy. In Spain, France, Italy, Bulgaria and Macedonia birds have been fitted with satellite-tags to study juvenile dispersion, migratory movements and wintering areas (e.g. García-Ripollés et al. 2010). Nest guarding schemes for pairs that are most threatened by poachers have been implemented in Italy and Bulgaria, where very small populations survive. Expeditions to study the limiting factors in the wintering areas and along the migration flyway have taken place together with local organizations in Mauritania, Senegal, Ethiopia, Sudan and Turkey.

Conservation Actions Proposed
Start and maintain intensive cooperation with local key stake-holders to ensure poison- and poaching-free zones at sites with high densities or congregations of the species throughout the breeding, migration and wintering range, alongside similar efforts for other threatened species. Build capacity in countries along the migration flyways and in the wintering areas. Protect nest sites where persecution is a problem. Research the causes and extent of current declines across the species's range. Insulate dangerous electricity pylons in areas where high mortality is recorded. Coordinate monitoring to assess trends throughout the range. Relax the European Union animal hygiene regulations in relation to necrophagous birds. Establish supplementary feeding sites where appropriate, especially at sites where congregations of non-breeders can be supported. Raise awareness amongst pastoralists in Africa of the dangers of using Diclofenac for livestock(BirdLife International news [www.birdlife.org/news] 2007). Effectively reduce risks of poisoning through strict enforcement of poison-bait ban and education. Lobby for the banning of Diclofenac for veterinary purposes throughout the species's range, and support the enforcement of this ban where it has been adopted. Where applicable, establish the impact of wind turbines, and lobby for effective impact assessments to be carried out prior to their construction. Where appropriate, reduce disturbance by guarding nests.Where appropriate, guard nests to reduce disturbance. Confiscate illegally kept live birds and use them for the purposes of captive breeding and future restocking and reintroduction programs. In key areas of the species range, implement long term and large-scale education and community involvement program.
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Conservation

Throughout its range, the Egyptian vulture occurs in a number of protected areas, as well as being the subject of monitoring, supplementary feeding programmes and campaigns against the illegal use of poisons (5). In 2006, manufacture of the veterinary form of the drug diclofenac was banned by the Indian, Nepali and Pakistani governments (9) (10). While this was a remarkable step forward in vulture conservation, the drug remains widely available and the human form of the drug is sometimes being used to treat livestock instead (9). Many more measures may be necessary if the long-term survival of the Egyptian vulture is to be assured. BirdLife International recommends relaxing European Union regulations with regards to the disposal of animal carcasses, lobbying for the ban of diclofenac throughout the species range, and protecting nest sites, as just some of the measures which would benefit the Egyptian vulture (5).
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of Egyptian vultures on humans.

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Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Egyptian vultures may help rid areas populated by humans of potentially disease-causing carcasses. This species plays a role in ancient Egyptian culture. It was displayed on monuments and was represented in their alphabet.

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Wikipedia

Egyptian vulture

The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), also called the white scavenger vulture or pharaoh's chicken, is a small Old World vulture and the only member of the genus Neophron. It is widely distributed; the Egyptian vulture is found from southwestern Europe and northern Africa to India. The contrasting underwing pattern and wedge-shaped tail make it distinctive in flight as it soars in thermals during the warmer parts of the day. Egyptian vultures feed mainly on carrion but are opportunistic and will prey on small mammals, birds, and reptiles. They also feed on the eggs of other birds, breaking larger ones by tossing a large pebble onto them. The use of tools is rare in birds and apart from the use of a pebble as a hammer, Egyptian vultures also use twigs to roll up wool for use in their nest. Egyptian vultures that breed in the temperate regions migrate south in winter while tropical populations are relatively sedentary. Populations of this species have declined in the 20th century and some island populations are endangered by hunting, accidental poisoning, and collision with power lines.

Taxonomy and systematics[edit]

The genus Neophron contains only a single species. A few prehistoric species from the Neogene period in North America placed in the genus Neophrontops (the name meaning "looks like Neophron") are believed to have been very similar to these vultures in lifestyle, but the genetic relationships are unclear.[2][3] The genus Neophron is considered to represent the oldest branch within the evolutionary tree of vultures.[4] Along with its nearest evolutionary relative, the lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), they are sometimes placed in a separate subfamily, the Gypaetinae.[5][6] There are three widely-recognised subspecies of the Egyptian vulture, although there is considerable gradation due to movement and intermixing of the populations.[7]

