Black Vulture
Rafael Palomo
Rafael Palomo
Rafael Palomo
Rafael Palomo
Rafael Palomo
Black Vulture
Conservation status
Geographic distribution
Main Threats
Useful references


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Accipitridae
Genus: Aegypius
Species: A. monachus
Aegypius monachus (Linnaeus, 1766), original: Vultur monachus

Conservation status

- Global - IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature): NT (Near Threatened)
- Spain: VU (Vulnerable)
- Portugal: CR (Critically Endangered)
- SPEC (Species of European Conservation Concern): 1 – globally threatened species
- EU25 Threat status (BirdLife International): rare
- Legal Protection:
Birds Directive – annex I and priority species within Europe.
Bern Convention – annex II.
Bonn Convention (on the conservation of migratory species) – annex II.
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – annex II-A.

Geographic distribution

In Europe it only occurs in the Iberian Peninsula (including Balearic Islands) and in the Balkans. In Asia it is present from Turkey, in the west, through the Caucasus, Iran, Afghanistan, northern India, and up to southern Siberia, Mongolia and northern China. They can winter as far as southern Sudan, the Middle East, Pakistan, India and Korea.

In Portugal the species occurs in the east and in the central and southern areas of continental Portugal, mostly along the border with Spain, between Beira Baixa and Baixo Alentejo, occasionally visiting the Douro Internacional. After a sharp decline in the first half of the 20th century, culminating with the extinction of the Portuguese breeding population in the 70s, in 2010, 4 pairs of Black Vultures bread again in Portugal, in the Tejo Internacional region, of which 2 were successful. It now depends on all of us to reduce the threats to this species, which may allow this imposing bird to once again become common in our skies.

Worldwide distribution of black vulture in the beginning of the XX century
Current worldwide breeding distribution of black vulture
Current worldwide wintering / migration distribution of black vulture
Adapted from del Hoyo 1994


Breeding area of the black vulture in the Iberian Peninsula (de la Puente et al 2007)
Area of regular occurrence of black vulture in Portugal (Equipa Atlas 2008)


The Black Vulture is the largest raptor in Europe, reaching 98-107 cm in length and a wingspan of up to 3 meters (250-300 cm). With its dark, almost black, plumage this scavenger can be seen soaring in the sky in search of carrion to feed on. Its enormous dark silhouette, with wings that are almost rectangular, is truly impressive. To see one of these animals, somewhere in the heart of the Alentejo, is truly a privilege.


The Black Vulture is strongly associated to Mediterranean habitats, breeding mostly in cork (Quercus suber) and Holm oak (Quercus rotundifolia) woodlands, in remote hilly areas with steep slopes, far from the presence of man. Daily they can fly dozens of kilometres is search for food. They will feed where the availability of prey is higher, but prefer the traditional scattered woodlands, known as “montados”, typical of the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula, and will avoid all sources of human disturbance. By eliminating the carcasses of dead animals in a fast and efficient way, vultures avoid the spread of diseases and ensure the correct functioning of the food chains in the ecosystem.
They eat small to average-sized carcasses, having as their main prey the wild rabbit, and domestic sheep and goats. in the last few decades, because of the generalized decline of wild rabbit populations, the diet of the Black Vulture changed from feeding almost exclusively on rabbits (1970s) to a sheep-based diet (1998-2000), feeding also, to a lesser extent, on goats, pigs and wild ungulates.


Usually nests in disperse colonies, almost always on trees, mostly cork and Holm oaks and pines in some regions. The nests are built with sticks and twigs, reaching 145-190 cm in diameter. The eggs are layed between February and April, almost always a single egg per couple. Black Vultures reach sexual maturity at 3-6 years old.

Main Threats

There are several threats that affect Black Vulture populations: (1) illegal poisoning; (2) collision with power lines and electrocution; (3) illegal hunting; (4) lowered food availability due to the scarcity of wild rabbits and sanitary rules that force farmers to collect all dead animals from the fields; (5) degradation of the feeing habitat due to the intensification of agricultural and forestry practices; (6) human disturbance in the breeding areas; (7) construction of wind farms and dams near breeding areas and loss of the feeding habitat because of dam construction; (8) presence of veterinary drugs and heavy metals (lead) in the carcasses of domestic and wild animals.

(1) Poisoning
Non-directed poisoning, due to the use of poisoned baits for illegal predator control, causes a considerable number of Black Vulture fatalities every year. Although this practice was ruled illegal by both international (EU’s Birds Directive and Habitats Directive) and national legislation (Law Decrees 316/89, 140/99, 202/04, 49/2005 and law 173/99), this method for predator control affects a large number of species in Europe. Also, the uncontrolled use of chemical pesticides (which may facilitate the outbreak of disease by depressing the immune system) and the ingestion of wild prey contaminated with lead, cause additional problems to the animals. In Spain, 98% of poisoning cases were caused by the illegal and intentional use of pesticides as poison against predators. The pesticides most commonly used as poison (88% of cases) are carbofuran, strychnine and aldicarb.

