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What is a Bearded Vulture?

By N. Lennon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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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.

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.

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