Long Flight of Royal Birds
Griffon vultures were on the edge of extinction, however, with the efforts of experts and good people, now there are more than three hundred here. When they rise, it is difficult to land them. Some even reached Estonia and the Holy Land. At the moment, the most endangered species is the golden eagle, and it must be saved. With knowledge, care, goodness, money. People who take care of the birds are a special type and have their dream about life and freedom. We visited them and noted their stories

By: Miloš Lazić
Photo: ”Uvac” Special Nature Reserve

We ran over the dam on the Uvac Lake, running from the rain that followed us the entire day. We rushed down a steep path, however there was no river under the dam, because from that point, for about three hundred meters, it flows through a tunnel and invisible turbines of the hydroelectric power plant. A jeep was waiting for us there.
We reached the left bank and, swinging and jumping in the large SUV down the wet dirt road, we came to a spacious plateau grown in thick moss, just across the Sokolovica cliff. From there it was only possible to go on foot.
The Montenegrin was sitting on a high shelf spreading along the entire wall and avoided looking directly into the newcomers, while the Old One hid behind the dried spruce tree. Only Živko boldly set off towards the intruders, watching them curiously. Then he suddenly pounced on the nearest one.
– Please, Živko, I pray to you – cried the newcomer, forgetting that it is a bird he was praying for mercy.
His fellow passengers roared with laughter, although the bird’s curved beak really seemed like a deadliest weapon. Although he is young, he uses the beak for literally tearing the meat from the bones.
– He reached Subotica and fell into the yard of a man who let him in, kept him in his house for two or three months, and then gave him to the Palić Zoo – tells Nebojša Radišić, Nešo, ranger in the ”Uvac” Reserve. – Now Živko got used to people, so he is not afraid, which could also be fatal, both for the people and for him. He is still young and has time to come to his senses. Montenegrin came from Durmitor, where he was forced to land into someone’s yard. His host was not such a big fan of birds, especially not griffon vultures. However, it’s a different state now, so the poor man had to go through all the bureaucratic procedures: sanitary regulations, ”illegal border crossing”, and so on. We were waiting almost two months for his extradition. And our Old One? He, unfortunately, injured his wing, and I’m afraid he’ll stay here forever. But, it’s good for him here. There is food, water, even enough space.


According to human measures, Živko and Montenegrin are adolescents. It could be noticed by their dark mane and black beak. The Old One, as his name indicates, is already in old age, so his mane and beak are completely white, so to say turned gray.
– They are wonderful birds – Nešo became emotional. – Someone told me that the two-headed eagle in the Nemanjić coat of arms, now Serbian coat of arms, is actually the griffon vulture, although I think this should be checked by heraldists. The attitude of people towards them goes to extremes: some love them, respect and care for them, while some prosecute and destroy them.
Then he began a philosophical and etymological discussion with himself about the names and meanings: people don’t like them as scavengers, but love them as cleaners of nature. The first name seems soulless and cruel to him, and the second trendy and very European.
– Whatever they call them, they almost disappeared from the face of earth – he sighed. – If it weren’t for our efforts and good people, I doubt he would have survived in these lands.
There were so many of them in Serbia, he said, but World War II and the reduction of livestock after the occupation soon devastated griffon vultures. The griffons almost disappeared completely from the blue skies when people in cattle areas began poisoning wolves and other pests with ”strychnine”, since there were as many as thirty birds above every poisoned wolf.
Then, in 1972, a narrow area near the Zlatar Lake of about two hundred seventy hectares, known here as Pavlovića Brod, was proclaimed nature reserve with only seven nests with griffon pairs. However, when the construction of the ”Uvac” Hydroelectric Power Plant began, the constant mining drove away the unfortunate birds, which had just become accustomed to the new habitat. Only in 1994, when the Bird of Prey Protection Fund was founded, upon its constant insisting, the borders of the Reserve were expanded to two and a half thousand hectares, and the auxiliary feeding place was opened in Manastirina, just across the dam.
– They have been coming back ever since, so in a short period we counted as many as 75 pairs in nests, whose 67 younglings flew – boasts Nešo. – We believe there are more than three hundred in this area now, making it the largest colony of griffon vultures in the Balkans and one of the biggest in Europe. Only Spain has about twenty thousand of these birds, but in several reserves heartily supported by the state, while we are left to ourselves.
Today, thanks to the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, also in charge of the environment, as well as the Nature Protection Institute, the borders of this Reserve are significantly expanded and cover 7.500 hectares, with three Old Vlah lakes: Uvac, Zlatar and Radoinjsko.
– When the Fund showed good results, many companies called to offer help – sighed Nešo, as if taking a huge burden off his shoulders. – But, the biggest support is from the ”Electric Power Industry of Serbia”, actually from the ”Lim Power Plants”.


