Rounding up our research on Hooded Vultures

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We have recently rounded up our fieldwork in Kruger National Park investigating the elusive lives of Hooded Vultures.

The project began in 2016 in collaboration with the Birds of Prey Programme of South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust, the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania in the USA. It was started because Hooded Vultures are listed as Critically Endangered due to recent declines across much of their African range. We began this project to find out more about the ecology of these birds, from nesting sites to behaviour and interactions with other species so we can plan for their conservation.

What does a typical day in the field researching Hooded Vultures look like?

Our Head of Conservation, Research and Education Dr Campbell Murn has carried out much of the fieldwork for this project and describes what a day working on Hooded Vulture ecology research looks like. Hooded Vultures nest inside the canopies of large trees along rivers, making their nesting sites difficult to survey from the air or the ground. Hooded Vultures are not well studied in southern Africa probably due to their nest locations in secluded areas.

‘On an ordinary day, I’ll get up really early. I’ll pick up whoever I’m working with that day, usually game guards, at about 6.30AM. And then off you go! There’s lots of driving and lots of walking.

When our Hooded Vulture project started, it took ages to find nests. Ages and ages and ages. We’d spend all day trudging through the river, walking through soft sand looking up at these really tall trees so you get a really stiff neck. And working along rivers is dangerous; there’s always the risk of a buffalo, hippo or elephant around the corner. And then not finding any nests at the same time is just really hard. But we got there in the end!”

After years of data collection, we have so far published two research papers on Hooded Vulture ecology and their behaviour. One paper details three recorded instances of in-flight interactions between Hooded Vultures that involved talon-grappling and cartwheeling, which had not been described previously. You can read this paper here.

The second paper published so far from this project investigated Hooded Vulture nests and whether other species took over nest sites, or if predation events reduced breeding success. Across 12 Hooded Vulture nests, 33 different species were recorded visiting by camera traps over 93 nest-months. Adult Hooded Vultures used their nests year-round and not just during the breeding season. Egyptian Geese were visitors to nests, but did not apparently lead to the nest being abandoned the vultures, nor did the geese seem to affect breeding success. Two cases of breeding failure were linked to two species: one case of egg predation by a Chacma Baboon, and one case of a Martial Eagle predating a nestling. These findings have implications for conserving Hooded Vultures. You can also read this paper on our website here.

So, what’s next?

We will analyse and publish the remaining data collected from the years of Hooded Vulture fieldwork. Vulture fieldwork will continue in Kruger, although now the focus is on our new Lappet-faced Vulture Project, which aims to conserve their nesting sites. You can find out more about this new project here

Supporting conservationists of the future!

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What is our previous Conservation and Research Intern Mel up to now?

Our Conservation and Research Internships are designed to train early career conservationists with many of the skills they will need for a career in conservation, including data analysis, conservation communication and data collection. We are grateful to Investec for financially supporting our interns and their investment helps these budding conservationists contribute to the conservation of birds of prey in the UK and their habitats alongside our Conservation and Research team at the Hawk Conservancy Trust.

We are delighted that Investec have also been able to support one of our previous Conservation and Research Interns during their master’s degree in Global Wildlife health and Conservation at the University of Bristol. Our intern Mel Gelderd completed a three-month internship with the Trust last year and then returned to university for postgraduate studies.

Mel first carried out two weeks of work experience with the bird team at the Trust, learning about the husbandry of birds of prey before she decided to carry on volunteering. She then jumped at the chance to apply for an internship in the Conservation and Research department. During her busy three months as an intern, Mel carried out on-site wildlife surveys, was involved in assisting with nest checks for our Raptor Nest Box Project, releasing several rehabilitated birds from the National Bird of Prey HospitalTM back into the wild as well as analysing data involving birds with trichomoniasis admitted to the Hospital.

For her research project, earlier this year, Mel spent time accompanying Dr Matt Stevens, our UK Conservation Biologist during his visits to Barn Owl and Kestrel nest boxes. The data collection aimed to investigate the relationship between the microclimate (the environmental conditions within a nest box) of artificial nest boxes and the presence of parasites such as ticks and flat flies. Together, they took samples of the substrate (nesting material within the nest boxes) and visually inspected chicks growing in the nest. Matt and Mel visited sites that are part of our Raptor Nest Box Project, which has been running since 2010, and where Matt monitors and records the presence, survival and dispersal of chicks from nest boxes across eight counties in the south of England.