The nominate subspecies, N. p. percnopterus, has the largest range, occurring in southern Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the north-west of India. Populations breeding in the temperate zone migrate south during winter. It has a dark grey bill. The Indian subcontinent is the range of subspecies N. p. ginginianus, the smallest of the three subspecies, which is identifiable by a pale yellow bill.[8][9] The subspecies name is derived from Gingee in southern India where the French explorer Pierre Sonnerat described it as Le Vautour de Gingi and it was given a Latin name by John Latham in his Index Ornithologicus (1790).[10][11] A small population that is found only in the eastern Canary Islands was found to be genetically distinct and identified as a new subspecies, N. p. majorensis in 2002. Known locally as the guirre they are genetically more distant from N. p. percnopterus, significantly greater even than N. p. ginginianus is from N. p. percnopterus. Unlike neighbouring populations in Africa and southern Europe, it is non-migratory and consistently larger in size. The subspecies name majorensis is derived from "Majorata", the ancient name for the island of Fuerteventura. The island was named by Spanish conquerors in the 15th century after the "Majos", the main native Guanche tribe there.[7][12] One study in 2010 suggested that the species established on the island about 2,500 years ago when the island was first colonized by humans.[13]

Nikolai Zarudny and Härms described a subspecies, rubripersonatus, from Baluchistan in 1902. This was described as having a deeper reddish orange skin[14] on the head and a yellow-tipped dark bill. This has rarely been considered a valid subspecies but the intermediate pattern of bill colouration suggests intermixing of subspecies.[15][9]

The genus name is derived from Greek mythology. Timandra was the mother of Neophron. Aegypius was a friend of Neophron and about the same age. It upset Neophron to know that his mother Timandra was having a love affair with Aegypius. Seeking revenge, Neophron made advances towards Aegypius' mother, Bulis. Neophron succeeded and enticed Bulis into entering the dark chamber where his mother and Aegypius were to meet soon. Neophron then distracted his mother, tricking Aegypius into entering the chamber and sleeping with his own mother Bulis. When Bulis discovered the deception she gouged out the eyes of her son Aegypius before killing herself. Aegypius prayed for revenge and Zeus on hearing the prayer changed Aegypius and Neophron into vultures.[16] "Percnopterus" is derived from Greek for "black wings": "περκνóς" (perknos, meaning "blue-black") and πτερόν (pteron, meaning wing).[17][18]

Description[edit]

Adult N. percnopterus in captivity showing white plumage.
N. ginginianus in flight with black flight feathers from Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India

The adult's plumage is white, with black flight feathers in the wings. Wild birds usually appear soiled with a rusty or brown shade to the white plumage, derived from mud or iron-rich soil. Captive specimens without access to soil have clean white plumage.[19][20] The bill is slender and long, and the tip of the upper mandible is hooked. The nostril is an elongated horizontal slit. The neck feathers are long and form a hackle. The wings are pointed, with the third primary being the longest; the tail is wedge shaped. The legs are pink in adults and grey in juveniles.[21] The claws are long and straight, and the third and fourth toes are slightly webbed at the base. The bill is black in the nominate subspecies but pale or yellowish in adults of the smaller Indian ginginianus. Rasmussen and Anderton (2005) suggest that this variation may need further study, particularly due to the intermediate black-tipped bill described in rubripersonatus.[9][22] The facial skin is yellow and unfeathered down to the throat. The sexes are indistinguishable in plumage but breeding males have a deeper orange facial skin colour than females.[19] Females average slightly larger and are about 10–15% heavier than males.[21] Young birds are blackish or chocolate brown with black and white patches.[23] The adult plumage is attained only after about five years.[19]

Measurements
Nominate[23][21]
Culmen31–34 mm (1.2–1.3 in)
WingMale black symbol.svg470–536 mm (18.5–21.1 in)
Female black symbol.svg460–545 mm (18.1–21.5 in)
TailMale black symbol.svg220–251 mm (8.7–9.9 in)
Female black symbol.svg240–267 mm (9.4–10.5 in)
Tarsus75–87 mm (3.0–3.4 in)
Weight1,600–2,400 g (56.4–84.7 oz)
ginginianus[23][21]
WingMale black symbol.svg393–490 mm (15.5–19.3 in)
Female black symbol.svg455–505 mm (17.9–19.9 in)
Tail228–251 mm (9.0–9.9 in)
Tarsus72–85 mm (2.8–3.3 in)
majorensis[20]
Wing485–554 mm (19.1–21.8 in)
Tail240–285 mm (9.4–11.2 in)
Tarsus73.5–93 mm (2.9–3.7 in)
Weight1,900–2,850 g (67.0–100.5 oz)

