More than 100 griffon vultures glided into Belgium this week, some 600 miles north of their breeding grounds in Spain. Taking up residence in an old field, the pack spent the next few days glowering at assorted birders and gawkers. A few got fed up and took off for Holland. On Tuesday, some Belgian environmentalists stopped by with some pig carcasses so the griffons could fuel up for their return flight. And just like that, they left.
The interesting part about the story – above and beyond the simple thrill it must have been to watch a band of feathered Hell’s Angels drop out of the sky unannounced – is the reason being tossed around for the birds’ strange behavior. People think the vultures are starving, getting desperate, and embarking on long flights looking for food.
It’s quite possible. Ever since mad cow disease scared people in 2002, the E.U. has forbidden farmers from leaving dead cattle out on their land to rot. There seems to be little evidence that’s done anything to reduce mad cow disease, but it has made for some very hungry vultures. In addition to kick-starting this vulturine road trip (think Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider), about 100 griffons near Burgos, northern Spain, assembled themselves into a posse last month and took down a perfectly healthy cow and her calf. Yikes.
It sure sounds like a good explanation – perhaps that’s why it crops up in every one of the handful of news reports on the story. And I’m all for vulture survival. But let’s at least wave the scientific method in its general direction. Apparently the E.U. says they’ve given Spanish farmers special dispensation to leave carcasses out, but few farmers actually do. And anyway, why would vultures fly northward, farther into the E.U., to find a meal?
I know, I know, vultures can’t be expected to keep up with politics, but north puts them out of the limits of their historical range, and there probably is some reason why they weren’t in northern Europe already. For an animal that has some degree of latitudinal awareness when it chooses a place to live, it seems a strange time to begin ignoring it.
I think what’s interesting here is not whether the mad-cow carcass ban actually causes vulture rampages. It’s that the hypothesis is attractive enough that it can bypass the scientific process and crop up in the news more or less as fact. (Spiegel Online, the first link in this post, does offer the E.U.’s alternative explanation, but much lower down in the story.) News space is tight, and a couple of shorter articles mentioned only the mad-cow explanation. Read a couple of these articles in a row, and you (think you) know all you need to know about mad cows, carcasses and vulture conservation. Sound familiar?
(It seems almost unbelievable that there are no videos yet of the birds on YouTube. Perhaps I just don’t know how to search for “Brussels vultures” in Flemish, Dutch or French. I did at least learn that a “Brussels griffon” is a kind of small yappy dog that certain people like to dress up and feature in movies.)
Image: by Rev. Francis Orphen Morris, 1891, via birdcheck