Mel believes the experiences and skills she gained at the Trust were invaluable in setting her up to study her master’s degree, and we are thrilled that she continues to be an ambassador for the Trust as she takes the next steps in her career. We wish Mel the best of luck in writing up her thesis, which contributes to our knowledge of birds of prey, nest boxes and chick health.


Marion Paviour Award 2022 winner announced!

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We are very excited to introduce our latest recipient of the Marion Paviour Award for 2022, Sopani Sichinga. Sopani is a BSc Forestry graduate from Mzuzu University in Malawi, and has been working with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) mainly in the Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve in northern Malawi.

His research project for the award focuses on assessing the Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) in and around Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. Currently, Martial Eagles here are reported as being resident although a comprehensive assessment of the population has not been carried out despite concerns about recent declines in population numbers.

The Marion Paviour Award is aimed at furthering research into the conservation of birds of prey and is intended to support early-career researchers. The award will help cover food, accommodation, field expenses and fuel costs for Sopani’s fieldwork.

“My current research study on assessing the Endangered Martial Eagle sparks from my enthusiasm to study raptors and other birds in Vwaza. The Martial Eagle is of particular interest because the species occurs there, but its conservation status remains unknown despite its reported continued declines which have contributed to the species being up-listed to Endangered by the IUCN in 2020.

“As a way to help in conserving this iconic species in Vwaza, I applied for the Marion Paviour Award with the Hawk Conservancy Trust. I feel very privileged and happy to have won the award which will significantly help to raise awareness regarding the status of the Martial Eagle in Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, and lead to conservation action from the relevant organisations. My passion for conservation in general has continued to grow from when I was working in the field of conservation research and helping with a range of conservation projects in Malawi.

“The support of the Hawk Conservancy Trust is, therefore, highly appreciated as it will help with field resource mobilisation which remains a challenge when planning any research fieldwork.”

Sopani submitted a compelling application for the award, which highlighted the lack of detailed knowledge about Martial Eagles in his study area and how his project will fill an important gap by creating a vital baseline about a potentially important population of this Endangered species. Sopani began fieldwork in April and we look forward to sharing updates and pictures throughout the year on the project.

Vulture Breeding 101

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This month, we caught up with our Head of Living Collection Gary Benton to find out all about our work to contribute to the survival of this wonderful species here onsite.

Breeding Programmes

“As many of you will know, we could be considered ‘Vulture nuts’ here at the Hawk Conservancy Trust! We have been a part of vulture conservation and research projects for many years, and are passionate about their survival in the wild. Although our projects across southern Africa and South Asia make up the majority of our work with vultures in the wild, we also contribute to their survival here onsite.

Breeding projects in zoos across the world help to create a healthy stronghold of birds in collections, which in turn could mean the survival of the species if they became extinct in the wild. The animals in collections can be key to repopulating the wild should their wild cousins be wiped out, so these breeding projects are very important and really do work.

Here at the Trust, we have been successfully breeding key species of vulture for many years as part of one of these breeding programmes. Not only are we involved in the EAZA (European Association of Zoo’s and Aquaria) programme for White-headed Vultures, but we are also committee members for the Cinereous Vulture programme, and coordinators of the breeding programme for African White-backed Vultures. These programmes are called EEPs (EAZA Ex-situ Programmes).

We have breeding pairs of both species of these vultures here at the Trust (in fact we are one of the most successful at breeding these species in the world!). You will have seen these birds if you have been to many of our talks, flying displays or taken part in an experience session – these vultures are birds that have either been hatched at the Trust or come to us from another collection across Europe that are involved in this programme too.”

Breeding Season

“We have certain processes in place when it comes to breeding season; what happens when our chicks fledge the nest, and how these birds then become a really healthy addition to the breeding programme themselves.

Firstly it is very important to create the right environment for these birds so that they are relaxed, confident and healthy, therefore feeling comfortable enough to produce chicks. These vulture species won’t begin breeding until around six or seven years old, so we have a really nice window to be able to get to know our birds and work with them for flying and fitness (which is a helpful aspect to their ability to breed).

