- 1Species undergoing reintroduction offer a unique opportunity for clarifying their specific niche requirements because they are likely, if sufficiently mobile, to colonize the most suitable habitats first. Information drawn from the individuals released first might thus be essential for optimizing species’ policy as reintroductions proceed.
- 2Bearded vultures were extirpated from the European Alps about a century ago. An international reintroduction programme using birds reared in captivity was launched in 1986; up to 2003, 121 individuals had been released at four different locations. Subsequent dispersion throughout the range has been far from homogeneous, resulting in a clumped occurrence of the first breeding pairs within three main zones that do not necessarily coincide with release areas.
- 3In order to discern ecological requirements we performed a geographical information system (GIS) analysis of bearded vulture sightings collected in Valais (Swiss Alps) from 1987 to 2001. This area harbours no release site, is situated in the core of the Alpine range and has been visited by birds from all four release points.
- 4During the prospecting phase (1987–94, mostly immature birds), the most important variable explaining bearded vulture distribution was ibex biomass. During the settling phase (1995–2001), the presence of birds (mostly maturing subadults) correlated essentially with limestone substrates, while food abundance became secondary.
- 5The selection of craggy limestone zones by maturing bearded vultures might reflect nesting sites that are well protected against adverse weather, as egg laying takes place in the winter. Limestone landscapes, in contrast to silicate substrates, also provide essential finely structured screes that are used for bone breaking and temporary food storage, particularly during chick rearing. Finally, limestone substrates provide the best thermal conditions for soaring.
- 6Synthesis and applications. Extrapolated to the whole Alpine range, these findings might explain both the current distribution of the subadult/adult population and the absence of breeding records for bearded vultures around release sites in landscapes dominated by silicate substrates. As reintroduced bearded vultures tend to be philopatric, we suggest that population restoration would be more efficient if releases were concentrated within large limestone massifs. This case study of the bearded vulture illustrates the need for continual adaptive management in captive release programmes.