The adult Egyptian vulture measures 47–65 centimetres (19–26 in) from the point of the beak to the extremity of the tail feathers. In the smaller N. p. ginginianus males are about 47–52 centimetres (19–20 in) long while females are 52–55.5 centimetres (20.5–21.9 in) long.[9] The wingspan is about 2.7 times the body length.[21] Birds from Spain weigh about 1.9 kilograms (4.2 lb) while birds of the Canary Island subspecies majorensis, representing a case of island gigantism, are heavier with an average weight of 2.4 kilograms (5.3 lb).[20]

Distribution and movements[edit]

Egyptian vulture in flight over Gamla nature reserve in Israel

Egyptian vultures are widely distributed across the Old World with their breeding range from southern Europe to northern Africa east to western and southern Asia. They are rare vagrants in Sri Lanka.[23] They occur mainly on the dry plains and lower hills. In the Himalayas, they go up to about 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) in summer. European populations migrate south to Africa in winter. Vagrants may occur as far south as in South Africa although they bred in the Transkei region prior to 1923.[24] They nest mainly on rocky cliffs, sometimes adopting ledges on tall buildings in cities and on large trees.[23]

Most Egyptian vultures in the temperate zone migrate south to Africa in winter. Like many other large soaring migrants, they avoid making long crossings over water.[25][26] Italian birds cross over through Sicily and into Tunisia making short sea crossings by passing through the islands of Marettimo and Pantelleria.[27] Those that migrate through the Iberian Peninsula cross into Africa over the Strait of Gibraltar while others cross further east through the Levant.[28][29][21]

Migrating birds can sometimes cover 500 kilometres (310 mi) in a single day until they reach the southern edge of the Sahara, 3,500 to 5,500 kilometres (2,200 to 3,400 mi) from their summer home. Young birds that have not reached breeding age may overwinter in the grassland and semi-desert regions of the Sahel.[29]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

N. p. ginginianus in flight

The Egyptian vulture is usually seen singly or in pairs, soaring in thermals along with other scavengers and birds of prey, or perched on the ground or atop a building. On the ground, they walk with a waddling gait.[23] They feed on a range of food, including mammal faeces (including those of humans[30]), insects in dung, carrion, vegetable matter, and sometimes small animals.[31] When it joins other vulture species at a dead animal, it tends to stay on the periphery and waits until the larger species leave.[21] Wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) form a significant part of the diet of Spanish vultures.[32] Studies suggest that they feed on ungulate faeces to obtain carotenoid pigments responsible for their bright yellow and orange facial skin. The ability to assimilate carotenoid pigments may serve as a reliable signal of fitness.[33]

Egyptian vultures are mostly silent but make high-pitched mewing or hissing notes at the nest and screeching noises when squabbling at a carcass. Young birds have been heard making a hissing croak in flight.[9] They also hiss or growl when threatened or angry.[34]

Egyptian vultures roost communally on large trees, buildings or on cliffs.[9] Roost sites are usually chosen close to a dump site or other suitable foraging area. In Spain, summer roosts are formed mainly by immature birds. The favourite roost trees tended to be large dead pines.[35][36] The number of adults at the roost increases towards June. It is thought that breeding adults may be able to forage more efficiently by joining the roost and following others to the best feeding areas. Breeding birds that failed to raise young may also join the non-breeding birds at the roost during June.[37]

The breeding season is in spring.[23] During the beginning of the breeding season, courting pairs soar high together and one or both may make steep spiralling or swooping dives.[21] The birds are monogamous and pair bonds may be maintained for more than one breeding season and the same nest sites may be reused each year. The nest is an untidy platform of twigs lined with rags and placed on a cliff ledge,[38] building, or the fork of a large tree. Old nest platforms of eagles may also be taken over.[23][9] Nests placed on the ground are rare but have been recorded in subspecies N. p. ginginianus and N. p. majorensis.[39][40][41] Extra-pair copulation with neighbouring birds has been recorded and may be a reason for adult males to stay close to the female before and during the egg laying period.[42] Females may sometimes associate with two males and all three help in raising the brood.[43] The typical clutch consists of two eggs which are incubated in turns by both parents. The eggs are brick red with the broad end covered more densely with blotches of red, brown, and black.[34] The parents begin incubating soon after the first egg is laid leading to asynchronous hatching. The first egg hatches after about 42 days.[23] The second chick may hatch three to five days later and a longer delay increases the likelihood that it will die of starvation.[44] In cliffs where the nests are located close to each other, young birds have been known to clamber over to neighbouring nests to obtain food.[45] In the Spanish population, young fledge and leave the nest after 90 to 110 days.[46] Fledged birds continue to remain dependent on their parents for at least a month.[21] Once the birds begin to forage on their own, they move away from their parents' territory; young birds have been found nearly 500 km away from their nest site.[47][36] One year old European birds migrate to Africa and stay there for at least one year. A vulture that fledged in France stayed in Africa for three years before migrating north in spring.[29][28] After migrating back to their breeding areas, young birds move widely in search of good feeding territories and mates. The full adult plumage is attained in the fourth or fifth year. Egyptian vultures have been known to live for up to 37 years in captivity and at least 21 years in the wild. The probability of survival in the wild varies with age, increasing till the age of 2 and then falling at the age of 5. Older birds have an annual survival probability varying from 0.75 for non-breeders to 0.83 for breeding birds.[48]

