In 455 BC the Greek playwright Aeschylus could not shake the feeling that he was going to die. A prophecy had warned him of falling objects, so he was spending most of his time outside. Unfortunately, a large bird (now believed to have been a Bearded Vulture) mistook his smooth bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it! Aeschylus died instantly, and it’s unclear if the vulture ever got his dinner.
The Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus is an unmistakable bird, with black ‘sideburns’ (or beard), red rings around the eyes (a feature only shared with some parrots) and a long wedge-shaped tail. It also has black wings, with the rest of the head, neck and body a rich rusty orange. This is because Bearded Vultures rub themselves with iron oxides. Soil and mud stained with iron oxide give the bird this fiery appearance. Theories to explain this feather staining range from dominance behaviour to parasite control. It could even be purely cosmetic, or might be for camouflage. They 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 behaviour, which suggests the activity is instinctual, not learned.
The Bearded Vulture is sparsely distributed across a considerable range. It may be found in mountainous regions from Europe through much of Asia and Africa, including in the Alps, Pyrenees, Caucasus, Altai, Himalayas, Atlas and Ethiopian highlands. There is also an isolated population in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa and Lesotho, where is it quite easily seen. It requires large open areas with little or low vegetation, and that is not continually covered with snow. It relies on thermals and wind for gliding flight, but to a much lesser extent than most other vultures. It has been observed gliding in the Himalayas at more than 8,000m (26,000ft) above sea level!
Unlike the myth, Bearded Vultures do not hunt live prey, and even avoid meat. Up to 90 % of the diet of the Bearded Vulture consists of bleached carcass bones, the only bird with this peculiar eating preference. An adult bird is capable of swallowing and digesting bones the size of a sheep’s vertebrae. If bones are too big, they are dropped onto rocks from a height of up to 100 meters, to shatter them. This unique eating habit makes Bearded Vultures an essential part of the ecosystem. Besides bones, they also eat small lizards, hares and tortoises, also dropping them onto rocks from a height. The acid concentration of the Bearded Vulture’s stomach has been estimated to be of pH about 1 and large bones will be digested in 24 hours, aided by slow mixing/churning of the stomach content. The high fat content of bone marrow makes the net energy value of bone almost as good as that of muscle, even if bone is less completely digested.
Bearded Vultures live in mountainous areas, often above the tree line. Because of the many animals that do not survive the winter, carcass supply is greatest in winter. Therefore, this is the time when Bearded Vultures breed, and chicks hatch in about two months. Bearded Vultures usually lay two eggs, but only the strongest one survives. After hatching the young spend about 4 months in the nest before fledging. The young may be dependent on the parents for up to 2 years, forcing the parents to nest in alternate years on a regular basis. Wild Bearded Vultures have a lifespan of about 20 years, but have been observed to live for up to at least 45 years in captivity.
Fewer than 10,000 pairs exist in the wild worldwide, and they are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Declines today are usually due to poisons left out for carnivores, habitat degradation, the disturbances of nests, reduced food supplies and collisions with power lines. They were formerly persecuted in significant numbers because people feared (obviously without justification) that it regularly carried off children and domestic animals!
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