There exist a number of myths about bearded vultures, the 'birds of prey'. And the truth is they don't kill lambs or human beings. This story presents some interesting facts about bearded vultures while describing their habitat, range, appearance, breeding and eating habits.
Did You Know?
According to Iranian mythology, bearded vulture (Persian name: 'Homa') is considered as the symbol of good luck and prosperity. It was believed that the person on whom the shadow of a Homa fell, would get a chance to govern the kingdom.
A bearded vulture, as the name suggests, has bristles under the chin. The scientific name of the bird is Gypaetus barbatus. It is a very large, old-world vulture. Its old name ossifrage means 'bone breaker.' In some areas, its population was declining rapidly, but today, it is classified under 'Least Concern' category.
The bristly feathers under the chin at the base of the bill make it a unique species. Moreover, its head is also fully-feathered (not bald) unlike other vultures. It is also known as lammergeier. This name is derived from the German word Lämmergeier, meaning lamb-vulture.
That these birds prey on lambs is a myth, they don't. They are scavengers, but unlike other scavengers, they prefer to eat 'bone marrow' from carcasses.
The bird can be 94-125 cm long and it may weigh about 6.21 kg. The length and weight may vary according to the species. The size of a female is slightly larger than a male. It is the largest bird in the Alps with a wingspan of 2.31-2.83 m.
The diamond-shaped tail can be 42-52 cm long. The shape (rhombus) of the tail is quite uncommon among birds of prey. The lammergeier is a magnificent, skilled glider. It hardly ever beats its wing as it soars high above the mountains.
These birds have relatively small heads, but they have 'strong and thick' necks and 'large and powerful' feet. They have red rings around the eyes. They have a poorly developed sense of smell, but they have an excellent eyesight. Like most other birds, lammergeiers also have a long and elongated body but due to the feathers, they appear bulkier.
The adults usually have a dark gray (gray-blue to gray-black), rusty, whitish, or buff-yellow body and head. The wings are black. The orange-rusty feathers on the head, breast, and leg are characteristic of the bearded vultures.
As they bathe in iron-rich mud or water, they rub mud (ferric oxides) over their chin, breast, and leg feathers, giving these buffed-white feathers a rust-brown shade. Captive born birds are white in color. The feathers on other parts of the body and tail are dark gray. Some have creamy-colored foreheads and a black band across the eyes and lores.
The young babies take five years to reach maturity. They have a buff-brown breast. The remaining body is dark, black-brown colored.
Habitat and Range
This high altitude bird of prey is commonly found in Europe, Asia and Africa.
It is found in remote mountain ranges, for example, in the Atlas Mountains across the northwestern stretch of Africa, Ethiopian Highlands, South Africa's Drakensberg, and in the Himalayas, from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh. It ranges from southern Europe through the Middle East to northeastern China.
It is mostly found at high elevations, usually above 1,000 meters. It can be found flying over alpine meadows or over sparsely-vegetated, rocky, steep valleys. Some mountaineers have noticed their presence on Mount Everest (about 7,500 meters above sea level). During winters, they can be seen as low as 600 m.
The birds first start breeding when 6-8 years old. They are mainly monogamous, but at times, one female can have two mates. These vultures are usually silent birds. However, they make loud chuckling noises when mating. Even a sharp, croaky 'koolik, koolik' can be heard during the courtship displays.
The breeding season varies in timing geographically. Usually the eggs are laid in mid-winter and they hatch in early spring. In the Pyrenees, egg laying occurs between December and February. In the Alps, eggs are laid during the end of January or beginning of February.
Normally, the female lays one to two eggs at a time and incubates them for around 53 to 60 days before hatching. Parents feed the second chick only if the first egg doesn't hatch. Within first few weeks the second chick falls prey to its older sibling. The chicks fledge after 100 to 130 days.
Till then, they stay in the nests. Both parents feed them. They bring meat for them. The large nests look messy as they are made of twigs, but the thick platforms inside the nests are made softer and comfortable with wool, hair, dung, and dried skin. Each pair dominates a large territory within which the nest is built.
Their favorite sites include crags, rocky ledges, or small caves (depressions in cliffs). The young birds may roam over an enormous territory, but they remain dependent on their parents for up to two years. The average lifespan of a bearded vulture in the wild is 21.4 years. But they have a life expectancy of about 40 years in captivity.
What does a Bearded Vulture Eat
Like other vultures, the lammergeier is also a perfect scavenger, but it is different from other vultures. Its diet consists of bones, it can easily eat small whole bones.
It holds large bones with the help of its beak and carries them into the air to a height of 50-150 m above the ground. It then drops them from height on the hard surfaces below. This helps exposes the bone marrow. Breaking of bones enables the bird to enjoy the feast, the marrow.
The bird may do this repeatedly, if the bone is not broken into pieces. It can carry bones up to 10 cm in diameter, weighing over 4 kg. It can fly with a bone that is nearly equal to its own weight. For a baby vulture, it usually takes 6-7 years to master this intriguing technique of bone breaking. Young birds practice it several times.
As these birds eat bones that are dry, they regularly drink water. Sometimes, they eat live tortoises, smaller birds like partridges and pigeons, hyraxes, and hares. They seize tortoises, fly to some height, and drop them on rocks, so that the hard shells are broken. They may attack larger animals like ibex, goats and steenbok.
The animals caught unaware usually fall off the rocky edges to their deaths. Usually, their diet consists more of bones (70% bone marrow), meat (25%), and skin (5%) of carcasses.
At times, they patiently wait to devour on the bones till the other scavengers clean the meat off the carcasses. While resting, they try to break medium-sized bones by hammering them on rocks, with their bill.
Although bearded vultures occupy an extremely vast range, they occur in low densities. The main reason behind the dwindling numbers is habitat loss and degradation.
Accidental as well as deliberate killing (people were afraid of them as they thought that these vultures preyed not only on their livestock but also on their children, because they saw them carrying large bones) has also led to declining populations of these birds. Unfortunately, they collide with power cables and windmills, and die.
Sometimes, they eat the poisonous baits that are left out for other carnivores. Other reasons for the declining numbers include illegal hunting by humans, disturbances of nests (the chicks usually become prey of Corvus albicollis or white-necked raven), and reduced food supplies.
They have been successfully reintroduced to some of the European mountains (in Spain, Switzerland, and Italy). As a part of an international recovery program, three juveniles were released in the Orgosolo Mountains, Italy. Various organizations and bird lovers run educational programs in schools and community centers.
They provide information on the local species and explain how important it is to conserve them. They ask people not to use illegal poisonous baits to kill raptors or mammals like red foxes and wolves.
There are no adverse effects of bearded vultures on humans. In fact, their eating habits promote fast disposition of rotting remains of dead animals. As described above, they often feed on older carcasses and offal, clearing even the bones that other scavengers would not eat. They help reduce the chances of diseases and keep the ecosystem clean.