The bearded vulture – All you need to know about this bone-eating bird

Close up portrait picture of a bearded vulture - also known as the lammergeier or ossifrage

A curious creature, the bearded vulture (also known as the lammergeier) is famous amongst animal enthusiasts as the only known vertebrate with a diet that consists mostly of bone.

These red-feathered vultures are fascinating and particularly unusual. And not just for the food they enjoy! In this guide, we’ve put together everything you could want to learn about the bearded vulture.

From their habitat, breeding and feeding practices, to threats and conservation efforts. There is a lot to learn about this bone-eating bird.

Bearded Vulture Diet

Bearded vulture holding a piece of bone in its beak, Drakensberg mountains, South Africa

This unique vulture’s diet consists of between 70 and 90 percent bone. Like other vultures, the bearded vulture is a scavenger, feeding on dead animals that it finds.

However, it usually ignores the meat of the carcasses, preferring to go after the bone marrow. Its beak is specialised to feed this way, and it can swallow bones whole, or bite through brittle ones.

Even more interestingly though, the large bird has developed a way to break the larger, hardier bones it finds. It flies up with the carcass (up to around 4 kg) and drops it from the air. The bones shatter, facilitating the process to get to the marrow.

Bearded vulture in flight, with fresh bone remains in its beak

The bearded vulture does the same to its occasional live prey, dropping tortoises, hares, and other small creatures to kill them.

Its preference for bone (including bleached bone from carcasses stripped months before) makes the bearded vulture uniquely suited to surviving harsh conditions. In fact, winter is the best time for this bone-eating bird! Other animals who die of starvation provide plenty to eat, and old carcasses can always be found.

Where Do Bearded Vultures Live?

These bone feeding vultures live high up in various mountains across the continents. You’ll find them in southern Europe, India, Africa, Tibet, and the Caucasus. Thanks to conservation efforts, you could even see them in the Alps.

Once more common in many mountain ranges around the world, these bone-eating vultures have become endangered due to hunting practices and human interference.

Bearded Vulture Habitat

Bearded vulture - or lammergeier - in its natural habitat, Spain

The birds have adapted well to cold climates, but they’re most common in warm-weathered Ethiopia. They nest on high rocky ledges, laying their eggs in winter to hatch with the coming of spring.

Bearded vultures defend massive territories, breeding, raising their young, and feeding within this space – between 200 and 400 square km.

They seldom tolerate other mature birds of the same species within this territory. So if you’re hiking and you miss the one bearded vulture family in the area, you’re not likely to see another one for a long time. If you’re looking out for them, bring binoculars.

Bearded Vulture Size

This large bird weighs between 5 and 8 kg when they’re mature, and are about 95 – 120 cm long from head to tail. Females are a little larger than males on average. Though this difference is usually not enough for the layman to tell them apart.

Lammergeier wingspan

A Bearded vulture's impressive wingspan - in flight mode, cruising free in the mountains

Wingspans reach up to a staggering 2.8 m. They have long, narrow wings, and an uncommonly long wedge-shaped tail that impart a falcon-like silhouette in flight. This is a particularly unusual trait for vultures, who usually have very short tails.

Mating and Breeding

The bearded vulture’s mating display is an impressive sight. They spiral through the sky, tumbling and showing their talons to their desired partner. Often, mating pairs fly together, hooking their talons and falling quite a distance before separating again.

When they’re ready to breed, the vultures build a giant nest of 1 – 2.5 meters, which grows every year as they nest again. It’s usually a massive pile of sticks, covered by animal matter.

They lay a clutch of 1 – 2 eggs. These eggs incubate for about 55 days. When they’ve hatched, young are dependent on their parents for up to 2 years, spending 100 days before even fledging.

Because the bearded vulture nests on rocky ledges and in caves high up in the mountains, they’re very hard for predators to reach, keeping their young safe.

What Exactly Does the Bone-Eating Bearded Vulture Look Like?