Healthy adults do not have many predators, but human activities pose many threats. Collisions with power lines, hunting, intentional poisoning, lead accumulation from ingesting gunshot in carcasses, and pesticide accumulation take a toll on populations. Young birds at the nest are sometimes taken by golden eagles, eagle owls,[49] and red foxes.[50] Only rarely do adult birds attempt to drive away predators.[51] Young birds that fall off of cliff ledges may be preyed on by mammalian predators such as jackals, foxes and wolves.[52] Like all birds they serve as hosts for ectoparasitic birdlice including Aegypoecus perspicuus[53] as well as organisms that live within them such as mycoplasmas.[54]

The nominate population, especially in Africa, is known for its use of stones as tools. When a large egg, such as that of an ostrich or bustard, is located, the bird walks up to it with a large pebble held in its bill and tosses the pebble by swinging the neck down over the egg. The operation is repeated until the egg cracks from the blows.[55] They prefer using rounded pebbles to jagged rocks. This behaviour, first reported by Jane Goodall in 1966, has however not been recorded in N. p. ginginianus.[9] Tests with both hand-reared and wild birds suggest that the behaviour is innate, not learnt by observing other birds, and displayed once they associate eggs with food and have access to pebbles.[56] Another case of tool-use described from Bulgaria involves the use of a twig as a tool to roll up and gather strands of wool to use for lining the nest.[57]

Conservation status[edit]

Immature (behind) and adult (from John Gould's Birds of Europe)

Egyptian vulture populations have declined in most parts of its range. In Europe and most of the Middle East, populations in 2001 were half of those from 1980. In India, the decline has been rapid with a 35% decrease each year since 1999.[58] In 1967–70, the area around Delhi was estimated to have 12,000–15,000 of these vultures, with an average density of about 5 pairs per 10 km2.[59][60] The exact cause of the decline is not known, but has been linked with the use of the NSAID Diclofenac, which has been known to cause death in Gyps vultures.[58] In Italy, the number of breeding pairs declined from 30 in 1970 to 9 in the 1990s. Nearly all breeding failures were due to human activities.[61] In Spain, which holds about 50% of the European population suggested causes of decline include poisoning by accumulation of lead,[62] pesticides (especially due to large-scale use in the control of Schistocerca gregaria locust swarms), and electrocution.[20][63][64] Windfarms may also pose a threat.[65][32] Poorly designed power transmission lines in east Africa electrocute many wintering vultures.[66] Furthermore, studies in Spain suggest that the absorption of veterinary antibiotics suppresses the vultures' innate immunity, making them more prone to infection.[67] A shortage of carrion resulting from new rules for disposal of dead animals following the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis in parts of Europe during 2000 may have also had an effect on some populations.[68][32]

The population of Egyptian vultures in the Canary Islands has been isolated from those in Europe and Africa for a significant period of time leading to genetic differentiation. The vulture population there declined by 30% in the ten years between 1987 and 1998.[69] The Canarian Egyptian vulture was historically common, occurring on the islands of La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote. It is now restricted to Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, the two easternmost islands. The total population in 2000 was estimated at about 130 individuals, including 25–30 breeding pairs.[20][70] The island birds, owing to reduced exposure to infections and low genetic diversity, appear to be more susceptible to infections due to a weaker immune response.[71] Island birds also appear to accumulate significant amounts of lead from scavenging on hunted animal carcasses. The long-term effect of this poison at a sublethal level is not known, though it is known to alter the mineralization of their bones.[72] In order to provide safe and uncontaminated food for nesting birds, attempts have been made to create "vulture restaurants" where carcasses are made available. However, these interventions may also encourage other opportunist predators and scavengers to concentrate at the site and pose a threat to vultures nesting in the vicinity.[73]

