11 Facts About the Bone-Eating Bearded Vulture
The bearded vulture, or lammergeier, is one intense bird. It lives on a steady diet of bones and dyes its feathers blood red, giving it the reputation of one of the most metal birds in the animal kingdom.
1. Lammergeier means "lamb-vulture" in German
As a result of its appearance and diet, the vulture has a nasty reputation of carrying away lambs, calves, and even children. This is, of course, disputable; the birds are not known to be hostile toward (living) humans.
2. It eats mostly bones.
Eighty percent of the bird's diet consists of bone and bone marrow. Its stomach acid has a pH of about 1, so the dense material can be digested in under 24 hours [PDF]. The lammergeier is a scavenger; after finding a picked-over carcass, the bird will drop it from a tremendous height to shatter it into swallow-able pieces. Bearded vultures even have favorite breaking spots that are ominously called ossuaries. Besides bones, they also eat small lizards and turtles.
3. Wild lammergeiers rub soil into their feathers to look more intimidating.
Bearded vultures come in various shades, from pure white to orange-red. Soils stained with iron oxide give the birds their fiery appearance. Lammergeiers apply the dirt with their claws and then preen for about an hour to ensure a bright orange glow. They are also attracted to other red things, like leaves and red wood. Captive birds also partake in this behavior, which suggests the activity is instinctual, not learned [PDF].
4. The bright orange coloring is a status symbol.
The orangey soil doesn't have any practical purposes; it certainly doesn't make for good camouflage (though the birds have no natural predators anyway). Scientists have noticed that the birds' age and size are directly correlated to the intensity of color. It is theorized that the orange hue is a status symbol. More soiled feathers indicates that the lammergeier had the time and resources to find an adequate place to bathe; the brightest-colored vultures should have the most territory and knowledge of their surroundings. Interestingly, these baths are done in secret, so most of the information gathered has been through spying on captive birds [PDF].
5. Lammergeiers are monogamous.
Bearded Vultures are most commonly monogamous, and breed once a year. Sometimes, especially in certain areas of Spain and France, bachelor lammergeiers will join a pre-existing couple to create a polyandrous trio. Females accept secondary mates because it increases the chances of producing offspring and doubles her protection. The birds usually don't lay more than three eggs, so they can use all the help they can get.
6. It’s one of the largest old world vultures.
These giant birds can grow up to 4 feet tall. They have a wingspan between 7 and 9 feet and usually weigh around 10 to 15 pounds.
7. Its closest living relative is the Egyptian Vulture.
Together, the birds form a minor lineage called Accipitridae. Egyptian Vultures have white feathers with bright yellow faces. Unlike their cousins, these vultures are tiny; they're usually a little under 4 pounds, with a wingspan of 5.6 feet, making them the smallest of all vultures.
8. They can live to be as old as 45.
In captivity, lammergeiers can live to the ripe old age of 45. The average lifespan of a wild vulture is only 21.4 years, but that factors in the untimely deaths that come with the dangers of the wild.
9. Overhunting has led to the endangerment of the species.
Believing that the vultures would carry off babies, concerned parents hunted the birds to the brink of extinction. The vultures were completely eradicated from most areas in Eastern Europe by the 1990s [PDF].
Today, the vultures have been categorized as "least concern" by the IUCN thanks to having a large range of habitats and the efforts of various environmental groups.
10. According to the former president of the British Ornithologists’ Union, they make (mostly) great pets.
Thomas Littleton Powys, the 4th Baron Lilford, had a fondness for travel and studying birds. He often wrote about falconing, otter hunting, and his pet birds. The president happened to own a couple of bearded vultures and found them to be perfectly acceptable pets:
We have two fine bearded vultures, or lammergeiers, one of which (with a companion that has died very lately) enjoyed complete liberty since its arrival here as a nestling till a few days ago, when I was obliged to have it caught up and confined, on account of very conspicuous breaches of decency about the roof of the house and our flower garden. I extremely regret this necessity, as the sight of these large birds soaring about the place, generally pursued by a cloud of rooks, was certainly unique in England, and afforded to me, who am well acquainted with the lammergeier in its native haunts, a constant source of interest and pleasant memories of localities that are still to a great extent unspoiled by man. These birds of mine were very tame and perfectly harmless; indeed, with the exception of a few playful attacks on trousers, gaiters, petticoats and boots, I never heard of any malice on their part towards any living creature. Their natural food consists of carrion and garbage of all sorts, tortoises, and other small reptiles; and I hold the many stories that are current on the Continent, of their carrying off children, lambs and kids, as very nearly, if not entirely mythical.
11. There is still a good reason to watch out for them.
Greek playwright Aeschylus could not shake the feeling that he was going to die. A prophecy warned him of falling objects, so he was spending most of his time outside. Unfortunately, a large bird (most likely a lammergeier) mistook his smooth bald head for a rock and dropped a turtle on it. Aeschylus died instantly, and it's unclear if the vulture ever got his dinner.
All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated.