The “Bird of the Year 2021” in Kyrgyzstan

The Bearded Vulture’ portrait: an adult bird. Photo by Alexander Zhdanko

The Kyrgyzstan Wildlife Conservation Society looks for support to publish the new calendar of 2021 with the new selected “Bird of the Year-2021”. The Society publishes its annual calendars with bird images since 2006. Every year the members of the Society select one species of birds occurring in Kyrgyzstan as a symbol of the year. The bird selected serves also as a symbol of conservation campaign providing by KWCS members. Calendars are free of charge. They are disseminated by KWCS among schools, public organizations, NGOs and communities that to highlight the problems of birds and other wildlife conservation in Kyrgyzstan and engage society in the conservation. 

The last 2020 calendar was published with an image of the White-browed Tit-Warbler (Leptopoecile sophia), occurring in the montane juniper forests of Kyrgyzstan. The sponsor of this calendar was a Kyrgyz Express Post, issued last year the post stamp with an image of this fluffy and bright-painted passerine.

The Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) was selected as a bird of 2021. The Bearded Vulture is an amazing bird inhabiting the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The bearded vulture is a species of scavenger bird that plays a specific role in ecosystems. Birds literally feed on the bones of dead animals and their guts – bone marrow. The bearded vulture has the ability to digest bones due to the high acidity of gastric juice. This scavenger cannot completely swallow large bones, so it picks up the bones of dead animals, flies with them into the air and throws them down onto the rocks. After several such throws, the bone breaks and the bearded vulture can swallow small pieces of bones with their nutritious content. Undigested bone remains are regurgitated by bearded vulture like pellets in owls – as small bone balls. And the bone marrow allows these scavengers to receive high-calorie nutrition, ensuring their survival in the hard mountain conditions. Specialization in feeding on the bones and other remains of dead animals has determined specific biological characteristics of this species. Bearded vultures nest at the end of the winter and in early spring. In January – March, they lay one or two eggs in a nest located on the ledges of steep cliffs, usually in hard-to-reach habitats. Mostly, the female incubates eggs; she spends about two months (52-55 days) in the nest before the chicks appear. Usually only one of them survives, since it can be difficult to feed two chicks in winter. Chicks appear at the end of February – March. But in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, this is a time when the chances of finding food – the corpses and bones of dead animals – are highest.

The chick of bearded vulture is born completely naked, but quickly it overgrows with dark fluffy down, which protects it from a significant drop in day and night temperatures in the mountains. At first, caring parents do not leave the chick for a long time, warming it with their feathers and feeding it with semi-digested bone concentrate. By the end of winter – the beginning of spring, the chick is fully fledged and begins to fly out of the nest, accompanying the parents. It differs from adult birds in its very dark, almost completely black plumage. Bearded vultures glide low over the slopes of the mountains, looking out for the corpses and bones of animals killed or died in winter. They lift large bones high into the air and thrown down onto rocks to break them and gain access to internal soft content. In search of food, the bearded vultures make long flights low over the mountain slopes, precisely following montane relief.

In Kyrgyzstan, the bearded vulture is found in all large ridges of the Tien Shan and Pamir-Alai mountains. It prefers to inhabit in high-mountainous and mid-mountainous areas, often occurring in the narrow gorges with steep inaccessible wall-slopes. This is a resident bird in the mountains of Central Asia. The bearded vulture is included in the Red Book of Kyrgyzstan as a rare species. It is also included in the IUCN Red List as a Near-Threatened (NT) species. The Bearded Vulture historically occurred within the large area of mountain ranges in Eurasia and Africa. However, currently it is extinct in many past habitats. Its populations are highly fragmented and the bird is relatively rare in all remained range’ areas. There are no exact data about population numbers and current distribution of bearded vultures in Kyrgyzstan. The species is protected by law. Conservation measures should include also the protection of breeding areas and public awareness campaigns about this species among the local communities.

This autumn the Kyrgyzstan’s people fight against the new political crisis to build a more democratic state. Arising political problems masked the conservation issues. But wildlife protection is also very important for this country, where the living natural resources and biodiversity provide valuable assets to human communities. The Calendar with the Bearded Vulture as a bird of 2021 will help to the KWCS’ conservation and public awareness campaign. The Society plans to print 2000 copies, for which it is necessary to raise less than a 1000 US$. The KWCS’ members look for support from civil society and caring people. Please, help their conservation efforts with your donation. They send you a copy of our small pocket calendar and information about their conservation activities.   

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