Vultures are vulnerable to collisions as they cannot see the way ahead

Posted on Wednesday 14th March 2012

Vultures are colliding with wind turbines because they cannot see the way ahead, according to research by University of Birmingham scientists published today (14 March) in the journal IBIS, the International Journal of Avian Science. 

Vultures are large raptors that live in warm climates. They are at the top of the food chain and so their presence provides a good indication of a healthy environment. Thanks to strenuous conservation efforts their numbers in Europe have been increasing, however, they are now the frequent victims of collisions with wind turbines and power lines.

African White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus)

African White-backed Vulture

In Spain, which has a considerable programme of wind turbine installation, it is estimated that a minimum of 1000 Griffon Vultures die each year from collisions with wind turbines.  The reasons for these collisions have not been explained and are especially puzzling since vultures have some of the keenest eyes of all animals and they fly only by day.  The answer seems to be that when foraging for carrion, vultures are in fact blind in the direction of travel. They simply do not see the turbines no matter how large and conspicuous they may appear to us. 

Emeritus Professor Graham Martin from the University of Birmingham’s School of Biosciences who led the study into why vultures are so vulnerable said, ‘It is known that large raptors have the best visual acuity of any bird, so I wanted to investigate why so many are being killed in wind turbines collisions. 

‘We discovered that, when in flight, vultures are often blind in the direction of travel. This is because their visual field doesn’t allow them to see forwards when they are looking down seeking carrion on the ground.  We had thought that they would be keeping a look out ahead, but we have found that this isn’t so; they are more interested in what is on the ground and they assume that the world ahead will be clear of obstacles.  These birds evolved their foraging strategies in a world in which obstacles did not intrude into their air space. By erecting large turbines we have presented a challenge which these birds are not equipped to cope with.’

The researchers also discovered that the extensive blind area above the head, which projects forward when the birds look down, serves an important function in preventing the vultures’ eyes from imaging the sun. Imaging the sun can degrade image quality across the whole retina, which would reduce the bird’s ability to detect food on the ground below.  “In effect vultures have sunshades.  The enlarged brows which gives them their characteristic angry look, help keep the sun out of their eyes but they stop them seeing forward when they peer down,’ explained Professor Martin.

The team also found that vultures’ wide lateral vision – seeing sideways – allows the birds to observe the behaviour of other vultures in the same airspace. Vultures are social feeders and the researchers think that they use their lateral vision to detect when other birds start to descend to carrion on the ground. This is why large numbers can suddenly collect at a carcass. 

To mitigate the number of vulture collisions the team recommends the development of attractive foraging habitats away from wind turbines. Professor Martin continued, ‘Wind farms and vultures need to be kept apart.  Increasing the conspicuousness of man-made structures will achieve only marginal gains as obstacles like wind turbines will often simply not be seen by the birds when foraging. Reductions in vulture collisions could be achieved by providing feeding stations, or ‘vulture restaurants’, away from these obstacles to stop the birds foraging near turbine installations.’

Ends

Notes to Editors

This research was carried out at the Hawk Conservancy Trust headquarters in Hampshire. The research also involved Dr Steve Portugal of the Royal Veterinary College, London and Dr Campbell Murn, Director of Research and Conservation at the Hawk Conservancy Trust. 

The researchers studied Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus (found throughout southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa) and African White-backed Vultures Gyps africanus (found throughout much of Africa south of the Sahara).  There are 15 species of vultures in Africa, Asia and Europe, and 7 species in the Americas.  All vultures have a very slow rate of reproduction, so birds lost from the population take a long time to be replaced. They typically lay only one egg a year and do not start to breed until at least 4 years old.

 

For further information

Kate Chapple, Press Officer, University of Birmingham, tel 0121 414 2772 or 07789 921164.