Dead Wings: Big Bird Down

The (Crime) Scene

It happened towards the end of November in 1991. I was with Paul Croft, and we were just completing a fantastic, but rather strenuous journey through one of western Cyprus’ relatively unexplored canyon areas (not Avagas). As we tackled the final few hundred metres of the gorge and came close to the stream’s source area, the air suddenly turned foul with the putrid stench of rotting flesh. Something was dead here. We had the immediate assumption that somewhere nearby lay the decomposing body of a dead goat, because we often see (or more often just hear) goats walking above us on canyon ledges; sometimes they fall and die. But no, that would prove to be a mistaken assumption. We happened upon it abruptly, almost stepping on it as we turned a corner and encountered the rotten corpse of a large dead bird. It was lying directly on the damp gravels of the stream bed and seemed to be in an early stage of decomposition. The poor bird must have died just a few days earlier.

First sighting and smelly discovery.

Sad, but under normal circumstances you can’t really get this close to a vulture’s beak.

 

I was repulsed by it, but Paul had the opposite reaction: he was excited, almost elated. He immediately approached the bird with the same degree of interest as Sherlock Holmes examining a crime scene. At first, I couldn’t believe his attraction, because I was instinctively taking steps backwards, while Paul was hovering over the ugly thing, clearly quite pleased by it. Reluctantly, I followed with my camera, and as we both stood there marveling at the size of the bird, it suddenly came to us that we were gazing at a dead Griffon Vulture.

“Bone Man”

Before going further into this story, here’s a bit of context to explain Paul’s happy reaction to a dead vulture: Paul Croft is what we call in archaeology a “Bone Man” (official term: Zooarchaeologist). His speciality: identifying animal bones recovered from archaeological sites, usually from excavations, almost always from bone fragments in dubious states of preservation. From his first days in Cypriot Archaeology (as a Ph.D. student from Cambridge, back in the mid-1970s at Kalavasos-Tenta), Paul has engaged in the analysis, measurement, age/gender assessment  (when possible) and species identification of tens of thousands of animal bones from various sites across Cyprus. This kind of analysis and research is impossible without building a proper “reference collection” consisting of bones taken from a range of contemporary animals (mammalian, marsupial, avian and reptilian). For as long as I’ve know this guy, Paul has been getting his hands on dead animals (rats, mice, goats, sheep, even a Moufllon once), skinning them, butchering them and then boiling them up in his make-shift lab (often a common kitchen shared by other archaeologists!). Or sometimes he would bury the cadavers in the ground for months and let the maggots do the work.

The “Bone Man” builds his reference collection: During a late May trek through a gorge, Paul Croft finds the head of a dead goat, bell still around the neck.

The basic system is to take an ancient bone fragment or (if you’re lucky) a complete bone from an archaeological context and then compare that with its suspected counterpart from a modern animal.  Bird bones occur more commonly than one might imagine in archaeological contexts and they don’t always represent birds from edible species. Modern bones from widely eaten birds like guinea fowl (i.e. ancient chickens: Kentucky Fried Guinea Fowl, just doesn’t have the right ring to it!), pigeons, partridges are easy enough to come by. But the acquisition of bones from less common birds like the Griffon Vulture is a different story, a much more difficult task.

Return to Scene

Once we had photographed the scene with the body, we realised that we were ill equipped to remove this specimen and take it back to Paul’s “base camp” in Lemba Village. We had no bags or proper wrapping material and to be quite honest, given that we still had a few more kilometres to walk back to our vehicle, nobody wanted to walk around with a slime-ridden Gyps, stinking and dripping putrid fulvus-laden material down the back. We decided to leave things as they were and come back another day when we were better organised to deal with the packing and transport of our poor winged friend. Originally we planned to return the very next day, but bad rains came and we had to delay for three or four days. At the time, Paul was running the Lemba Archaeological Project and had access to project’s old long-wheel base Land Rover, which was purchased “for a tuppence” at a British Army auction a year or two earlier.

Land Rovers: They don’t build ’em anymore the way they used to…

We used this sturdy 4×4 transport to get back to the scene, when we decided it was dry enough to make the attempt. Despite the lack of power steering and the need to drive down slopes composed of wet clay, Paul managed to park the “Lemba Land Rover” within 200-300 metres  of the dead bird. As far as collecting and removing the bird, these pictures tell the rest of the story:

 

We were able to wrap up the dead bird and carry it back to the Land Rover. Now the real “fun” would begin. Driving downhill through mud is one thing, but driving back up: that’s another story. There was no road or even track of any kind. We just had the tire tracks from our descent to use and guide us. This vehicle was old and (maybe I’m wrong) it seemed under-powered. But through hook or crook, using sheer muscle and tenacity (a bit of luck too!), Paul skillfully drove the machine up through muddy slopes, finally reaching the dirt track some 500 metres above the stream bed with engine whining in protest the whole way. Nice driving, mate! If only somebody had a video camera: it would have made for an excellent advert showing how versatile and unstoppable a Land Rover can be when properly driven.