Once they join the breeding programme, it varies where they may end up living. They may stay with us at the Trust, or it might be the case we say a bittersweet goodbye as they move to another collection to be with a suitable mate to successfully boost the population in collections across Europe.

When an egg is laid by a pair of our vultures, we monitor them very closely by viewing them from afar using CCTV cameras installed near nests as not to disturb the birds during the important incubation process.

For African White-backed Vultures and White-headed Vultures, you are looking at around 55-60 days incubation (which is a long time isn’t it!). The duty is shared by both parents, and when one is sitting  on the egg, the other is normally close by for protection (this is very important in the wild of course but not something that our birds have to worry about really).

These vultures will only lay one egg at a time, and this will only happen once a year unless the egg fails naturally or, if in the wild, the egg is predated or damaged by another animal. Vultures are super-skilled parents, and even though they are one of the largest birds of prey around, they manage to care for this very delicate little egg in the most precise way.

Should the egg hatch, we will leave the chick with its parents. They do a fantastic job of rearing that young bird until it is fully grown, which only takes around 12-14 weeks (this never ceases to amaze me considering they are such huge birds!).

When the chick eventually grows enough to use its wings, it will make the decision to leave the nest for the first time – a process called fledging. This is normally quite a clumsy affair but they quickly learn how to negotiate the art of flight!”


Getting to know your own vulture

“After a year left being reared with the parents, quite a reality check hits when the next breeding season comes along; Mum and Dad all of a sudden decide that they have done their job and it’s time for little vulture to move on to find independence (I think many parents will relate to this moment in life!).

At this time in the wild, the juvenile would normally be pushed away from the nest at this stage. So we closely monitor the birds for the signs this behaviour is starting to happen, and at the right point move the vulture from the breeding aviary to another vulture aviary here. This is a slightly different setup for each bird, but we try to give the birds as many opportunities to socialise with other vultures in order to get used to the complex hierarchy of being a social species of bird of prey. This is where they find their place within the structure and start to become their own bird.

During this next phase of the vulture’s life, what we call the ‘getting to know your own vulture’ phase, the young bird normally lives with other more experienced vultures that are already working very closely with the Bird Team. This is when a close bond with the Bird Team begins.”


Working with the Bird Team

“We have found that vultures are very good at watching what other birds do and learning from them.  Our research work underpins this too. So when we want to begin working closely with these young birds, it becomes a much smoother process.

We begin our closer work with these birds by starting to bring them out of their aviaries and into our arenas for flying and fitness. This is where the connection between Bird Team members and the bird is so important as we need to earn their trust so much so that they will fly back!

Vultures are always searching for a tasty treat, so working with them using positive reinforcement works very well. It’s a bit like having a greedy dog at home – we see the bird’s natural behaviour we are looking for and then reward them with some dinner at just the right time. The birds then remember this the next time, which enables us to build a routine for their flying.

When we are working with really large vultures like these, it can be difficult to work with them together as the space for take-off and landing needs to be quite big. To accommodate this, we have some brand new towers being installed in the arenas that enable a space high up off the ground so that multiple large vultures can fly together safely. This is hot off the press and only just in the final development stage, but all very exciting!”

Our Birds

“You will recognise some of the birds that have been a part of these breeding programmes at the Trust. Our White-headed Vultures Arthur, Mamba and Ravenclaw are all regular additions to the shows, and it looks like Arthur and Mamba are starting to create a nice pairing! We are hopeful to see how this develops. The White-backed Vultures, Clay, Simba and Melchett, our chick from last year, are all a part of this programme too.

It’s a very satisfying process to be a part of for us from the Bird Team here. We get to see this tiny little vulture hatching out of its egg and then, after lots of time, effort and close contact with that bird, it hopefully pairs up with another bird to one day lays its own egg; continuing that great circle of life.

Flying our vultures also helps us to inspire and engage visitors to the importance of their survival in the wild, and how we can play a part in this. I feel the environment we have created for our vultures enables us to mirror many of the life experiences that their wild cousins are doing; it’s an absolute joy to be a part of it!”

Meet our interns!

