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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. 

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Pig Island: Sun, Sand, and Swine Await You in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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