Griffon vultures are killing farm animals in Spain, and it's because of Mad Cow Disease.
For centuries, Spanish farmers happily fed the vultures. When sheep, cows, goats, pigs, horses, or other animals died, farmers left the corpses in garbage pits or other traditional dumping spots for that sort of thing. Spain's three kinds of vultures and other carrion-eating birds, who knew where to look, took care of the rest. It worked out well for all parties.
In fact, that's one reason why Spain still has these birds, which have become extinct elsewhere. Now, of course, vultures are protected species, and the Spanish population of griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) increased from 3000 breeding pairs in 1979 to 22,000 pairs today.
But more recently, Mad Cow Disease spread across Europe, and as part of the measures to control the illness, the garbage pits and cadaver dumps were closed. Dead animals are now incinerated, cutting off the carrion supply.
The vultures have become desperate. Their fledglings are dying of starvation. So now the vultures are flying across the countryside looking for sickly or weak animals. They don't have the talons or beaks to take on any tough prey, but they can kill newborn colts and lambs, even cows that have just given birth and are lying on the ground exhausted. One farmer has lost 17 of the 40 colts born this year.
Spanish farmers aren't angry at the vultures. They understand the problem. They want to be able to set out their dead animals again, especially in very rural locations, since Mad Cow Disease is coming under control. A couple of Spanish provinces have begun killing healthy animals to feed the vultures, which will fly from one province to another in search of a meal.
But it's not enough. And the griffon vultures, since they are eating everything they can find, including dead dogs and cats, are leaving nothing for smaller and even more endangered carrion eaters.
I wonder what would happen if the vultures realize that acting together, they can take on substantial prey. These are big birds, 3.3 feet/1 meter long from beak to tail that weigh up to 17 pounds/8 kilos and can fly as fast as 100 mph/160 kph. They often gather in flocks of a hundred birds. All desperately hungry. And I'm made out of meat.