In culture[edit]

The "sacred pair" at Thirukalukundram in 1906
G1
Egyptian Vulture
in hieroglyphs

In Ancient Egypt, the vulture hieroglyph was the uniliteral sign used for the glottal sound (/ɑː/). The Bible makes a reference to the Egyptian vulture under the Hebrew name of rachamah/racham which has been translated into English as "gier-eagle".[17][74] The bird was held sacred to Isis in the ancient Egyptian religion. The use of the vulture as a symbol of royalty in Egyptian culture and their protection by Pharaonic law made the species common on the streets of Egypt and gave rise to the name "pharaoh's chicken".[75][76][77][78]

A southern Indian temple at Thirukalukundram near Chengalpattu was famed for a pair of birds that reputedly visited the temple for "centuries". These birds were ceremonially fed by the temple priests and arrived before noon to feed on offerings made from rice, wheat, ghee, and sugar. Although normally punctual, the failure of the birds to turn up was attributed to the presence of "sinners" among the onlookers.[23][79][80] Legend has it the vultures (or "eagles") represented eight sages who were punished by Shiva, with two of them leaving in each of a series of epochs.[81][82]

The habit of coprophagy in Egyptian vultures gives them the Spanish names of "churretero" and "moñiguero", which mean "dung-eater".[33] British naturalists in colonial India considered them to be among the ugliest birds, and their habit of feeding on faeces was particularly despised.[83]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ IUCN Red List 2012.
  2. ^ Feduccia 1974.
  3. ^ Hertel 1995.
  4. ^ Wink, Heidrich & Fentzloff 1996.
  5. ^ Wink 1995.
  6. ^ Seibold & Helbig 1995.
  7. ^ a b Donázar et al. 2002b.
  8. ^ Peters 1979, p. 304.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Rasmussen & Anderton 2005.
  10. ^ Jardine & Selby 1826.
  11. ^ Latham 1787, p. 7.
  12. ^ Kretzmann et al. 2003.
  13. ^ Agudo et al. 2010.
  14. ^ Hartert 1920.
  15. ^ Zarudny & Härms 1902.
  16. ^ Grimal 1996.
  17. ^ a b Koenig 1907.
  18. ^ Thompson 1895, p. 146.
  19. ^ a b c Clark & Schmitt 1998.
  20. ^ a b c d e Donázar et al. 2002a.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ferguson-Lees & Christie 2001.
  22. ^ Whistler 1922.
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ali & Ripley 1978.
  24. ^ Mundy 1978.
  25. ^ Yosef & Alon 1997.
  26. ^ Spaar 1997.
  27. ^ Agostini et al. 2004.
  28. ^ a b García-Ripollés, López-López & Urios 2010.
  29. ^ a b c Meyburg et al. 2004.
  30. ^ Whistler 1949.
  31. ^ Prakash & Nanjappa 1988.
  32. ^ a b c Margalida et al. 2012.
  33. ^ a b Negro et al. 2002.
  34. ^ a b Baker 1928.
  35. ^ Donázar, Ceballos & Tella 1996.
  36. ^ a b Ceballos & Donázar 1990.
  37. ^ Margalida & Boudet 2003.
  38. ^ Ceballos & Donázar 1989.
  39. ^ Biddulph 1937.
  40. ^ Paynter 1924.
  41. ^ Gangoso 2005.
  42. ^ Donázar, Ceballos & Tella 1994.
  43. ^ Tella 1993.
  44. ^ Donázar & Ceballos 1989a.
  45. ^ Donázar & Ceballos 1990.
  46. ^ Donázar & Ceballos 1989b.
  47. ^ Elorriaga et al. 2009.
  48. ^ Grande et al. 2009.
  49. ^ Tella & Mañosa 1993.
  50. ^ Donázar & Ceballos 1988.
  51. ^ Mateo & Olea 2007.
  52. ^ Stoyanova & Stefanov 1993.
  53. ^ Agarwal 2012.
  54. ^ Suárez-Pérez 2012.
  55. ^ van Lawick-Goodall & van Lawick 1966.
  56. ^ Thouless, Fanshawe & Bertram 1989.
  57. ^ Stoyanova, Stefanov & Schmutz 2010.
  58. ^ a b Cuthbert et al. 2006.
  59. ^ Galushin 2001.
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