(2) Collision with power lines and electrocution
Accidents involving electrical infrastructures are one of the main causes of non-natural mortality in wild birds. Between 1990 and 2006, a total of 34 Black Vultures died in Spain because of accidents with electrical infrastructures. In vultures the main cause of death in these accidents are collisions with power lines, electrocution is less frequent. In a recent study, one Black Vulture death was reported in Portugal due to a collision with a high voltage power line, which extrapolates to an estimate of 4 accidents of this kind per year.

(3) Illegal hunting
Fortunately, direct persecution by hunters and collectors is now a thing of the past. Still, a few Black Vultures are occasionally shot because of the wrong belief that they are predators. Even though this affects a very small number of animals, because of the small size of the population, any additional deaths can pose a threat to the conservation of this species.

(4) Lowered food availability
It is a well known fact that the distribution of Black Vultures is strongly correlated to the relative abundance of farm animals. As a consequence, changes to the traditional farming practices have a negative effect on the species, as the number of available animals strongly declined. Both the fact that nowadays a large proportion of farm animals are kept indoors, and that most carcasses are now removed from the fields shortly after death have also contributed to the decline in the availability of food for vultures.

(5) Habitat change
Changes to the vulture’s breeding habitat are mostly associated with changes in forestry practices, namely: destruction of native forests and re-forestation with exotic species, cutting trees during the breeding season, construction of roads to support lumbering and to combat fires, etc. Not only do these actions have direct impacts on the habitat, but they can also cause disturbance to the nests as well as make them more accessible.
Also, the increasing frequency of extremely dry summers in southern Europe has lead to an increase in the number and size of forest fires. Socio-economical changes and the subsequent abandonment of rural areas have also contributed to the increase in wild fires. Fires can have a devastating impact on Black Vultures, as was the case with the fire that affected a vulture colony in Andalucía, Spain, in 1992, destroying 8 nests with chicks as well as 21 empty nests.

(6) Human disturbance
Human disturbance has been described as a limiting factor for Black Vultures, especially in the Caucasus where mountain tourism is very popular. Disturbance during the incubation period causes the loss of many eggs due to nest abandonment by the adults and predation by corvids.
In Portugal, the main problem associated with disturbance is the activities that take place near potential nesting areas during the breeding season. Most of these are related to forestry actions (logging, pruning), hunting and recreation.

(7) Wind farms and dams
The construction of wind farms near breeding sites is considered a serious threat due to the disturbance caused during the construction stage (clearing new roads and building the infrastructure), and later when in function as the human presence is likely to increase. Depending on the type and location of the wind turbines, these can pose a threat for the birds which can be killed by the rotating blades. This is particularly the case when the wind turbines are located near important areas for the Black Vultures, namely breeding areas and areas that receive dispersing juveniles, or feeding areas located in hilltops.
The power lines associated to the wind farms are another important problem because of the subsequent risks of collision and electrocution.
The building of dams and the consequent increase in the water levels of former rivers and streams leads to the inundation of feeding and breeding habitats, as well as an increase in human disturbance (as seen in Spain and Greece).

(8) Drug residuals
The negative impact of toxic chemicals and contaminants is one of the main wildlife conservation issues around the world, as it affects almost all physiological and behavioural aspects of the animals. The recent dramatic events in south-eastern Asia, where several vultures species have suffered massive mortalities caused by renal failure after ingesting carcasses of cattle treated with Diclofenac (Voltaren®) clearly shows what these drug residuals can cause when vultures ingest carcasses of domestic animals. When vultures have access to the carcasses of animals that were treated and died before the necessary time for the drug to be eliminated, they can easily come in contact with drug residuals. The ingestion of drugs currently used in livestock can cause death, lesions in the internal organs, immune-depression and breeding problems because of damage to the embryos. Of all the drugs in use, the most relevant are the antibiotics as they are heavily used and can depress the immune system of the vultures and change their endogenous bacterial flora, which can facilitate and increase the spread of pathogenic agents. Additionally, when antibiotics are ingested in small amounts, there is an increased chance of creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which form one of the most serious public health problems in the world.