However, if it is so great in the Reserve, as Nešo states, how did Živko reach Subotica and Montenegrin flew over the country border? One would think they set off to seek a better life, like humans do.
– The griffons reach pubescence only at the age of five or six, and before that time live as singles. When they pair, the male and female stay together until death. They make nests on steep and inaccessible cliffs. The female lays only one egg, and most often in January, so, due to cold weather and lack of food, they lay on it alternately. The incubation period is 53 to 58 days, and the chick needs at least twice as more time until its first flight. Before that event, it weighs about twenty kilograms and has one third higher weight than his parents. In order to make the chick set off into the abyss for the first time, they stop feeding him. Another fifteen days pass until the chick realizes it’s left to itself. Then, whether it wants it or not, it must leave the nest. This first flight is the last one for many. However, when they learn how to rely on their wings, it is difficult to bring them down. That is how Živko and Montenegrin reached their destinations. However, even with such a long flight, they still didn’t win the champions title.
During the past ten-odd years, the younglings are marked in the Reserve, so all of their flights can be monitored. One little guy with the mark of our Reserve managed to reach Estonia, which is the northernmost point a griffon vulture has ever reached.
– We also have pilgrims who reached Israel, while flying to Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, or former Yugoslavian states became common. Griffon vultures from Italy, Greece and Croatia fly to us, and we also have some that arrived to Israel, to return the visit, so to say. We don’t keep them, because, what would they do with us? An informal rule of all reserves, and not only those in Europe, is to return those vagabonds home, to their own land, which is no guarantee that they will not set off to another unplanned and unthinkably far journey.


Team Work
Besides griffon vulture, there are three more important species of Euro-Asian vultures, which used to nest in this part of Serbia. First, the black vulture, or senior, with a wing span of 3,4 meters, then the Egyptian vulture, or the white scavenger vulture, the one with the orange head, the smallest one in his species, and finally the bearded eagle or the ossifrage.
Together with the griffon vulture, these birds performed completed recycling of corpses: the senior opens it by feeding on the skin, then come griffon vulture and white scavenger to feast on the meat, and finally the ossifrage, who feeds on the bones. Not a single hair or feather remains after them.
The Reserve wishes to return them back to these lands, if they don’t return in the meantime alone. For example, they noticed the white scavenger, but it is unknown whether it began nesting. The last pair was seen only in 1983.


Last Oasis
There are 144 bird species living in the ”Uvac” Reserve. The griffon vulture is saved, and now is the time for saving the golden eagle, endangered for a long time ago. Only a few pairs remained. The griffon vulture doesn’t like company, because it’s a scavenger, and the golden eagle, bird of prey, needs large space and own territory. The white-tailed eagle came recently, they have the fish eagle, snake eagle, peregrine falcon, and there are lanner falcons towards Zlatar, the species that completely disappeared from the skies of Montenegro and Herzegovina… The ”Uvac” Reserve is, besides all this, the only place in the Balkans where the common merganser or goosander nests.


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