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We’ve recently welcomed two passionate interns onto our Conservation and Research team – meet Melanie Gelderd and Fern Brown! We caught up with Melanie and Fern to find out more about them, and the work they’ve been diving into on their first month at the Hawk Conservancy Trust:


Updates from our National Bird of Prey Hospital™

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We are extremely proud of the work we do in the National Bird of Prey Hospital™. Hospital Manager Cedric Robert, along with other dedicated staff members and volunteers, work tirelessly to ensure all the birds get the highest level of care possible, and the best chance at survival when they are released back into the wild.

So far, 2022 has been no exception, and Cedric and the team are very busy as always. May and June are particularly busy months as it is the height of the breeding season for Tawny Owls, when many chicks are hatching. Tawny Owl chicks are often brought into our hospital because they venture out of the nest when they are still very young, and may appear like they are not quite ready! This behaviour is called ‘branching’ and is a completely natural behaviour for this species, and the parents will still feed the chick. If you find a Tawny Owl chick out of the nest, it will usually be perfectly OK. However, if you are worried for any reason, or the owl looks like it might be injured or in danger, for example if it is on a busy footpath or bridleway, near a road, or where cats or dogs might be able to find it, then you can always give us a call for advice. Find out what to do if you find an injured, sick or orphaned bird of prey.

At of the time of writing (29 June 2022) we currently have 14 Tawny Owl chicks in our care. We are happy to report that they are all doing well, and many are nearly ready for release back into the wild! Two of these Tawny Owl chicks were only recently moved from the inside aviaries to the outdoor rehabilitation aviaries, where they can gain fitness and hone their flying skills before they are released. We caught up with Cedric, who gave us an insight into how this exciting step in the owl’s recovery goes ahead:

We have also admitted six Little Owl chicks in the past month. So far, Cedric has cared for a clutch of four Little Owl chicks together, and two individual chicks bought in separately. This is an increase on last year for Little Owl admissions. It is not unusual for admissions to vary between years and probably just a coincidence and stroke of luck that the people who admitted these chicks were in the right place at the right time!

The two individual chicks were both found separately, on the ground with no sign of their parents. After some time being monitored for any health conditions, Cedric made the decision to bring the two chicks together. As they are still very young, this helps to imitate the natural nest environment, where chicks would have clutch mates to share the nest with. Here Cedric is checking their condition and weight and they are making great progress. In a few weeks they will be ready to move into one of our outside aviaries to practice flying before they are released back into the wild.

It is not just owls that Cedric and the team have been caring for so far! This year so far we’ve seen seven different species come through our hospital doors. We have also had a few fleeting visits from Peregrine Falcons from around the local area, including this handsome juvenile. Brought in to us disorientated, it was checked over by our vet and found to be in good health. After a rest, it was alert and ready to be returned to its family within 24 hours. This is a fantastic result, as unlike some birds of prey, Peregrine Falcons need that time with their parents when fledging to learn from them how to hunt effectively.


However busy it gets in the hospital, the work feels wonderfully worthwhile. The National Bird of Prey Hospital™ can treat up to 200 sick, injured or orphaned wild birds of prey a year. You can find out more about the fantastic work that goes on in the hospital here.

The latest from Changa Manga Breeding Centre

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Recently, we caught up with WWF-Pakistan Project Manager Jamshed Chaudry about Changa Manga conservation breeding centre in Pakistan, which holds a population of Critically Endangered Asian White-backed Vultures and is part of our Pakistan Vulture Restoration Project. (more…)

Poison response training in Uganda

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We are delighted to share news of expansion of our vulture conservation work into Uganda, East Africa!


Great news from Changa Manga!

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We’re thrilled to share the news of three healthy Asian White-backed Vulture chicks, a Critically Endangered species, hatched at Changa Manga! This conservation breeding centre is run by our partners WWF-Pakistan, and is a key element of our Pakistan Vulture Restoration Project, which also includes a Vulture Safe Zone to protect wild vultures.


Our achievements for birds of prey in 2021

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Despite the challenges we (and many others) faced in 2021, we’re incredibly proud of what we achieved for Critically Endangered vultures, and for our wonderful British birds of prey, both in the wild and in the National Bird of Prey Hospital™.  As we head into 2022, we take a look back at some our accomplishments in bird of prey conservation over the last year.

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