Useful references

• Bernis, E. (1966). El Buitre Negro (Aegypius monachus) en Ibéria. Ardeola, 12: 45-99.
• BirdLife International (2004). Birds in the European Union: a status assessment. Wageningen, The Netherlands: BirdLife International.
• Brandão R. (2003). Mortalidade de fauna silvestre por envenenamento em Portugal: resultados da análise retrospectiva entre 1992 e 2003. Actas do IV Congresso de Ornitologia da SPEA/ II Jornadas Ibéricas de Ornitologia. Aveiro, Portugal.
• Cabral, Maria João et al, Ed. (2005). Livro Vermelho dos Vertebrados de Portugal – Peixes Dulciaquícolas e Migradores, Anfíbios, Répteis, Aves e Mamíferos. Instituto da Conservação da Natureza, Lisboa.
• Carrete, M. & Donázar, J.A. (2005). Application of central place foraging theory shows the importance of Mediterranean dehesas for the conservation of the cinereous vulture, Aegypius monachus. Biological Conservation, 126: 582-590.
• Costillo, E., Corbacho, C., Morán, R. & Villegas, A. (2007). The diet of the black vulture Aegypius monachus in response to environmental changes in Extremadura (1970-2000). Ardeola, 42: 197-204.
• Cramp, S. and Simmons, K. E. L. (1980). Handbook of the birds of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The birds of the western Palearctic vol II: hawks to bustards. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
• de la Puente, J., Moreno-Opo, R. y Del Moral, J. C. 2007. El buitre negro en España. Censo Nacional (2006). SEO/BirdLife. Madrid.
• del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (eds) (1994). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions. Barcelona, Spain.
• Donázar, J.A. (1993). Los Buitres Ibericos, Biologia y Conservacion. Reyero, J.M. (ed). Quercus. Madrid, Spain.
• Donázar J.A., Margalida A., Campión D. (2009). Buitres, muladares y legislación sanitaria: perspectivas de un conflicto y sus consecuencias desde la biología de la conservación. Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi. Donostia, España.
• Equipa ATLAS (2008). Atlas das Aves Nidificantes em Portugal (1999-2005). Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e da Biodiversidade, Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves, Parque Natural da Madeira e Secretaria Regional do Ambiente e do Mar. Assírio & Alvim, Lisboa.
• González, L.M. (1994). Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus. In: Tucker, G.M. & Heath, M.F. Birds in Europe: their conservation status. BirdLife Conservation Series No. 3. BirdLife International. Cambridge, UK. pp. 158-159.
• Heredia, B. (1996). Action plan for the cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) in Europe. In: Heredia, B., Rose, L. & Painter, M., (eds) Globally threatened birds in Europe: action plans. Council of Europe and BirdLife International. Strasbourg, France. pp. 147-158.
• Hernández, M. & Margalida, A. (2008). Pesticide abuse in Europe: effects on the cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) population in Spain. Ecotoxicology, 17: 264-272.
• ICN. (2006). Plano sectorial da Rede Natura 2000. Instituto da Conservação da Natureza. Lisboa, Portugal.
• Jung, K., Kim, Y., Lee, H. & Kim, J.-T. (2009). Aspergillus fumigatus infection in two wild Eurasian black vultures (Aegypius monachus Linnaeus) with carbofuran insecticide poisoning: a case report. The Veterinary Journal, 179: 307-312.
• Kim, J.-H., Chung, O.-S., Lee, W.-S. & Kanai, Y. (2007). Migration routes of cinereous vultures (Aegypius monachus) in northeast Ásia. Journal of Raptor Research, 41: 161-165.
• MacKinnon, J., & Phillipps, K. (2000). A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.
• Moreno-Opo, r. y Guil, F. (Coords.) 2007. Manual de gestión del hábitat y de las poblaciones de buitre negro en España. Dirección General para la Biodiversidad. Ministerio de Medio Ambiente. Madrid, España.
• Nam, D.-H. & Lee, D.-P. (2009). Abnormal lead exposure in globally threatened Cinereous vultures (Aegypius monachus) wintering in South Korea. Ecotoxicology, 18: 225-229.
• Rufino, R. (1989). Atlas das Aves que nidificam em Portugal Continental. Centro de Estudos de Migrações e Protecção de Aves. Serviço Nacional de Parques Reservas e Conservação da Natureza. Lisboa, Portugal.
• Silva, L., Pais, M.C. & Safara, J. (1996). Recent data on the situation of the Black Vulture in Portugal. R.R.F. 2nd International Conference on Raptors. Urbino, Italy.
• Snow, D. W. & Perrins, C. M. (1998). The Birds of the Western Palearctic Concise Edition.
• Skartsi, T., Elorriaga, J.N., Vasilakis, D.P. & Poirazidisa, K. (2008). Population size, breeding rates and conservation status of Eurasian black vulture in the Dadia National Park, Thrace, NE Greece. Journal of Natural History, 42: 345-353.
• Vasilakis, D., Poirazidis, C. & Elorriaga, J. (2006). Breeding season range use of a Eurasian Black Vulture Aegypius monachus population in Dadia National Park and the adjacent areas, NE Greece. - In Piper, S. & Houston, D. (eds) Proceedings of the international conference on the Conservation and Management of Vulture Populations. WWF Hellas-Natural History Museum of Crete. Salonica, Greece. pp. 127-137.
• Villegas, A., Sánchez-Guzmán, J.M., Costillo, E., Corbacho, C. & Morán, R. (2004). Productivity and fledgling sex ratio in a cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) population in Spain. Journal of Raptor Research, 38: 361-366.