Griffon Vultures in Cyprus today

The bones of this bird were duly added to the Bone Man’s collection of modern specimens and will act as reference points for future research. To my knowledge, no vulture (or specifically Griffon Vulture) bones have yet come to light from archaeological contexts in Cyprus. However, it wasn’t too far back in time that the Cyprus skies were sometimes filled with dozens of these winged scavengers soaring in circular patterns through the air currents during windless sunny days. I personally remember an early morning encounter, about 07.30 (too early for thermal currents to develop) in 1980 when I observed more than 50 live vultures sitting on a dirt track adjacent to a cliff near Salamiou Village in the Xeros Potamos region of the Paphos District. A few years later, I saw at least 25 Griffon Vultures circling in the sky over a discarded dead animal outside Trakhypedoula Village in the Diarizos Valley. In fact, up until the early 2000s, we could still recognise a few distinct vulture colonies with active nesting occuring. Today, we’re lucky to count only one such colony remaining.

Looking at the island’s vulture situation today, these majestic birds can now be considered and endangered species under severe threat. One can put forward many factors to explain the decline in vulture numbers, but two reasons stand out: the historical move towards using machines to replace draft animals; and the wide-spread use of poison by livestock farmers to combat foxes. The “Industrial Revolution” came to Cyprus during the period of British Rule (1878-1960) and with it came the gradual phasing in of cars, pick-ups, tractors and various machines to accomplish things like general transportation and a host of agricultural tasks. This move away from draft animals, which really came on strong after the 1950s, meant fewer people owned and used animals (horses, donkey, mules, oxen) and this impacted vultures directly: A reduced population of animals means a smaller and decreasing food source for carrion-eaters like vultures. On top of this, towards the later part of the 1990s, many sheep/goat/pig farmers started to adopt the horrible non-selective practice of injecting their dead farm animals with poison and then they would leave the contaminated cadavers next to the animal pens hoping that  foxes, a constant menace to young livestock, would eat the poison and perish. Unfortunately, foxes are not the only animals that feast on dead flesh; vultures (and other birds, like ravens) ate the poison too.

Caged Nature: The five vultures that were part of the original “Vulture Rehabilitation Project.” Two birds show darker feathers at base of neck, indicating juvenile age; the other “inmates” with solid white feathers at neck base are considered adults.

About 25 years ago, a “Vulture Rehabilitation Project” was formed to address the severe decline in vulture numbers. It was recognised that many young vultures were not surviving for various reasons. Part of this, of course, was due to the paucity of available food sources across the landscape. Sometimes young birds take their first flight from the nest, and, after landing, lack the experience to get themselves back into the air. Thus they become severely malnourished as they hop around on the ground, perhaps for days without finding food. I personally observed such a case at the very end of the 1990s: I was driving with some guests down a dirt track near the river bed of the Xeros Potamos at a location directly north of Nata and east of Kallepia. As we turned a corner a Griffon Vulture hopping around in the grasses adjacent to the dirt track. We got out to take a closer look at this strange sight. We looked more closely and observed dark feathers surrounding the neck base, which indicates a juvenile bird (adults have solid white feathers around the neck). The bird seemed to be in distrss. Luckily mobile phones had just come out and I used my (brick-sized!) Nokia to ring up a nearby Forestry Dept station because, by chance, I had just heard about this new rescue project for vultures. We waited about an hour or so, keeping an eye on the bird, who would move about hopping around here and there. By the time two Forestry guys showed up to capture the vulture, it had moved several hundred metres from where we had originally encountered it. They surrounded the bird, which must have been quite hungry and weak from lack of food and took it into custody. We heard that they were going to take the young vulture to a location at the top of the valley where they had built a compound. “Don’t worry,” they told us, “you did the right thing. This bird will be kept in captivity for approximately 6 months. We’ll take care of it, feed it dead meat and fatten it up. When it seems strong enough, we’ll release it back to the wild.” Sounded like an excellent plan, but…For the next two-three years I would visit that compound under cliffs at the top of the Xeros Potamos. I would see the vulture I had found standing in a large cage structure together with four others. As far as I could see, none of the vultures were ever released. Maybe there’s some positive explanation for this, maybe not. Either way, I felt as if they had misrepresented the whole thing from the start. Since there is a school of thought that embraces the “Live Free or Die” philosophy, I always wonder whether we did the right thing to report this bird after all…I am not sure. As far as I know, that vulture and the other “inmates” are still there today.

 

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