Israel’s Endangered Vultures Aren’t in Mood for Love : Negev: Surviving since prehistoric times, courtship still is not on the mind of the raptors who were brought to the verge of extinction in the 1980s.


If Victor would just fall in love, Heinrich Mendelssohn would be a happy man.

Victor is one of the few Negev lappet-faced vultures remaining in Israel. Mendelssohn is the zoologist who almost single-handedly is leading the effort to save the endangered birds.

“We’re hoping to do for our vultures what California did for its condors,” he said. “But it is not easy.”

The two giant birds have much in common. Although they aren’t related--the Israeli species evolved from the eagle, the California from the stork--they are the largest birds in their countries and strikingly similar in appearance and habits. The Negev vulture, whose wingspan is just under 9 feet, is sometimes called the Israeli desert condor.

Surviving since prehistoric times, both of the graceful raptors were brought to the verge of extinction in the 1980s. Rescue missions have been launched to save both. But there the similarities become less evident.


“The California condor is a rich American who gets lots of public funds (about $15 million so far),” said the German-born Mendelssohn, 82, retired dean of the science faculty at Tel Aviv University. “Our vultures are poor sabras (native-born Israelis) who have to live on a tight university budget.”

At times Mendelssohn’s project has resembled an avian romantic comedy.

So far, Victor hasn’t been smitten enough by any of the three females introduced to him to go into the vultures’ mating ritual--wings flapping, neck stretched with beak pointed upward to show he has no hostile intentions, a red spot on his nape telegraphing his excitement.

Victor is about 30. “It may be that he is too old,” Mendelssohn said. “So we’re going to try giving him male hormones.”

Hopes rose a few years ago when two vultures spontaneously paired, courted, built a nest and produced two eggs.

“But something was strange,” Mendelssohn said. “The nest didn’t look right, and the usual mating ritual wasn’t followed. When we examined the eggs more closely, we discovered that they were different. The birds were both females--lesbian lovers.”

Then there’s Rosa, the aviary’s oldest resident at 37. When she was a youngster, Rosa imprinted--"fell in love,” as Mendelssohn romantically describes it--on her keeper, Ya’acov Segal.

Despite efforts to find her a more suitable suitor, Rosa would lay eggs only when Segal was around. Eventually Segal retired, and Rosa is now paired with a male bird.

The female in another pair was too young to lay eggs, but she and her mate were determined to incubate, so they flipped their food dishes over and sat on the round bottoms.

Later that couple produced real eggs and in 1988 became the parents of the first Negev lappet-faced vulture chick successfully bred in captivity in Israel.

Mendelssohn first saw a lappet-faced vulture soaring above the Negev Desert in 1945. At that time there were 25 to 35 pairs of the giant vultures in the Negev.

With no natural enemies, the birds lived an easy and long life. They built nests 7 feet in diameter in acacia trees and fed on the carcasses of Bedouin camels, goats and donkeys and on the remains of gazelles and other animals hunted by the Bedouins.

But over the next quarter-century the vulture population began shrinking. Several were shot illegally by Israeli soldiers, Mendelssohn said. As the Bedouins moved out of the area, the birds’ chief sources of food disappeared.

Even nature lovers unintentionally contributed to the vultures’ demise by hiking close to their huge nests. That frightened away the parents and left eggs and chicks exposed to the deadly desert sun.

Several birds, including young Victor, were illegally trapped by an animal dealer who smuggled them to Europe, where they were sold to zoos. Others were electrocuted while perching on power lines, hit by cars as they fed on animal remains on highways or poisoned by eating pesticide-laden field mice.

In 1975, when just seven pairs were left in the wild, the Israel Nature Reserve Authority began collecting birds and eggs and bringing them to the research zoo at Tel Aviv University. Trades were arranged with European zoos to get back some of the kidnaping victims, including Victor and a few old and crippled friends.

By the mid-1980s the only lappet-faced vultures left in Israel were those collected by Mendelssohn. Following the California strategy, he hoped to pair the birds and produce chicks that could be returned to wildlife reserves, parks and other safe natural areas.

Thirteen of the rare birds now dwell in the Tel Aviv University aviary--more than when the rescue mission started but a long way from California’s 63 condors at the start of this year.

Still, Mendelssohn hopes eventually to breed enough chicks so that he, like the California scientists, can start sending young birds back to the wild--in this case, to an aviary 40 miles north of Eilat. The first could go this year, he said, “if we’re lucky.”

In California, only 22 wild condors were left a decade ago. To save the species, authorities brought the survivors to the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park and began intensive research and managed breeding.

The first chick was born in captivity in 1988. Thirty-seven more have hatched since. Two young condors were released to the wild last fall, the first of the species to fly free since 1987. One died a short time later after drinking antifreeze. Six more joined the healthy ones in January.

Eventually, it is hoped to have at least 150 California condors in zoos and another 150 in each of two release sites.

The dark-brown, slightly smaller Israeli bird has a historical cachet its West Coast relative can’t match: It is mentioned twice in the Bible by the name ozniyah-- Hebrew for “the powerful one.”