What is an Egyptian Vulture?

Debra Durkee
Debra Durkee

The Egyptian vulture is a small member of the vulture family that, in spite of its name, is found in parts of southern Europe, through the Middle East, India, and Africa, and throughout western Asia. These distinctive gray and white vultures fill an important niche in the ecosystems they inhabit, feeding on carrion and carcasses that would otherwise be left to rot. They have been held in such high regard that depictions of them have been found in ancient tombs and caves.

Also known as the pharaoh's chicken, the Egyptian vulture has pale, yellowish-white or gray plumage, with darker feathers on its wings. The bare face, characteristic of vultures, is wrinkled and bright yellow, and sports a long yellow beak well adapted for feeding off carrion. Young vultures are darker in color, and gradually lighten to their adult coloring with each molt. Adults typically reach sizes of between 21 and 25 inches (55 and 65 cm) in length, and have a wingspan of between 61 and 66 inches (155 to 170 cm).

Like other vultures, the Egyptian vulture feeds on carrion and the carcasses of dead animals as well as insects and small, live animals. In doing so, it provides an invaluable service in ridding the landscape of carcasses, which can otherwise become diseased and rotten. It can feed on meat from animals killed by disease or infection because diseases such as botulism cannot survive in its digestive system. The Egyptian vulture also feeds on eggs found in the nests of other birds, and has been seen throwing rocks at the heavy shells of ostrich eggs in order to break them open.

Incredibly long-lived and surviving for decades even in the wild, Egyptian vultures form monogamous pairs after a long courtship ritual. The nest is built in a joint effort, and can be up to 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter. A pair will usually lay two eggs in a single breeding season, and both parents will take turns caring for the young until they leave the nest at anywhere from 70 to 85 days old.

The Egyptian vulture is threatened by a number of different human habits. In addition to a loss of habitat, vulture numbers also suffer from individuals eating the meat of animals that have been fed various drugs and medications. In areas that have been settled by humans, the Egyptian vulture is also losing its primary source of food: carrion, which is now disposed of rather than left to rot.

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