Gypaetus barbatus (bearded vulture) portrait on a rocky outcrop, Morocco

As implied by the name, this bird has a bristly chin that looks very much like a beard. Their wings and tail are black or dark grey, while the head and breast are naturally white.

However, only captive lammergeiers will be white in appearance. In the wild, the birds rub themselves against ferric oxides and drink from mineral-rich waters, turning their feathers a deep rust colour.

They also have black markings on their faces, contrasting beautifully with the rusty feathers and making them look particularly distinct.

Unlike most vultures, the bearded vulture does not have a bald head. It’s fully feathered, protecting it from the cold. The head is relatively small, with a wide, powerful neck.

When they hatch, nestlings are covered in dark downy feathers. They go through multiple moultings and remain dark when they’re juvenile. When they become adults, they lose the dark feathers on their head and chest, replacing these with white feathers.

Threats and Conservation

Historically, the bearded vulture was considered a dangerous threat. People believed they caught and killed babies and livestock. As a result, they were hunted and eradicated in the Alps, where they have recently been reintroduced.

Modern threats are perhaps even more extensive, particularly in developing areas that were once a safe haven. Increased infrastructure is an issue, and the birds often have fatal collisions with power lines.

Human habitation also leads to reduced food availability, and poisoned carcasses are common near livestock.

Ultimately, trophy hunting is relatively common in some of the bearded vulture’s natural habitats. Because of all this, and the vulture’s already sparse distribution, the population is on the decline.

What are we doing to conserve the bearded vulture?

Humans have reintroduced the bearded vulture to the Alps, bringing fledgelings born in captivity to the mountain range and rearing them by hand until they were able to fly. This has proven quite successful, and the population has re-established itself in the area.

Other than this, measures have been taken in many areas to reduce the risk of poisoning and human interference. The success of these measures is difficult to determine.

19 Fascinating Bearded Vulture Facts

Adult bearded vulture (lammergeier) landing on the edge of a mountain

1. The bearded vulture’s other name, lammergeier, translates to ‘lamb vulture’ in Dutch.

2. They have no natural predators despite their widespread habitat.

3. The orange-coloured soil they rub onto their feathers serves no purpose. The theory is that it’s a status symbol among them, with larger, older birds being a deeper hue.

4. There have been cases of polyandry, but most bearded vultures are monogamous.

5. Often, when they’ve laid two eggs, the larger chick kills the smaller one after a few weeks – the second is considered a backup.

6. The birds are uncommon below an elevation of 1000 m and can breed at altitudes of up to 7500 m.

7. Their closest relative is the tiny Egyptian vulture, the smallest of all vultures.

8. Vultures in captivity can double their average lifespan, living till the age of 45, rather than around 21 years.

9. They are one of the world’s largest birds of prey.

10. Juveniles keep their brown colouring for a full five years.

Juvenile bearded vulture in flight

11. Flying close to the ground to spot their prey, lammergeiers can cover 2 square km every day.

12. They can fly with bones and creatures up to 4 kg, nearly equal to their own weight.

13. Because of the high acid concentration in their stomachs, they can digest bones in about 24 hours.

14. They prefer desolate areas where the predator population is healthy, providing plenty of bones.

15. Bearded vultures are now common on rubbish heaps on the outskirts of Ethiopian villages.

16. It is the only bird species that specialises in feeding on bone marrow.

17. While other vultures feed their young by regurgitating food, the bearded vulture carries its prey to the nest.

18. Dropping bones mid-flight is a learned skill, and can take years for young birds to master.

19. They occasionally kill large animals by battering them with their wings until the animal falls off a rocky ledge to its death.

A Conclusive Guide to the Bearded Vulture

If you’re hiking in the right place at the right time, you can hope to see these vultures on most mountain ranges in the world.

With their massive size and extensive territory, they are impressive creatures. Their ability to sustain themselves on bleached bones discarded by other animals is also fascinating.

While they are threatened by growing infrastructure and trophy hunting, the bearded vulture is versatile and resilient. Hopefully we’ll enjoy their presence for many years to come!

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