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What is a Bearded Vulture?

N. Lennon
N. Lennon

Bearded Vulture is the common name of the bird Gypaetus barbatus. This vulture is the only member of its genus and differs from other vultures in that instead of gorging itself on the carcasses of dead animals, it relies on bone marrow for up to 90 percent of its diet. All vultures are generally scavengers, however, feeding on carrion rather than taking live prey; as a result, the name Bearded Vulture has gradually lost currency as this fact has become better known. The Bearded Vulture is a large bird — adults can reach 50 inches (about 127 cm) in length with a wingspan approaching 10 feet (about 3.05 m). Adult weights typically range from 10 to 17 pounds (about 4.54 to 7.71 kg).

In order to extract the marrow from the bones, the Bearded Vulture drops them from a considerable height onto rocks below. Up to 30 such drops may be required before the bone breaks and reveals the marrow inside, which the vulture then scrapes out with its narrow, highly specialized tongue. These vultures have even been seen dropping live tortoises to crack open the shells. This habit gave the vulture its former common name Ossifrage, which means bone breaker. It was also known as Lammergeier, which means lamb-vulture, because people believed it attacked young sheep and other domestic animals — they have also been known to eat the afterbirth of sheep.

Veterinarian with a puppy
Veterinarian with a puppy

Although almost all vultures are bald-headed, the Bearded Vulture has rusty-buff feathering on its head and a black "mustache" on its face, which is the source of its scientific name — barbatus means "bearded" in Latin. With its large and narrow wings, its wing load — the ratio of wing size and shape to body weight — differs from that of other vultures, as do its long, wedge-shaped tail feathers. Individuals in captivity have survived as long as 40 years.

The Bearded Vulture's range extends from central and northern Europe to the Mediterranean, with limited numbers in North Africa and central Asia. Although it is not considered by some wildlife agencies to be at immediate risk for extinction, other bird conservationists are concerned about decreasing numbers of breeding pairs — there are fewer than 50 breeding pairs in certain portions of its range. The vulture's native habitat is in mountain ranges between 1,600 and 13,000 feet (about 487.68 m to 3.96 km). Rare individuals have been sighted as high as 24,000 feet (about 7.32 km).

It breeds from mid-December through mid-February in its range, laying one and occasionally two eggs that are brooded by the female and hatch in about 53 days. The chicks are fed by both parents. Mated pairs typically will fiercely defend their large breeding territories, which can be up to 240 square miles (about 622 square km), against their own species.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Bearded Vulture, and how does it get its name?

The Bearded Vulture, also known as the Lammergeier, is a bird of prey distinguished by its striking appearance, with a 'beard' of feathers beneath its beak. It gets its name from this feature, which gives it a distinctive, bearded look. This species is unique among vultures for its diet, which consists largely of bone marrow.

Where can Bearded Vultures be found in the wild?

Bearded Vultures inhabit a range of high-altitude environments across Europe, Asia, and Africa. They are typically found in mountainous regions, such as the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Ethiopian Highlands, where they can soar along the ridges using thermal updrafts to conserve energy while searching for food.

What does the Bearded Vulture eat, and how does it digest bones?

Bearded Vultures have a highly specialized diet, consuming mostly bones and bone marrow. They are capable of digesting bones due to their extremely acidic stomach, which can dissolve bone material efficiently. They often drop larger bones from great heights onto rocks to break them into smaller, digestible pieces.

How does the Bearded Vulture contribute to the ecosystem?

As nature's cleanup crew, Bearded Vultures play a crucial role in their ecosystems by disposing of carcasses and reducing the spread of disease. Their unique dietary preference for bones means they leave the softer tissues for other scavengers, thus promoting a healthy balance within the scavenger community and aiding nutrient recycling.

What are the conservation status and threats facing Bearded Vultures?

Bearded Vultures are classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. They face threats from human activities such as habitat destruction, poisoning from lead ammunition in carcasses, and collisions with wind turbines. Conservation efforts are underway to mitigate these threats and protect their habitats.

How can one identify a Bearded Vulture in the wild?

To identify a Bearded Vulture, look for a large bird with a wingspan of up to 2.8 meters, a distinctive wedge-shaped tail, and a contrasting pattern of white and dark feathers. The 'beard' of bristly feathers under the chin is also a key characteristic. Juveniles are darker and become lighter with age, taking up to five years to reach full maturity.

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    • Veterinarian with a puppy
      Veterinarian with a puppy